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Ghana Must Go, by Taiye Selasi.

April 16, 2013

Ghana Must Go, by Taiye Selasi.

 GLOBAL WOMEN OF COLOR

ALL-TIME FAVORITE

 The most exquisite book I have read this year; a beautiful, lyrical novel about a family of African migrants striving for success and never being successful enough.

 

In her debut novel, Taiye Selasi writes about an African family, the man from Ghana and the woman from Nigeria and their four American-born children.  All were exceptionally bright and talented.  At first they all had played their assigned roles to establish themselves as a Successful Family.  The Provider, the Suburban Housewife, the favored Elder Son, the Twins, and the Baby were reaching for the American Dream, or the global version of that dream that has drawn migrants to the USA for centuries.  But always reaching for more success, because “what were the units of its measure”?  When the unthinkable breakdown occurs, the father retreats to Africa, leaving the others behind in Boston. The family breaks into separate directions as they seek to deal with his absence.  Sixteen years later, he dies from an unexpected heart attack, reuniting the family, with all their particular memories and unresolved pains.

 The opening section of the book, “Gone” focuses on the father and the moments that have meant most to him; times when he has been most alive and most connected with one or more family members.  The next section, “Going,” provides the voices of his wife and children as they encounter the news of his death.  Specific memories and pains surface for each. The last section is titled “Go” and relates how they deal with his death and with each other as they gather in Ghana for his funeral.  While the book is centered in the present, the text shifts back and forth into the past as each character looks within.

Ghana Must Go is first of all a book about immigrants, but unlike many such books, Selasi does not stress the cultural and social clashes which migration brings.  She focuses on the psychological experience of being the outsider and in doing so gives her book more depth and universal meaning.  We don’t have to be migrants to recognize the characters in this book.  All of us, wherever  we live and wherever we are from, feel or have felt the pressures to be successful, to be “best,” to do “enough” to be accepted.   Because Selasi touches this understanding with her story, she ensures our empathy with her characters.  I first heard about this book when Melissa Harris Perry interviewed Selasi on her TV show.  Selasi said she wished she could give to “every little brown girl” a sense that she was “enough,” not always inadequate.  My thought was that black or white, male or female, we all need hear those words.  Selasi’s book shows us all that we are not alone and that we are all “enough.”

An example of a cosmopolitan post-colonial writer, Taiye Selasi was born in England of African parents and educated in Massachusetts.  Her degrees are from Yale and Oxford.  Yet she is not an assimilated expatriate.  She writes of both Ghana and Nigeria as an insider, giving distinct and memorable descriptions of particular African places and people.  For example, she pictures Arrca through the eyes of one of the sons arriving in the city.

Not like Mali or Lagos, less glamor, more order.   A suburb.  With dust.  There are the standard things, African things, the hawkers on the roadside, the color of the buildings the same faded beige as the air and the foliage, the bright printed fabrics, the never-finished construction sites (condos, hotels) giving the whole thing the feel of a home remodeled in perpetuity…. What strikes him is the movement, neither lethargic nor frenetic, an in-the-middle kind of pace, none of the ancientness of Mali nor the ambitiousness of Nigeria, just a steady-on movement toward what he can’t tell.

 

Selasi is a genius with words and the webs she can create with them.  Her writing is more like poetry than standard prose.  She is not clear and straightforward, but writes in brief fragments or unusually long sentences, as if talking fast in order to get everything said.  Dashes and italics punctuate her sentences, as she conveys the complexity of the world.  Sometimes I rode with her words, only partially grasping a rational meaning. Occasionally I did feel stranded until meaning became clear as I read further into the book.  Despite the uniqueness of her style, her book was a very accessible one and a joy to read.  (I never understood the meaning of the book’s title. Can someone fill me in?)

 Deciding what to quote from the book in this review was an impossible task, but examples might give those who haven’t read it a taste of its pleasures.  More can be found on this supplemental page.   Here are a few excerpts from my favorite section where the father is analyzing why he loves the woman he married after he left his family.  “She is a woman who can be satisfied.”  Unlike his mother, or former wife or his daughters who were “dreamer women. Very dangerous women….So insatiable women.  Unplease-able women.”  Who saw him as better than he could possibly be.  Best of all the new wife <p class=”MsoNormal”

>isn’t a thinker. Isn’t incessantly thinking—about what could be done better, about what to do next, about what she has done wrong, about who might have wronged her, about what he is thinking or feeling but not saying—so her thoughts do not perpetually bump up against his, causing all kinds of frictions and firestorms, explosions, inadvertently, collisions here and there around the house.  Her thoughts are not dangerous substances.  The thoughts of the dreamers were landmines, free radicals.  With them breakfast chat could devolve into war.

 

Obviously, Selasi, herself a “dreaming and dangerous woman,” does not share his fear of such women.   She could not have written this book if she did.  She also depicts each of the family, female and male, as strong individuals with perceptions of his or her own.  And all of them have buried scars in need of healing.  Some of the scars were caused by the father’s failure and his long absence from his family.  The wife and mother is lonely and no longer fully able to make the right decisions about raising the children.  The older son, “the firstborn, the prize horse,” followed his father into medicine, but he worries over whether he has somehow inherited a flaw that will cause him to fail as his father did.  The twins who were once a separate, closely bound unit, have their own abuses to face and the youngest girl, who is bulimic, has let her mother cling to her and needs to find pride and joy in being herself.

I cannot recommend this book too strongly to all who want a deep, emotional and intellectual book to read.  I simply don’t have words to praise this book enough.

Note: I particularly appreciated Selasi including a list of characters, what their names meant and how to pronounce them.  I identified more closely with her characters when I was able to say their names to myself in something approaching an adequate manner.  A small matter, but one of many that matter in making this book so fine.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. April 17, 2013 2:28 am

    In Nigeria where I was brought up “Ghana-must-go” is a type of Sack. I am not very sure why it is called so, but I overheard it was because, that was mainly the sack the Ghanaians used to pack their belongings when the Nigerian government said that The Ghanaians must leave the country as quickly as possible Probably it was in the 70s or 80s.. not sure. The Nigerian economy was thriving then, I guess. Henceforward, the bag was nicknamed Ghana must go in Nigeria. I am not sure how it is called in the rest of other African countries.
    So we naturally say, we need a ganamosgo for this.. or big ganamosgo for that….

    Nevertheless, Ghana is today a pretty much developed country and more organised than Nigeria. I know Nigerians who striving to study in Ghanaian universities, or honeymooning in Ghana…. etc…

    Back to the novel, I have it in my TBR. Though when I read an interview of the author Selasie, I felt she was a bit into everything…. arts, photography… and so on and so forth and not sure how good her novel would be. I also felt she was quite fortunate with the life she has and did not like the fact that she has to play the role of a victim. In any case, it is no deterrent to read her novel.

    Cheers.

  2. April 17, 2013 10:22 am

    Excellent review, Marilyn. Mary is right. Ghana must go is type of sack-like bag in various sizes that is used to carry everything from clothes to bits and pieces. Very handy here in Ghana where it is known by the name ‘Ghana Must Go.

    When the Nigerian government expelled Ghanaian in the early 80s in retaliation for the Aliens Compliance Order of the late 60s passed by the Busia government that expelled all aliens of Ghana (including Nigerians), Ghanaians had to leave Nigeria in droves at short notice and this kind of bag became very handy in carrying the few worldly goods they could afford to carry.

    This is the second review I’m reading on this novel and it has become more than imperative that I grab a copy for myself.

  3. April 17, 2013 4:36 pm

    Thanks to both of you! So the title is about the “baggage” that migrants carry, their low self-esteem and sense of never being good enough. Selasi mentions the phrase coming from Ghanians’ expulsion from Nigeria and at the end a character receives a gift in a “Ghana Must Go” bag. But she never explains, leaving people like me in need of Africans willing to tell me what is going on.

    I didn’t have any sense she was being a victim or blaming others in either the book or the interview I heard–but she is all over the place. I look forward to what both of you think when you read the book. Obviously I was very impressed.

  4. May 8, 2013 12:43 pm

    Great review. You are right, we approach the book from different angles. Very interesting that you were taken up with the sense of belonging while I covered most of the “african aspects” if i can say that.
    The bags are not called “ghana must go” in my country (Senegal, we speak french). They are just bags, not so common these days. Most importanty, they are assimilated to poverty and not having enough money to afford a regular suitcase.
    I find the number of issues per person overwelming. But I love the book. I am glad people like her are writing these kind of books. African literature should explore more this kind of topic.

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