One review of Taiye Selasi’s debut Ghana Must Go describes it as “bouyant.” The word that comes to my mind is “ebullient”–a word commonly understood to mean “cheerful and full of energy” but which historically also refers to a liquid or matter that is “boiling or agitated as if boiling.” That is Ghana Must Go, a novel that is at once fizzing with poetic lightness and energy and simultaneously maintaining a rumbling simmer of uncertainty and unexcavated secrets. Take, for example, how the family matriarch Fola describes her coming of age:
She felt the change immediately…that she’d stopped being Folasade Somayina Savage and had become instead the native of a generic War-Torn Nation. Without specifics. Without the smell of rum or posters of the Beatles or a kente blanket tossed across a king-sized bed or portraits. Just some war-torn nation, hopeless and inhuman and as humid as any war-torn nation anywhere, all war-torn nations everywhere. “I’m sorry,” they’d say…in their eyes not a hint of surprise. Surely, broad-shouldered, woolly-haired fathers of natives of hot war-torn countries got killed all the time? (106-107)
The quote showcases Selasi’s rhythmic writing styles and the way she uses it to circle around and drill down on echo chambers of loss, loneliness, and shame.
The novel opens with this poignant line–“Kweku dies barefoot on a Sunday before sunrise, his slippers by the doorway to the bedroom like dogs” (3)–and then bounces between the present, past, and perspectives of Kweku, the Sai family patriarch, his wife Fola, and their four children, Olu, Taiwo, Kehinde, and Sade. Following a moment of extreme shame, Kweku abandons his young family and successful medical career, wandering around New England and eventually West Africa until he eventually takes a second wife late in life. Fola, surviving as a single mother, does the best she can–sends Olu to the best schools so he can become a doctor just like his father, ships the twins Taiwo and Kehinde to her half-brother in Nigeria where they suffer a deep shame of their own, babies Sade in a new form of emotional dependence. In their own ways, all the family members experience deep shame and abandonment, whether through clinical coldness and rejection of family (Olu), an illicit affair with a much older lover (Taiwo), artistic genius and a suicide attempt (Kehinde), an eating disorder (Sade).
All of this is distilled in the novel’s title, which references a deep storage tote with a blue or red cheque pattern ubiquitous in West Africa. “Ghana-must-go” bags are associated with the mass departure of some one million Ghanians from Nigerians in early 1983. In late January, Nigeria’s president announced all immigrants without the correct documentation would be forced to leave the country, and rumors quickly spread that once the deadline was reached, civilians could confront foreigners in the streets. Within a few days, two million people (half of them Ghanian), most of whom had arrived in Lagos during the oil boom of the 1970s, packed their belongings in Ghana-must-go bags and fled west. Less well known, a similar but reverse banishment had occurred in 1969, when Ghana forced the expulsion of Nigerians and other immigrants. Both decisions are regarded as fueled by economic and social difficulties, for which foreigners were blamed.
In Selasi’s novel, the forms of leave-taking are just as abrupt and deeply personal. And in the wake of Kweku’s death, the family begins to converge, wandering waywardly like bubbles in liquid till they happen to collide, then cling to each other until they coalesce and reach critical mass. In the end, the Sai family reaches not wholeness but togetherness, the cracks and fissures in their lives and relationships that the novel’s rhythms and divisions so subtly imply finally becoming seen by others, excavated from the obscuring cavity of a Ghana-must-go bag. And this is enough.
PSA: readers tend to find the first third of the novel, with its unfamiliar rhythm and jumps between past, present, and characters difficult to get through–but KEEP GOING. Disregard the family tree and glossary, they are more confusing than useful. There are several tangential mixed-race relationships (white, Chinese) that I felt were at once tokenizing and worthy of deeper exploration.