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Taiye Selasi on discovering
her pride in her African roots
The debut author of the eagerly anticipated novel, Ghana Must Go, writes about her shame at her family history and how she learned to be herself in Africa
The crisis began – as crises are wont to do – at my best friend's wedding. Jamaica wasn't the obvious choice for what Jess likes to call "the whitest wedding on Earth". But there we sat smiling at the Rose Hall Ritz-Carlton, the hotel's all-brown staff smiling too. The salad had been served, the bread rolls broken and buttered, and now the reception began properly with polite conversation: how do you know the happy couple, where have you flown in from? I'd been placed between Clara, fair fellow alumna of Milton Academy and Yale University, and Percy, the third and presumably final husband of Jess's grandmum. With graceful concision, Clara told our tablemates where she came from: Brookline, prep school, Harvard Law School. Percy turned to me.
"And where are you from?" he asked in that accent I've only heard on Beacon Hill, in films about the Kennedys, and drinking with my agent. Boston Brahmin, baritone. A bit of extra weight on "you", as if the question mark belonged to me (the questionable thing), not "from". I gave the answer I always give, the answer I'd give if you asked me now, refined by years of daily practice, available in multiple languages. "I'm not sure where I'm from! I was born in London. My father's from Ghana but lives in Saudi Arabia. My mother's Nigerian but lives in Ghana. I grew up in Boston." Here I'll pause for reaction – soft chuckles of confusion, some statement along the lines of "You're a citizen of the world!" – then open the floor to any follow-up questions about any of the countries I've mentioned. Until last autumn at my best friend's wedding, I'd never really noticed the shame in this answer – which isn't to say that I'd never considered my angst about the question.
I had thought about it most cogently in 2005, having abandoned a DPhil in international relations to follow my dream, then some 20 years old, of writing for a living. Taking baby steps from footnotes to fiction, I wrote a short and personal essay on Africans who shared my trouble with the question "where are you from?". The piece – "Bye-Bye, Babar: Or, What is an Afropolitan?" – struck a chord with young Africans and people who love us, and by 2011 I was watching in wonder as my personal essay grew wings. It was a writer's dream: to have put into words some single truth of individual experience, to watch those words find a home in the world, that truth a thousand mirrors. "I am not an alien!" my self rejoiced. "I am not alone! There are others!"
There were. But they weren't at the whitest wedding on Earth. And here began the crisis. "How in the world did Jess find you?" asked Percy, chuckling. I bristled. My rattling off of disparate countries, well rehearsed, was meant to speak of international savoir faire, not render me a "find".
Clara kindly intervened. "Taiye went to Milton and Yale with me."
Still, Percy furrowed his bushy brows. "So you didn't grow up with your parents?"
"My mother raised my sister and me in Brookline," I offered.
"Without your father?"
"He's lived in Saudi Arabia for most of my life." I drained my wine and looked for more. Only now did I notice the room's demographics. "He's about to retire to Ghana," I added.
"Retire? Oh my! How old is he?"
"Seventy-five next year. My mum's much younger. She came third."
"Your father had three wives at once?"
A Jamaican waiter arrived with wine. But I couldn't steady my wine glass. I excused myself to go to the restroom and stumbled down the carpeted hallway, kicking off my platform heels and trying not to cry. A waitress, passing me, nodded with meaning and I nodded equally meaningfully back, in that gentle way in which brown people often acknowledge each other's presence. The instant's exchange reminded me of what I often overlook: my minority status. I'd just locked the stall when I started to sob, without quite knowing why.
Thus spoke Ileane Ellsworth, my healer-cum-therapist-cum-psychic-cum-life-coach, attempting to release my solar plexus in her office on East 20th. It was an emergency session: I'd returned from Jamaica in emotional disrepair, unable to sleep or eat or stop crying, all because of one comment. "I wasn't ashamed! I was angry!" I raged. "He's a third bloody husband himself, for chrissake. If I were white, he'd never have thought my dad had three wives at once."
Ileane, beside me, pressed on my chest. "Why does this make you so angry?" she cooed.
"Because he's racist!" I cried. This may well not have been true. The truth came next. "And he's right."
Percy was right. My Saudi-based father, an incredible surgeon trained in Edinburgh, had two wives in Ghana when he proposed to my mother, his student in Lusaka. None the wiser, my mum said yes, and was seven months pregnant, in London, in love, when she learned that her lover was two women's husband and promptly went into labour. My twin sister and I arrived two months early, weighing three-and-a-half and four pounds respectively; our mum, herself an incredible paediatrician, nursed us back to health. Our father beat a swift retreat to King Faisal University in South Arabia to teach trauma surgery. Twelve years later we'd meet him again at Heathrow airport. Here – the year I transferred to Milton, befriending Jess my BFF – is where I first remember ever seeing the second of my parents. My mum had decided that it was time for us to know our progenitor and chose England as a halfway point between Al-Khobar and Brookline. Backstory: single, still living in London, she'd gone on a date with an American professor on sabbatical from MIT, visiting his cousin, the wife of the Senegalese ambassador. It was love at first sight. They married months later and returned to his faculty housing in Boston. A decade on, she'd left the husband but kept the job at Children's Hospital. So it was that I flew from Boston at 12 years old in LL Bean loafers, a British citizen with a suburban American accent, to meet my father.
Of course, all of this was missing from that standard issue answer in which I appeared a browner, younger Carmen Sandiego. "My father's from Ghana but he lives in Saudi Arabia" omitted the fact of his decade-long absence, while implying that I, too, was somehow "from Ghana", a tenuous claim at best. I was 15 years old when I first went to Ghana. I'd spent more time in Switzerland (where my godfather was a diplomat) and Spain (where my half-Scottish grandmum was mastering flamenco) than in Africa. I'd been to the continent only once before: to Nigeria, at seven and without my mum, whose painful adolescence in London and Lagos had left her with no love of home. "My mother's Nigerian but she lives in Ghana" omitted this fact: that she'd starved as a child, abandoned by her mother to fend for herself and her siblings on her grandfather's cocoa farm. It was my great-aunt who took me at seven years old to this family estate in Abeokuta, the famed hometown of Fela Kuti. I absolutely loved it. But my mum never taught me Yoruba – which I'd study, with comical results, at Yale – and I heard not a word of my father's Ewe until I turned 15. When I finally went to Accra that Christmas I discovered among other things: sugarloaf pineapple, hip-life music, and my father's other offspring. One was the child of his first wife Vivian; three of his (late) second wife Juliana; a fifth, of yet a different mum, had died under mysterious circumstances. As much as I adored the city of Accra, preferring it to Malaga and Lausanne by far, my first trip to Ghana was tainted by these fraught familial dynamics.
In the years to come I'd return for Christmases, not with my father but with friends of my mum. When she moved to Ghana in 2001 Accra became our base. My writing about Afropolitans took its texture from this sense of place, the tastes and smells and sounds that still make Ghana feel like home. And yet, hidden in my earnest exultation of Afropolitan-ness was an old and deep unease with being, very simply, African. In giving a name to a demographic, I'd assumed the role of advocate for more accurate portrayals of Africa – but wasn't sure I deserved it. Once, at a dinner for VS Naipaul, I was asked to toast Sir Vidia; I said, very genuinely, how much I admired how little he heeded his critics. Who was he to speak on behalf of the Caribbean, his detractors cried. Mine had a similar axe to grind: how African was I, really? Funny thing is, I'd resolved this particular identity crisis, at least for me. I was Afropolitan, dammit! I spoke for the Body AfroPolitic! It wasn't the identity issue – was I African enough to write about Africa? – that compromised my advocacy. No, the problem was my family.
There I was, heartily lauding Ghana in all of its peace-loving, hard-working glory, only to spiral out at one comment about my Ghanaian father. I was passionate about Africa, yes, but wasn't proud. I couldn't be. My tie to Africa – my African father – was standing in the way. Ileane was right. What I'd felt in Jamaica was shame about my family saga: the poverty, polygamy, one stereotype of African dysfunction after another. It had always seemed a matter of mere politesse to skip these sordid details when describing to a stranger who I was. But my grief at Percy's (spot-on) guess suggested something else at work: a need to obscure both where and who I came from. Intellectually, I perceived myself as a product and champion of modern west Africa. Emotionally, I perceived myself as a west African polygamist's daughter. What I needed was some other way to know myself as African, apart from as heir to my parents' hurts.
For this, I had to go home.
That very heavy word, with all the flaws of all ideals, a standard nowhere ever meets, a gold and leaden star. For 15 years I'd gone to Ghana desperately seeking home writ large, ignoring my role in the relationship, the "I" in "I had to go home". For half my life I'd travelled home and left myself, my truth, behind: arriving in Ghana and assuming the role of (illegitimate) Prodigal Daughter. I was disappointed, naturally, in the ways that home-seeking prodigals are, dismayed to find my otherness in tact among my own. But I had never been myself in Ghana. The self I'd become in 30 years: the author, photographer, screenwriter, traveller, designer, thinker. I'd spent months at a time in Oxford, Paris, New York, New Delhi, and always felt at home: for I experienced those cities, experienced myself, as a creator, not a creation. Returning home after Jess's wedding – to Rome, my latest choice of city – I wondered at this: I'd never created an experience in Africa. My father had, my mother had; they'd dreamed and learned and loved, and left. I'd walked in their shadows, but not in my shoes. It was time for a trip.
The summer I finished my first novel Ghana Must Go, I drove across west Africa: from Accra to Lomé to Cotonou to the deliciously named Ouagadougou. This time I took myself along, my writer-traveller-photographer-self, with a project: photographing twentysomethings in 54 African cities. The stated aim was a photography book, a collective portrait of the young adults so conspicuously absent from western media's portrayals of urban Africa. The politically minded observer in me had grown weary of the imagery: the wizened elders, the wide-eyed children hugging volunteers. So I armed myself at B&H Photo and asked two friends to come along: Bliss Holloway the cinematographer and Taneisha Berg the documentarian. Our cheery if cash-strapped crew set off to capture the birth of my photo project – but six weeks in it was suddenly clear that there was a film to be made. We've now resolved to fundraise for a full-length documentary: a lively look at the days and dreams of African twentysomethings.
Of course, my deepest aim was personal: not to "find myself" in Africa but to be myself on African soil. This I did. And how. In Ouaga I danced until 5am at Allapalooza, a western-themed club, watched movies at a feminist film festival, wandered a sculpture park in the desert. Adama, our charming host, was an Afropolitan of the highest order: a Muslim musician with a Viennese wife, studying German at the Goethe Institute, uninterested in living anywhere else apart from Burkina Faso. Togo was a seaside treat: like Malibu with motorini, miles and miles of white-sand beach and perfect rows of palm trees. Thursday at midnight, we stood on that beach with hundreds of super-cool Togolese hipsters, assembled for the weekly late-night car tricks show and drag race. Cotonou was magic, too: I learned to sail in a hidden lagoon, swilled Eku (Afro-Bavarian beer) at Saloon, a riverfront bar. But the hometown – Accra – was the real revelation, what with its International Salsa Congress, midnight swimming at La Villa Hotel, guitarist Serwaa Okudzeto. The city had changed, but not so much; I felt it differently, intimately. I could see myself in these African cities: a designer in the vibrant clothes, a screenwriter in the desert scenes, a poet in the rhythms. I began to say that I wanted an "I ❤ Heart of Darkness" T-shirt, and only half in jest. The journey had cured my Percy Problem at last. This wasn't my parents' Africa, the past, that static site of hurt and home. It was mine: dynamic now. This wasn't some "real" west Africa either. It was my west Africa, my version of home, not just a place, but a way to be in – a way to know – the world.
Leaving Accra to fly back to Rome, I presented my passport at customs. The Ghanaian agent, reading my name, didn't bother with "where are you from?". "Selasi! So you're an Ewe!" He beamed.
"My father's …" I started, then stopped. I smiled. "Yes. I am."
"Safe journey," he said. "Come home soon."
In our latest Podcast, Sigrid Rausing, publisher of Granta, is joined by Rachel Cusk – one of Granta’s Best of Young British Novelists, and Taiye Selasi, who makes her fiction debut in Granta 115: The F Word, to talk about which writers passed feminism down to them, and what the word means to them today. The three were in conversation for the launch of Granta 115 at Foyles bookshop.
To listen to the podcast, either click on the player below, or visit our iTunes page, where you can subscribe to make sure you receive every episode.
To read Rachel Cusk's and Taiye Selasi's stories, buy a copy of our ‘F- Word’ issue now.
A Struggle To Fit In
And Overcome Stereotypes
In 'Ghana Must Go'