Book 19: Taiye Selasi: Ghana Must Go

Books I've read
Taiye Selasi - Ghana Must Go

Taiye Selasi – Ghana Must Go

Ghana Must Go is one of the most beautiful books I have ever read. Each sentence is finely crafted prose poetry. This is a book that you should dedicate your time to, not read in between meetings or on bus trips. This is a book that commands you to sit down and listen to its characters.

I, of course, started it whilst on my daily commute to work. The trains I take are unreliable, often over-crowded, and often the reason I’m late for work. This can cause stress on an ordinary day (or be a good excuse to be late) but the week that I read this book I was grateful for every train delay.

The story follows the Sais, a Nigerian-Ghanaian family living in the United States. Each of these characters is fascinating, has a different way of thinking and talking that marks them as distinct from the other. We begin with Kweku, a man who has made mistakes, the biggest one of all in not acknowledging them, and (this is not a spoiler – it is the first sentence) “dies barefoot on a Sunday before sunrise, his slippers by the doorway to the bedroom like dogs”. And following from his story we meet the members of his family, Fola, Olu, Taiwo, Kehinde and Sadie.

This is not a family that has been unscathed by heartache and pain – each one has experienced it in a different and particular way. And yet they have survived it. In that survival they have had to transform a part of themselves, close off a portion of their hearts, or perhaps open up another portion that required grief as a key. Sometimes this has allowed them to do something they didn’t expect, and others it has made them unrecognisable to the people around them. It can be cold to be on the inside of a closed heart, and equally cold to be on the outside of it.

I cannot go on enough about the beauty of the prose in this text. Selasi has a skill for conveying so much about a person with a single sentence. It’s clear she is an astute observer of the way the world is constructed, and how we continue to impose structures on living people as though they would neatly fit into them. For example, this section:

“…there was a sense in her house of an ongoing effort, of an upswing motion, a thing being built: A Successful Family, with the six of them involved in the effort, all, striving for the common goal, as yet unreached. They were unfinished, in rehearsal, a production in progress, each performing his role with an affected aplomb, and with the stress of performance ever-present for all as a soft sort of sound in the background. A hum.”

And so it was on the platform of my own train station, and sometimes in the stifling heat inside the carriage, crammed against the bodies of strangers that I had no interest in knowing, that I wondered about the limits to our abilities to understand another person’s heartache, and the impact of that pain on us. Trauma, they say, is contagious. That’s true even when it is ignored.

Ghana Must Go is a beautiful book that reaches into the depths of the reader, and leaves a piece of itself there.

 

Book 17: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: Americanah

Books I've read

americanah, nigeria, chimamanda ngozi adichie

I’ve been spending some time thinking about impermanence and destiny. They seem like mutually exclusive characteristics, but if you think about most narratives that include people who are destined to be together, at some point in their lives they are separated. Sometimes we don’t know if they will ever be reunited, but often the reader hopes they will.

Americanah was a novel that helped me to explore that idea. It follows the story of Ifemelu and Obinze who are high school sweethearts but are separated when Ifemelu gets the opportunity to go to the USA. Obinze had hoped to join her, but that is simply not the way that life turns out for them for a number of reasons.

And so, having met them as characters so obviously meant to be together, we are taken along with them as they begin to discover what it means for them to be on their own and to have to redefine themselves in the absence of their most favourable mirror. These paths of self-definition, of trying to live authentically are not always smooth, and they are certainly not easy. Even less easy are the times when you feel them succumbing to the pressures of being what others need them to be. When I finished the book I felt bereft for losing the characters, wishing I could start the book all over again.

It is not only their love story that is interesting, but the cities that they live in become characters that force out certain elements of their own characters and serve as platforms to explore other ideas. Their reflections on race and class in both the US and the UK are educational without being didactic – it is clear Adichie wants the reader to think about their own relations to both, and to people who don’t necessarily fit into the same category as them, but it doesn’t feel as though she forces anything. She simply shows you through their eyes what the impact of refusing to acknowledge difference is, and how it so very rarely erases that difference. The technique of using the blog for social commentary is masterful.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is a Nigerian writer, and this is her fourth novel (Purple Hibiscus, Half of a Yellow Sun, and That Thing Around Your Neck are the others). I haven’t read them but I’ve ordered them so they will definitely be in my bookshelf soon. She has also recently published an e-book titled ‘We should all be feminist’ which of course endears me to her even more. There is also a TED talk with the same name. Her TED talk on the danger of a single story is one that resonates with me – especially given that I’m doing this project with the purpose of hearing other voices and other stories. She is only 37! (hashtag get a move on Jen!)

I loved this novel. I loved the prose and the characters and the setting. I loved the plot, the saga and epic quality of it. I know I sound like I’m gushing, but I don’t feel ashamed about that. Read this book. Now.

 

Book 1: Yewande Omotoso, Bom Boy

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I was privileged to attend the AWW14 African Women’s Creative Non-Fiction Writing Workshop hosted by the AWDF and FEMRITE in July 2014. The workshop lasted 10 days and was facilitated by Yewande Omotoso and Mamle Kabu. My fellow participants were amazing (read more about them here) and the facilitation was excellent.

I had known about Bom Boy for a number of years because it was published by the same publisher that I worked with in publishing the My First Time Collection of Women’s Stories of Sex and Sexuality – Modjaji Books. I also had met Yewande before and found her to be a great person but I had simply never gotten around to reading her book (excuses excuses!) When I heard she’d be facilitating the workshop I was excited because I knew that she had been nominated for numerous prizes (the Sunday Times Literary Awards 2012 for the Fiction Prize, the Etisalat Prize for Literature in 2013) and won others (SALA prize for English First-Time Published Author 2012) so I was ready to receive all the wisdom and tips she was going to give out.

On the first day of the workshop Yewande told us about her experience completing the Masters in Creative Writing at UCT. Having just completed the programme myself, I was really interested to get her take on it, and she did describe it in ways that I agreed with. It was a useful opportunity to meet other writers, and it was a very expensive way to force yourself to write a book. She also said that when she was finished her book, she didn’t even wait until graduation to send it out to a publisher (thank god she did!). She was brave and bold. She inspired me from her very first facilitation session, she shared some of her amazing writing, and she was totally practical about the writing process. If you get a chance to hear Yewande speak, you should take that chance straight away.

I bought Bom Boy at the workshop, got the famous signature, and it seemed natural that Yewande’s book would be the first one I’d read for my project. Bom Boy tells the story of Leke (pronounced Lay-kay) who is a young man living in Cape Town with a few strange habits and phobias. He is an instantly interesting character because he seems both deeply in connection with, and deeply surprised by the world around him. His story is complex – a South African mother who he doesn’t know and a Nigerian father who writes him letters to tell him about a family curse. In a sort of dream-like fashion you are swept along with Leke as he tries to find a grip on life, and perhaps even find himself. The characters are compelling – you want to try and understand why they do the things they do.

Bom Boy made me think a lot about destiny and the (in)escapability of history. It got me thinking about writing craft and how to tell a narrative from different perspectives, and tools that you could use to do this. It allowed the reader to travel through different time zones without the story line becoming overly complicated – I suppose this was probably because each character was so clear in my mind that I didn’t ever get confused about who was talking. Yewande certainly knows how to write dialogue.

As the cover blurb describes it “Bom Boy is a well-crafted and complex narrative written with a sensitive understanding of both the smallness and magnitude of a single life.” I was so chuffed at my first book for this project because it really made me excited to keep reading, and to keep writing.

You can follow Yewande Omotoso on twitter @yomotoso and like her Facebook page here.