Sunday, August 3, 2014

On the difference between dysfunctional people and dysfunctional families, the meaning of success, and characters that defy stereotypes.

Taiye Selasi. Photo via GoodReads

"This was one perk of growing up poor in the tropics. No one ever needed the details."

"Ghana Must Go" tells the story of a family that immigrates to the United States and, despite the difficulties faced by smart, ambitious, uprooted foreign students, manage to get established. The Sais live a comfortable, upper middle class life of lucrative employment, private schooling and the requisite music lessons expected of people of a certain social strata in New England. But when Kweku, the father, is wrongfully terminated from the prestigious job that's made it all possible, his reaction suggests that despite this abundance, his heart still carries the heavy load of needing to prove he is worthy of Success. 

We meet the family the morning of Kweku's death and are propelled through time and geography to explore the emotional burden of success, the high stakes of immigrant parenting and the complex web of familial attachment (and resentment). "Ghana Must Go" is a beautifully told story that shows that in a family defined by immigration, there is no greater distance to travel and no harder border to cross, than the space between people who love each other.
I talked to the astonishing Taiye Selasi about the difference between dysfunctional people and dysfunctional families, the meaning of success and characters that defy stereotypes.

I hope you enjoy!


I read your book immediately after having read Anthony Marra's "Constellation of Vital Phenomena" and felt that his book led me to yours so naturally. I was really surprised. In "Constellation", Sonja (ethnic Russian, born and raised in Chechnya, trained as medical doctor in England) returns to practice in Chechnya in the 1990s mostly because she is worried sick about her younger sister who had stayed behind. Upon her return, Sonja goes out looking for her sister and finds herself in the middle of a city destroyed by warfare. "She wouldn't climb out of bed for her sister," Marra writes, "but she had climbed into a crater. She wouldn't cross a room, but she had crossed a continent." I found this description of family so hilariously accurate and poetic. And I think it was with that thought still fresh on my mind, that I began reading "Ghana Must Go"... It felt so perfectly applicable to the Sai family, too. As you were writing each of the children's characters, did any of them consider not going to Ghana upon receiving the news of Kweku's death?

Certainly, each of the children has—and has had—a peculiar relationship with Kweku. For Olu he is a fallen hero, Taiwo a negligent protector, Kehinde a hidden hurt, Sadie an aching absence. But none is so indifferent that skipping the funeral—not marking his death—is an option.

Helen Broadfoot at The Edit described the Sai family as "dysfunctional", which struck me as very odd. To me, they are actually very high-functioning, especially given the various traumas they find themselves working through. I spent a great deal of time wondering what makes that possible for them. It seems to me that Kweku and Fola's biggest gift to their children is teaching them about living with internal dignity and pride, in addition to wanting to be externally successful. I think that's why as you read about the various setbacks that each of the characters face, you never really think...oh, man, so-and-so is a mess. Nobody, not even Kweku, ever loses their dignity. How deep did you need to dig, to find so much compassion for him? Oh, I don't think the Sais are dysfunctional people at all. They function, individually, as most of us do: pressing on in the face of pain, ignoring our hurts, masking our shame. But of course, they don't function as a family—in precisely the same way most families fail to function: they don't tell each other their deepest truths.

Growing up, I knew so many people whose fathers had abandoned their families. I don't know if it was an epidemic limited to the 80s and 90s, but none of my first cousins, for example, spent an entire childhood with his/her father. I began to wonder at a certain point whether our fathers quite simply didn't care about us: a painful, shaming thought to say the least. It wasn't until my late 20s that I began to befriend my father–and to consider that perhaps these acts of abandonment (his included) manifested a pain of their own. My compassion for Kweku arises, perhaps, from an effort to de-villianize the absentee father, not to excuse his absence but to acknowledge his hurt.

This is the exchange between Fola and Taiwo when Fola is confronted about having sent the twins to Nigeria with their (ultimately abusive) uncle:
"I thought he could provide things I couldn't afford, I wanted you to have, I don't know, to have more..."
"More than what?"
"Than a single mother. Than a mother like me."
I don't think that Fola ever actually believes she would have been a bad mother, but her inability to give a good reason why she thought this was the right thing to do is incredibly authentic. It's exactly what an immigrant would want for their children... MORE. More of what?! More of EVERYTHING. I feel incredible love for Fola and wonder how tired she must always feel... Do you think that by the end of the novel she is able to reach some semblance of peace? Do you think that once her children have all returned to her - literally and metaphorically - she will be able to take a breath? 

Fola is a very particular woman. I always grow a bit sad when I see her taken as an archetype of the African Mother, the Immigrant Mother, or worse: the long-suffering stay-at-home mom. Fola is wholly her own: inexplicable with reference to stereotypes, perhaps inexplicable full stop. The woman still baffles me (laughing). The best we can do, I think, is to look to her past to understand her actions. Fola grew up without a mother (indeed, largely without a father) and so perceives herself as winging it when it comes to parenting. She lost her father in the most arbitrary way, and so doesn't fundamentally trust attachment. But she loves her children with all of her heart and would do anything to ensure their success. Specifically for Taiwo, she defines this success with reference to things she wanted herself: a top-notch education, the chance to study law, professional achievement, etc. By the end of the novel we find her (1) acknowledging her loneliness; (2) accepting that her role as a caretaker no longer provides an identity; and (3) opening to the possibility of new love. This, I think, is reconciliation. This is the beginning of peace.

The meaning of success is such a central theme in the book but also in immigrant conversations all over the world. An immigrant feels so much pressure to escape a choiceless situation but also to make the most of the new place where they arrive. The stakes seem so high. The Sai children seemed to be in an even more difficult predicament, especially the twins... especially Taiwo... Almost organically knowing how important it is to be good, to be successful... but also, again, almost instinctively knowing they have to break free of that pressure. Taiwo's journey sounds really close to your personal journey and as a PhD drop-out myself, I really want to ask how you thought about leaving academia and how that process worked its way into the novel.
Ha! Well, most simply, the novel would never have been written had I not abandoned the D.Phil. But all creative journeys begin with a leap of faith, no? In my case it was acknowledging that I desperately wanted to write, then clearing my life of every other pursuit. It was a long time coming. In 2001—a decade before I finished Ghana Must Go—I wrote an essay about following one's dreams; this slightly evangelical text somehow ended up in the Yale yearbook. I ended that piece quoting the ever-brilliant Rilke, who chastens the young writer to ask himself whether he must write and, if the answer be yes, to "build his life according to that necessity." I laugh when I think how long it took me to follow my own advice. Academia, the professions: they're seductively affirming for the insecure artist. Parents brag, friends admire, bosses and teachers praise. To leave behind the straight-and-narrow requires some nascent faith in oneself (though crushing boredom with one's job or seething envy of other artists have been known to work just as well).

Several reviewers have remarked on the musicality of your writing but I can't help but mention how sartorially sensitive this novel is. When Olu remarks on his father's "scientist-immigrant" glasses, I laughed out loud, because I could absolutely picture those frames! Fashion is such a big part of the immigrant's journey. This interview is becoming too confessional, but my first year as an international student at a small private liberal arts college here in the South, I saved my money to buy a pair of khaki trousers from the GAP. They were hideous and were definitely my first and ONLY pair of khakis. No self-respecting East European woman will ever be seen in public wearing such pants, but I rocked them almost every day my second semester of college and felt so empowered, I felt like I had cracked some code. Your book's focus is so inward and psychological, did sartorial details slip in organically or did you think about them explicitly?

Ah, I never think about the details explicitly: they're just always there. When I walk around I always notice what people are wearing: it's endlessly entertaining, these little visual stories of who a person is or believes him/herself to be. But I love that you recognized the scientist-immigrant glasses! 50% of my West African uncles still wear them. And if I ever get around to running for president of Ghana, I'm going to get a pair, too.

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