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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Filed under book review, books, fiction, literary fiction

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