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Book Review: Ghana Must Go by Taiye Selasi

Ghana Must Go by Taiye Selasi (Penguin Press; 336 pages; $25.95).

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A pair of slippers. A car ride with one’s father.  A garden statue.  A Mickey Mouse nightgown.  A visit with an uncle.  A dream to be just like daddy.  A meeting with a law school dean.  A routine surgery. These seemingly trivial and innocuous moments carry profound meaning in Ghana Must Go, Taiye Selasi’s searing, significant, and intricately carved novel.

Usually, the death of a patriarch signals a family’s collapse, but that is not the case in Ghana Must Go. The Sai clan was already splintered prior to the father’s passing. The death of Kweku Sai, the afore-mentioned patriarch, brings his relations together again to air grievances and lick old wounds.

In Selasi’s tale, the patriarch’s passing leads to a kind of reckoning. Together, the remaining family members face the past, in all its ugliness, to generate healing.  Selasi underscores the importance of mending their rift; it’s now or never for the Sai family.

Kweku Sai, “an exceptional surgeon” and “prodigal prodigy,” dies from an “unexceptional heart attack” in Ghana, his homeland, at the age of 57. He leaves behind many who mourn his passing: Folasade, his estranged wife; Olu, his eldest son; the twins, Taiwo and Kehinde; and Sadie, his youngest daughter. Each character mourns Kweku and thinks back to an earlier, more idyllic time when they were all a unit.

But that was before Kweku walked away from his family years previously after losing his job. His departure left a gaping hole in the familial structure and set off an unfortunate chain of events that disrupted their whole lives.

Selasi charts this course with eloquence and ingenuity. To read this engrossing tale is to get entangled in family secrets, lies, and deceit, yet no one can turn away from Selasi’s intoxicating prose.

After Kweku leaves for Ghana, the family attempts to regain its balance. Kweku remarries and builds his dream home, often yearning for Fola, who, after battling back from the depths of despair, moves to Ghana. Olu enters the medical field and falls in love with a classmate, yet something holds him back.   Sadie, the baby, makes a foolish and career-ending move.

But it is the story of the twins, the “ibeji,” that has the most impact in Ghana Must Go. Selasi is a twin herself and knows the formidable connection between twins. Perhaps that is why what happens to Taiwo, the beautiful but adrift sister, and Kehinde, the talented but troubled brother, is so emotionally compelling.

The twins have such a commanding hold on the story that the reader cannot turn away from them. Even when an unspeakable incident changes things between Taiwo and Kehinde forever, sending both into a tailspin and upsetting the bond they share. The consequences are disastrous.  For the twins, this reunion may very well be a matter of life and death.

From Ghana to America and back again, Selasi illustrates the fragility of family ties and the high cost of betrayal and deception. Kweku Sai’s death is a watershed moment for the Sais as the family he abandoned reunites.

Spanning continents and generations, Selasi paces her novel slowly but beautifully. As she weaves skillfully back and forth through time, we come to understand each family member in his or her own, unique and indelible voice.

Selasi’s writing is wise and assured and echoes Selasi’s cosmopolitan roots—her Ghanaian and Nigerian pedigree and her childhood in London and Boston. The author is only 33, but she has already lived on four continents: Africa, North America, Europe, and Asia. Taiye Selasi is not the name she was born with, in fact. She has been Taiye (“first twin”) Tuakli, Taiye Williams, Taiye Tuakli-Wosornu, and Taiye Selasi (“God has heard”).

Ghana Must Go is an excellent example of the growing Afropolitan (African + cosmopolitan) movement, young people of African descent who are making their mark on the world. Often, they are so busy building an identity away from Africa that they forget their homeland. This perfectly describes Kweku Sai’s children.

Kweku Sai’s disaffection from his family leads to the children’s estrangement from Africa.  If the children do not know where they have been, if they do not know the native land of their ancestors, then they have no idea where they are going.  Selasi seems to be saying it is all well and good to be a citizen of the world, but at what price. When Kweku Sai dies, his children must return to Ghana, the only real place they can seek atonement and fulfillment.

Subtle but stirring threads of post-colonialism run throughout Ghana Must Go.  Many of the Sais are “Othered” both in America and in Ghana. In America, many of Kweku’s colleagues and the children’s friends point out how intelligent the Sais are, “in spite of” being from Africa. Yet in Ghana, the Sais are seen as different because they have lived in America; they are more American than Ghanaian, which is another example of how the children have forgotten their heritage.

The title Ghana Must Go refers to the expulsion of Ghanaians from Lagos in 1983. At its heart, Ghana Must Go is about the struggle many immigrants face in America and the world. Deftly plotted, richly characterized, and magnificently placed in our global world, Ghana Must Go dazzles as it teaches us about family, forgiveness, immigration, and home. In chronicling one Ghanaian-Nigerian family, Selasi delivers a noteworthy and evocative debut, one that all of us, immigrant or no, will find relevant and laudable.

 

     Taiye Selasi

Taiye Selasi

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A Teaspoon of Earth and Sea by Dina Nayeri

Book Review: A Teaspoon of Earth and Sea by Dina Nayeri

A Teaspoon of Earth and Sea by Dina Nayeri (Riverhead Books; 432 pages; $26.95).

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            In 1981, eleven-year-old Saba Hafezi shows her best friend, Ponneh, an issue of Life Magazine dated January 22, 1971.  The young Iranian girls look at the pages, featuring a newly-engaged Tricia Nixon, in awe.  “Ta-ree-sha Nik-soon,” Saba says, is “the daughter of the American Shah.”

As far as the two girls are concerned, Ms. Nixon’s world is straight out of a fairy tale.  “She is a princess.  Shahzadeh Nixon.”  Saba soaks up the four-page magazine spread of the smiling young woman and her beau, Ed Cox.  For Saba, the main character in Dina Nayeri’s breathtakingly beautiful debut novel, A Teaspoon of Earth and Sea, the daughter of the American president is vibrant and mysterious, and she is, above all, American.  Saba is enamored of everything American. And it’s very easy to understand why—post-revolutionary Iran is no place for a girl to grow up in.

Overnight, or at least it seemed so to Saba, the “pro-scarf people” overthrew the “pro-hair government.”  Just like that, the things Saba loves—nail polish, shorts, bare arms in summer, new music—are forbidden. Every part of Saba’s body must be covered.  Nayeri writes, “They [the new government] shut up beautiful things in dark places, so no one can see…What do you do when you want to douse a fire?  You throw a big, heavy cloth over it, deprive it of oxygen.”  That is exactly what the Ayatollah Khomeini and his supporters do to Iranian women.

But, in the summer of 1981, Saba does not yet care about all that.  Her concern is Mahtab.  Without her twin sister, Saba feels like an important piece of her body and her soul is missing.  What really happened to Mahtab, and to their mother, who disappeared the same day, is a mystery to Saba.

Saba cannot remember much about that day; everything is “muddled memories within memories.”  She recalls feeling dizzy, and her head ached.  It had hurt ever since “that night on the beach,” but she is oblivious as to what occurred or how she injured herself.  Saba is clear about one thing: she thought they were all going to take a plane to America, her mother, her sister, and herself.  Her father was to stay behind for the time being.

That was not to be.  As Nayeri wisely maintains“memory plays such cruel tricks on the mind.”  Saba can only recall seeing a woman dressed similarly to her mother, holding the hand of a little girl who looked just like Mahtab, getting onto an airplane to America.

Just like that, they vanish out of Saba’s life forever.  Nothing can fill the void of her twin, not Ponneh, not her father, and not even Reza, a boy she has a crush on.

Because Iranians believe that “all of life is written in the blood” and that twins must share the same fate, Saba believes that everything she experiences and endures her twin must also face and live through.  Thus, Saba imagines her sister’s life in America.

America, or at least the America that exists in her mind, captivates Saba.  She comes up with elaborate tales in which Mahtab confronts a problem or learns a lesson that Saba has recently tackled.  Since Saba is so obsessed with American television (Family Ties, Growing Pains, The Wonder Years, and The Cosby Show—all family dramas), each episode of Mahtab’s life lasts no longer than 22.5 minutes, the average length of a 30-minute TV show, minus the commercials.  These chapters help Saba feel closer to her sister, who is surely “conquering the world so many scoops of a teaspoon away.”

Since Saba herself cannot attend a prestigious university (she will marry instead), Mahtab gets accepted into the very best American institution of higher learning—Harvard.  Nayeri expertly personifies Harvard University—“Baba” Harvard.  The university becomes Mahtab’s father since Mahtab’s true father is absent.  Baba Harvard is kind, comforting, stern when necessary, and paternalistic.

Saba holds onto the hope that her sister is living the American dream, an Iranian Tricia Nixon, even though those around her insist her sister’s fate lies elsewhere.  Saba knows this, too.  Yet Iranians place a high value on the art of storytelling.  “At the end of every tale, Nayeri explains in her story, “the storyteller is required to do the truth-and-lies poem, the one that rhymes ‘yogurt’ and ‘yogurt soda’ (maast and doogh) with ‘truth’ and ‘lies’ (raast and doroogh).”  Lying “well is crucial” in Iran, but Saba must stop lying to herself if she is to have a life of her own.

This story is very personal for Nayeri.  A Teaspoon of Earth and Sea is Nayeri’s own dream of Iran, “created from a distance just as Saba invents a dreamed-up America for her sister.”  Saba “longs to visit the America on television” just as strongly as Nayeri longs “to visit an Iran that has now disappeared.”  A Teaspoon of Earth and Sea is Nayeri’s very “own Mahtab dream.”

What a dream Nayeri has invented for us.  A Teaspoon of Earth and Sea effectively transports the reader to post-revolutionary Iran and into this small village.  Nayeri’s passion and elegance are visible throughout her tale as she explores themes such as love, loss, friendship, family, identity, and memory.  Most of all, she illustrates how stories have the power to transform our lives.

Dina Nayeri

Dina Nayeri

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The Lost Saints of Tennessee

The Lost Saints of Tennessee by Amy Franklin-Willis (Atlantic Monthly Press; 320 pages; $25).

 

The Lost Saints of Tennessee is the debut novel of Amy Franklin-Willis, an eighth-generation Southerner born in Birmingham, Alabama.  She was “raised on the tall tales” of her father’s “Huck Finn-like boyhood” growing up in Pocahontas, Tennessee, and those recollections inspired her multi-generational family saga.  Although her story is set in the fictional town of Clayton, it serves as a “love letter” to her father’s hometown.  The Lost Saints of Tennessee also “pays homage” to her grandmother, who “made the best corn bread in the world, smoked cigarettes in the bathroom so she wouldn’t set a bad example for her grandkids, and made strangers feel like family and family feel beloved.”  And that is exactly what you will feel for the Coopers and the Parkers as you read this book: these characters become like your family, and you will not want to let them go.

 

Franklin-Willis tells the story in two distinct yet compelling voices, Ezekiel “Zeke” Cooper and his mother Lillian Parker Cooper.  Both first-person narratives speak to us back and forth through time from the 1940s to the 1980s, revealing the ups and downs, tragedies and triumphs, of a family.

 

Zeke is not at his best when we first meet him.  Recently divorced from his high-school sweetheart, Jackie, distant from his two daughters, and still distraught over the tragic death of his twin brother, Carter, Zeke plans on killing himself and his beloved old dog, Tucker, in a motel room in Pigeon Forge.  Because this is primarily a story about redemption and second chances, Zeke fails in his suicide attempt.  We breathe a sigh of relief, because we are already invested in the story and in its characters.

 

Little by little, it is revealed that Zeke and his mother are somewhat estranged.  He cannot forgive her for what she did to his twin, who was forever damaged after having the measles as a toddler.  There is just too much on Zeke’s shoulders, and he wants to get away from everything.  Luckily, he finds an alternative to suicide.  Zeke had briefly stayed with Lillian’s cousins on a farm in Virginia when he went to college there.  Georgia and Oz are childless and have not forgotten Zeke after all these years.  In fact, they think of him as their son and open their home to him.  On the Virginia farm, Zeke becomes a new man, learning about farming, working through his problems, and even finding a second chance at love.

 

Lillian, meanwhile, discovers she has lung cancer.  “Isn’t it amazing when you think about it—that a machine can see right through your skin, through your blood, and see what’s wrong inside?”  She must have surgery to remove her lung.  Her first-person narrative really allows you to see what the family has been through and why certain choices were made in the past.  Interestingly, Zeke sees her as a bad mother, yet as I read Lillian’s account, I came away with the feeling she was anything but.

 

Parents, Lillian tells us, are not supposed to have favorite children.  But she and her husband “took up favorites pretty early with the boys.”  Her favorite was Zeke.  Lillian had wanted Zeke to escape the confines of Clayton.  Her dream was for him to go to college.  “You see those lights up in the sky, Ezekiel?  You see the brightest one” she said.  “That, my boy, is you.  Don’t let anybody tell you different.  You’re one of the chosen ones.  God will strengthen you.  That’s what your name means.”  It was Lillian who persuaded Zeke to go to college in Virginia, and it was Lillian who kept the truth from him after a horrible accident.  That catastrophe was the turning point in the relationship between mother and son.  Nothing would ever be the same between them until Lillian’s surgery brings the whole family together.  A new chapter then begins for the Coopers and the Parkers.

 

            I did find a few faults in the novel.  Franklin-Willis is at her best when writing for Zeke and Lillian, but she tends to use too many stock characters.  For example, Jackie takes on the role of jealous, whining, unhappy ex-wife.  His older daughter, Honora, is mad at her father and seems to want to hurt him in any way she can.  So what does she do?  She turns to a boy who breaks her heart and ruins her reputation in Clayton.  Zeke’s love interest in Virginia is a divorced rich girl who rides horses.  Zeke’s twin, Carter, has the exact kind of life and death you would expect from someone with mental retardation.  The real problem with Franklin-Willis, then, is that her story is often too predictable.  She is much better at writing this family’s past than she is at describing their present.  Lillian’s voice is particularly strong, and her remembrances mark my favorite part of The Lost Saints of Tennessee.

 

If you’re looking for a feel-good story about family, love, redemption, and second chances, Franklin-Willis delivers all that and more.  The Lost Saints of Tennessee is a heart-warming debut from a talented up-and-coming Southern author.  I hope we see more of her.

 

 

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