NPR Story
11:25 am
Wed March 27, 2013

Debut Novel Tackles African Immigrant Stereotypes

Originally published on Wed March 27, 2013 3:34 pm

Taiye Selasi brings the African immigrant experience to readers in her debut novel, Ghana Must Go.

The novel begins with the Sai children preparing to travel from the United States to Ghana for the funeral of the family patriarch, Kweku Sai. Before they leave, Selasi gives readers a glimpse into the events that unfolded while they were growing up in the Boston suburb of Brookline, Mass.

Fola raised her four children while Kweku worked as a gifted surgeon. But their picture-perfect life comes tumbling down when Kweku leaves the family and Fola is faced with raising the children by herself on a florist's salary.

Depressed over the failure of her marriage and desperate to find a way to help her children succeed, Fola decides to send her twins to live with an uncle in Nigeria, something Selasi says is not uncommon for the immigrants she's observed.

"West African immigrants ... often send their children to family members and don't perceive it in the same way that, I think, perhaps, an American family would perceive that — as sending your kids away," Selasi tells host Michel Martin.

The move provides a cautionary tale, Selasi says. "One of the things I think I may be critiquing in that practice is something that is very fundamental to brown families," she says, "which is that I think we often have such a fundamental trust in our family members that we fail to see those family members who are, quite simply, dangerous."

The novel also tackles some of the stereotypes of African immigrants. In one scene, the eldest Sai son, Olu, goes to his girlfriend's father to talk about marriage. Like Olu, Dr. Wei is an immigrant to the U.S., but he is not enthusiastic about his daughter marrying an African man. He cites the family structure of many African families with an absent father and the typical news stories out of Africa — about rape, child soldiers and ethnic conflict. It prompts him to ask Olu: "How can you value another man's daughter, or son, when you don't even value your own?"

The question, though harsh, is one Selasi felt obligated to have the character ask. "While Dr. Wei is speaking in a hugely reductive, in a hugely generalizing, in a hugely stereotyping manner, he is also touching, in so doing, on some things that are true," she says.

Members of the Sai family find that their own truths are painful. When told, stories that have been kept secret for years from other family members reveal deep wounds.

Critics have pointed out that certain characters in the novel bear striking similarities to Selasi's own family. Selasi is the daughter of immigrant parents and the product of an Ivy League education. But she says that's pure coincidence: "I've told the anecdote — I was at a yoga retreat in Sweden when these characters sort of appeared to me. I think probably the longer, deeper, truer story is they'd been on their way for a very long time."

When she's pressed on whether her own experiences give her pause when tackling some of the stereotypes of Africans in her novel, she says, "As a novelist, I ask of myself only that I tell the truth and that I tell it beautifully."

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Transcript

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is TELL ME MORE. From NPR News, I'm Michel Martin. If I say immigration, you think, what, hot button political issue? For many Americans, it is the story of their lives. For generations, parents, sons and daughters have packed up in search of what they hope will be a better life here in the U.S.

While Latino immigrants are often the subject of the headlines, today, we hear from a novelist who has brought the African immigrant experience to new life in a new novel. Author Taiye Selasi's debut novel is "Ghana Must Go," and it follows the triumphs and struggles of one African immigrant family. Selasi has been hailed as a rising literary star.

We first spoke with her in 2011 when the journal Granta had her short story, "The Sex Lives of African Girls." And Taiye Selasi is with us once again only now she's here in our Washington DC studios in person. Thank you so much for joining us. Welcome back, congratulations...

TAIYE SELASI: So good to...

MARTIN: ...on everything.

SELASI: ...be back. Thank you.

MARTIN: I do want to dig into the story, but I did want to ask just about how you started writing. I mean, sort of looking at your resume, your CV, which is quite impressive and quite intimidating, actually, born in London, raised in Massachusetts, you have a BA in America Studies from Yale, an M.Phil. in International Relations from Oxford. Looking at that CV, one might think diplomat.

(LAUGHTER)

SELASI: Well, well...

MARTIN: It doesn't necessarily scream, you know...

SELASI: Novelist.

MARTIN: ...novelist.

SELASI: No.

MARTIN: So tell me why.

SELASI: Absolutely. I have known since the age of four years old that I wanted to be a writer. To be honest, in fear mostly, I went to Yale, and I didn't study creative writing there, and then I went onto Oxford thinking that I could apply my passion for writing to a career in journalism only to find, as I think many creative people do, that the passion would not go quietly into that good night or that small box, and eventually...

MARTIN: Well, yes, we do frown on making things up, true.

(LAUGHTER)

SELASI: When I was young, my mother always said, Taiye, you are very good at telling stories, and I think she meant that I was an abject liar, but I took it to mean that I was a future novelist.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: And so you are.

SELASI: And so I am.

MARTIN: The book opens with the death of a family patriarch, Kweku Sai. He is a talented surgeon, his wife is accomplished in her own right, had the opportunity to go to law school, she becomes a homemaker. They then create together this beautiful family, and of course, things happen.

SELASI: It all goes (unintelligible).

MARTIN: It all goes busting in a certain way. What brought you this story?

SELASI: So I wish I knew. I've told the anecdote. I was at a yoga retreat in Sweden when these characters sort of appeared to me. I think probably the longer, deeper, truer story is that they'd been on their way for a very long time, and when they finally manifest themselves, I knew, on some level, this was a story worthy of the form of a novel. And Wikipedia will tell you that the lives of these characters bear many surface similarities to the lives of my family.

So my father is a Ghanaian surgeon, my mother is Nigerian and Scottish, my twin sister went to Harvard Med and studied at Hopkins. We both went to Yale as does the youngest daughter, Sadie, and so forth, but those really are details. The similarities between the Sai family and my family are superficial, though abundant, and this is, in every way, their story and not mine.

MARTIN: Would you please just read a little bit, just to set this up. This is the patriarch, Kweku Sai, reflecting back on his life. Here it is:

SELASI: To escape what have sufficed, to be free if one wants, swelling strings to be human beyond being citizen, beyond being poor. It was all he was after in the end, a human story, a way to be Kweku beyond being poor, to have somehow unhooked his little story from the larger ones, the stories of country and of poverty and of war that had swallowed up the stories of the people around him and spat them up faceless, nameless villagers, cogs, to have fled thus unhooked on the small SSI for the vastness and smallness of life free of want, the petty triumphs and defeats of the self, profession, family versus those of the state, grinding work, civil war. Yes, this would've been quite enough, Kweku thinks, born in dust, dead in grass, progress, distant shore reached.

MARTIN: I'm glad you read that because there are so many things I want to talk to you about. First is that you established Kweku quite early on as a person who has a very intense consciousness about his own life, and you even create this kind of image of the unseen cinematographer...

SELASI: Grant, the cameraman.

MARTIN: ...this cameraman in his mind, that he has kind of following him around, documenting his life. How did you come up with that?

(LAUGHTER)

SELASI: Well, the cameraman appears fourth paragraph of the novel. And I remember when I was writing, I'd escaped said yoga retreat in Sweden to go to Copenhagen, and I was typing the first 10 pages there. And when I got to that fourth paragraph, I typed those words and I actually started laughing out loud - that's sort of ridiculous and - but it resonated on some level of certain people, and I think particularly certain men who are as concerned about how they seem to others as they are with how they appear to themselves.

MARTIN: Well, you know, it's true. I think there are a lot of people who feel that they know people who are constantly posing for someone and you think who are you posing to?

SELASI: For someone.

MARTIN: But I also wondered if, do you think, that's part of that experience of the first to do something or the one from the village who makes good? And as you said, there's something about that experience that leads to that, you know, what do boys call the double consciousness?

SELASI: That's right. That begets that sense of an audience. For sure. I think that so much of Kweku's life from the time that he leaves that village in Kokrobite is based on this journey. First of all, there's the fact that he feels guilty that he left, though his mother didn't want him to. And with that guilt I think comes the need to prove to himself - probably also to her - that it was the right thing to do. That leaving behind the family that had raised him in order to create the one that he himself raises is the right decision to have made. He gives so much of himself, so much of his identity comes from that project that I think the other parts of his identity, including his moral code, his sense of self, these things I think are subjugated in many ways to his desire to make good.

MARTIN: You portray a very vivid - let me just say - you've created some very, vivid characters and some very vivid situations, some of which will be very familiar to anybody...

SELASI: I hope so.

MARTIN: ...who has been an immigrant, who has struggled. Anybody who's really been to college, frankly.

(LAUGHTER)

SELASI: Indeed. Indeed.

MARTIN: You know, who understand people who are kind of striving and trying to get some place.

SELASI: That's right.

MARTIN: On the other hand, there's some really disturbing and extreme things that happen...

SELASI: For sure.

MARTIN: ...to some of the people in the book. And I'm not sure how much to give away, but as a mother of twins and particularly struck...

SELASI: Sure.

MARTIN: ...and disturbed by...

SELASI: By what happens to the twins in the novel.

MARTIN: ...something - your scenario to the twins who seem to become the victims of a relative where they are sent to study. Maybe you can help me here because I'm not sure how much you want to give away.

SELASI: No I can. I can. No, but I can say this. I think probably one of the biggest questions that I suspect readers will have about the novel is the question that I had myself, and that I don't think it's giving too much away to say: Is it right, is it accurate that Fola would have sent her twins to Nigeria for that year?

MARTIN: Fola being the mom of the twins.

SELASI: I should say Fola being the mother.

MARTIN: Kweku's wife. And after the marriage falls apart she has difficulty supporting the kids in the way that she feels they deserve and so sends them to a relative.

SELASI: That's right.

MARTIN: And, you know, that is a sort of a familiar circumstance. But what happens to them there is very disturbing. I have to say that.

SELASI: It's horrific and it's devastating, not just for the twins, but for the entire family. I think that decision it can really only be understood within the context that Fola is operating in. So three things. Number one, West African immigrants - and not just, but I can speak specifically of West African immigrants - often send their children to family members and don't perceive it in the same way that I think perhaps an American family would perceive it as sending your kids away. So for example, my cousin Oheramae(ph) was sent to her uncle in Nigeria from his mom's house in Greenwich, not necessarily because my aunt was unable to take care of him, but because she thought there were better opportunities for him to go live with our uncle in Nigeria. And this kind of sending of children to family members happens all the time. It's also at the heart of "Sex Lives of African Girls," the short story that I spoke with you about.

But one of the things that I think I might be critiquing in that practice is something that is very fundamental to brown families, which is that I think we often have such a fundamental trust in our family members that we fail to see those family members who are quite simply dangerous. Number two, Fola is aware that her half-brother is into some unsavory things, let's say, and she sends her twins anyway. It's a heartbreaking decision and I've really asked myself why would she have done that? And it's interesting. Fola at that moment, but at other moments in the novel, is suffering from what I think any middle-class Western female reader could probably readily identify as depression. But it's something that a Nigerian woman, raised as Fola was until 13 years old in Nigeria and then entirely without parents, wouldn't necessarily recognizing herself because this type of mental illness in these kinds of psychological difficulties are not as freely discussed or attended to in our culture. This is, I would argue, this is just the truth.

And so when Fola's last baby is born and almost dies again, this happens very early and is giving nothing away, she goes into a depression. She locks herself in a room. The children are left to sort of feed themselves and get themselves to school. I think when Kweku leaves the family she goes into another depression and she's not thinking straight. She is bereft and she is in a sort of shutdown mode. She's just trying to figure out how to get these kids to succeed, despite the fact that they don't have a lot of money anymore.

MARTIN: I'm speaking with Taiye Selasi. We're talking about her debut novel "Ghana Must Go." It's already garnered some rave reviews. I do have to ask you this, though. You are already quite celebrated as a beginning novelist. But - and as a very mature voice your initial story that was published and granted, was rave reviews. This book is already getting wonderful reviews. I do have to wonder though, as an expatriate, as a person who was raised outside of Africa for most of your life, you are one of a number of expatriate authors who are getting a lot of attention for your depiction of conditions in Africa and of the conditions of immigrants. And I just ever wondered - there's the whole dirty laundry question. And I wonder if you feel any special responsibility, any special burden.

SELASI: No.

MARTIN: No.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: No. Just answer. No.

SELASI: No. My...

MARTIN: No.

(LAUGHTER)

SELASI: As a novelist I ask of myself only that I tell the truth and that I tell it beautifully. Those are the two standards to which I hold my writing: Is it true and is it beautiful? I don't mean to suggest that 33 years old I know everything that there is to know about the truth, but I try to see what resonates with me as true. I ask myself, and I ask these questions with a recourse to my education in international relations, to my education embedded in my family for the past three decades, to my education as an observer of human experience - wherever I found it. Looking at these things, I say goes this resonates as true? And if the answer is yes, then I feel no compunction whatsoever about putting it down on the page as beautifully as I can.

MARTIN: You have an interesting scene in the book where one of Kweku's children on Olu, the oldest, the son, who follows in his father's footsteps as a surgeon, develops a very deep and loving relationship with a woman who is...

SELASI: Chinese-American.

MARTIN: ...who's Chinese-American. And there was a certain point at which he decides - I don't - is it OK if I say this?

SELASI: Absolutely.

MARTIN: Decides to go to her...

SELASI: Her dad.

MARTIN: ...her dad....

SELASI: Dr. Wei.

MARTIN: ...his hand - for her hand which, you know, even though they're, you know, they're very modern, but he thought this would be respectful to do. And Dr. Wei basically tells him in rather blunt terms why he does not give his blessing because he feels that African men are not good fathers. He says, you know, he basically lays it out, like do you want to say it what he said?

SELASI: Yeah. Absolutely.

MARTIN: Go ahead.

SELASI: Shall I read what Dr. Wei says? That little paragraph?

MARTIN: Yeah. Let's hear it. I think that would be - I think people would enjoy that.

SELASI: (Reading) You know, I never understood the dysfunctions of Africa. The greed of the leaders, disease, civil war. Still dying of malaria in the 21st century, still hacking and raping, cutting genitals off? Young children and nuns slitting throats with machetes, those girls in the Congo, this thing in Sudan? As a young man in China, I assumed it was ignorance. Intellectual incapacity, inferiority perhaps. Needless to say I was wrong, as I've noted. When I came here I saw I was wrong. Fair enough. But the backwardness persists even now, and why is that? When African men are so bright? As we've said. And the women, too, don't get me wrong, I'm not sexist. But why is that place still so backward? I ask. And you know what I think? No respect for the family. The fathers don't honor their children or wives. The Olu I knew, Oluwalekun Abayomi? Had two bastard children plus three by the wife. A brain without equal but no moral backbone. That's why you have the child soldier, the rape. How can you value another man's daughter, or son, when you don't even value your own?

MARTIN: Ouch.

SELASI: Yeah, that was tough.

(LAUGHTER)

SELASI: That was tough. I can - oh my gosh, I can see myself typing that out and Dr. Wei, this Chinese father, ends with that question: How can you value another man's daughter, or son, when you don't even value your own? And I paused. I remember, I leaned away from the laptop and I was like, tell him what you meant, son.

(LAUGHTER)

SELASI: But...

MARTIN: Do you have an answer?

SELASI: No. I don't. Because while Dr. Wei is speaking in a hugely reductive, in a hugely generalizing, in a hugely stereotyping manner, he is also touching in so doing on some things that are true. And my father left our family. He certainly assumed that my mother would raise us almost entirely by herself, as she did, to spectacular effect. This is true for I would say about 70 percent of the West African women I know, we've been raised by our mothers - even those who have remained married to fathers, fathers who had stayed home on the continent or who have been absent emotionally from the household. And Dr. Wei's question, why is that, is one that I'm not sure I can answer.

MARTIN: Wow.

SELASI: But I can say it's one that as a novelist I do feel obliged to ask.

MARTIN: Well, all is not misery in this book by any means.

SELASI: No, no. No.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: So I just want to say that thank you for this. And I know that this will not only be the first of what I know will be a brilliant career, so I hope you'll come back and see us when you write the next book.

SELASI: Oh, it would be my absolute pleasure.

MARTIN: What - do you mind if I ask? I know writers hate this or all artists hate when you ask them this question. But the question...

SELASI: What's your next book about?

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: No. No. Actually, I was going to ask what you hope people will draw from this one.

SELASI: I hope that readers of "Ghana Must Go" will enjoy the music of it. I hope that they will enjoy what Francine du Plessix Gray calls the tonality, the tonal texture of it. And I hope that they will feel the words sort of flowing past them - or washing over them - in the way that I did when I was writing it.

MARTIN: Taiye Selasi's debut novel is titled "Ghana Must Go." And she was kind enough to join us in our Washington, D.C. studios. Thank you so much for joining us.

SELASI: Thank you for having me again.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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