TAIYE Selasi is telling me where she wrote Ghana Must Go, probably the most feted debut novel of the year. “It started in the shower at a yoga retreat in Sweden,” she laughs.
“The first pages were written in Denmark, then I wrote some more in Nigeria and Ghana, the next bit in India, and the last part in Italy. I live a peripatetic life,” she adds in an appropriately difficult to place accent. “Last year I was in 12 countries.” Living, travelling, or working? She raises perfectly plucked eyebrows. “To me, they’re all the same thing.”
The result of all this globetrotting is an exuberant, beautiful, sometimes extraordinarily sad family saga that shifts from Africa to America and back again. Ghana Must Go has been branded “a once in a generation debut”, endorsed by Toni Morrison and Salman Rushdie, and has just won Selasi, 32, a place on Granta’s influential Best Of Young British Novelists list. It opens with Kweku Sai – Ghanaian, talented surgeon, father of four, immigrant – dying alone in a garden in the country of his birth, and closes with the rest of the Sais gathering in that same country, which both is and isn’t home, for his funeral. Ghana Must Go – a Nigerian phrase aimed at Ghanian refugees arriving during the political unrest of the Eighties – may be a novel about immigration, coming and going, and above all leaving, but it is also about a family burdened by their own success.
“People keep saying to me that these characters are superhumanly accomplished,” Selasi says, rolling her eyes. “But I don’t see them that way. The father is a doctor, as is the oldest son. The mother is a housewife. One of the twins is an artist of some talent. But look, when I think of a novel about a white family with similar abilities, would we be going on and on about their accomplishments?” She laughs incredulously and shakes her head. “We would just accept it.”
She believes people are reacting not to her characters but to the fact that their immigrant experience – middle-class success and wealth, Ivy League degrees, bulimia, the lot – doesn’t get much of an airing in fiction. In other words, this is a representation of Africa we don’t often see. “Well yes, of course,” she says. “I may be unusual to others but I’m not unusual to me. And I’m very clear that the exoticisation of my characters or indeed of myself does not actually make us exotic.”
We meet in a five-star hotel on the banks of London’s Thames. Selasi and her twin sister were born in this city (there is a bust of her Nigerian grandfather “in a museum around here somewhere”). In fact they almost died here too. Her mother, a Scottish-Nigerian paediatrician whose ancestors hail from Glasgow, was the one who nursed her premature twins to health. Meanwhile her husband, a Ghanaian surgeon who trained in Edinburgh and whom she met in Osaka, abandoned his new family to move to Saudi Arabia, where he still lives today. It’s a complicated history, and there are echoes of it in Ghana Must Go: one Nigerian parent, the other Ghanaian, lots of doctors, and twins.
She arrives alone though later her mother, as poised and elegant as her daughter, shows up and sits at a nearby table, quietly eavesdropping. Too much has been made of Selasi being a publicist’s dream – as in she’s young, beautiful, worldly, with degrees coming out of her ears and connections all over the place. Toni Morrison was the first reader of her acclaimed short story, “The Sex Lives of African Girls”. (“She is mythical,” Selasi says breathlessly. “More than a writer, more than a woman, more than a world. That woman is wisdom incarnate.”) She has adapted a screenplay for Alicia Keys, and is currently collaborating on a project in South Korea with architect David Adjaye. Anyway, all this focus on her looks and lifestyle is a bit reductive, as are the lazy comparisons “by virtue of our melanin content, basically” to fellow post-colonial writers such as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Zadie Smith. It tends to detract from Selasi’s assured and glittering prose.
Mind you, it’s hard not to be blown away by her in the flesh. She strides across the lounge in impossibly high heels, skintight red leather trousers, and enough gold jewellery to warrant insurance. Her hair is vast and natural, her cheekbones sculptural. She has the appearance of a supermodel and the voice of a movie star – transatlantic, a bit whispery. She doesn’t suffer fools gladly, is excellent company, and unashamedly grand, quoting Nietzsche – “Man understands himself best in estrangement” – and describing her father as “friend, editor, and guru”.
She is more amused than annoyed by the stereotyping. “I’ve been through this before,” she says with a wave of her hand. “Okay, this is my first novel but I grew up in Boston, Massachusetts, which is not exactly known for its racial sensitivity. I came back to Oxford for grad school and was the only person of African descent on my course. And so on … It’s nothing new to me.”
In 2005 she wrote an influential and sassy essay called “Bye Bye Babar: Or, What is an Afropolitan?” It captured the zeitgeist and gave voice to a generation of young, hip, highly educated Africans around the world. Two years later it went viral. “I suddenly got an email from a billion people telling me to read this article by this guy,” she recalls. “That guy turned out to be me. The essay had been published in Nairobi and the response was huge. I was moved by the number of people who could relate to the experience.”
So what exactly is an Afropolitan? “Someone who has an unbreakable bond to a country or countries on the African continent,” she explains. “You don’t have to live there but it’s in you. It’s part of how you define yourself. And you have a thoroughly global perspective as well as some instinct to change things. I consider myself an Afropolitan. There is something about our generation that understands the world as a whole without shredding the identities that come with our parents’ cultures and the places where we live.”
She wrote the essay as she left Oxford armed with a Masters in international relations and a sense that “the constriction of the nation state was poorly suited to me”.
She was also fed up with being asked where she is from. “Do you know what?” she announces. “I am so over the whole ‘where are you from?’ question. I am! I don’t know how to reply to it any more. I go to Ghana every single year to see my mum who lives there now. But even if I were to say I was from Ghana, which isn’t true, what does that mean? What matters to me is Italian, African, contemporary American, British, and Indian culture. It’s of so much more interest to me than where I’m from. I would love it if people asked me who I am rather than where I’m from.
“Also,” she continues, “the question that is implied in ‘where are you from?’ is ‘why are you here?’ It’s colour coded in a way that we don’t acknowledge. I’m not interested in perpetuating the underlying idea, which is that somehow, by virtue of the colour of my skin, I am not from here. It’s not true. If people in this country don’t want that to be true, well they shouldn’t have gone out and colonised half the world.” She gestures around the lounge, where Arab and Chinese businessmen are having morning meetings and a group of young Indian women are drinking tea. “Here we all are,” she says. “We are all from here, and that became the case the minute the British formed the East India Trading Company or named the Gold Coast.”
So, neatly sidestepping the question of where she’s from, here are the facts. Selasi was born in London, grew up in Brookline, Massachusetts (where the Sais in Ghana Must Go also live), and, according to her website, is now based in “New York, Delhi, Rome”.
Actually, it’s mainly Rome with the odd road trip across Africa where she is working on a photography project documenting twentysomethings. She started writing stories at the age of four. “I was a nerdy kid,” she says. “I read all the time, was obsessed with stories about warrior princesses and flying and horses. I was very bossy. I used to write plays and then have my friends and sister act them out. And if they were in revolt I would act them out with my dolls.” Was her twin sister similarly inclined? “No, she was much more sociable and adorable,” she says. “More well adjusted than me.”
At the age of 12 Selasi met her father for the first time. “It happened here in London, at Heathrow airport,” she tells me. “When I saw him, to be perfectly honest it was like seeing a stranger. I didn’t know him. I was expecting something, if not affection then at least anger. But there was nothing. He had the name – father – but he had never played the role. It was only through our passion for yoga that we formed a bond. That didn’t happen until much later.”
In fact it was only as Selasi started to write Ghana Must Go – a novel about the death of a father – that the relationship with her own father was born. “When I started the book, he and I were close for the first time,” she admits. “I realise there’s something going on there, but I prefer to just let my subconscious spit up whatever it wants for my use.”
The novel is split into three sections: Gone, Going, and Go. We talk about Selasi’s own desire to be forever on the go or, to put it another way, her resistance to being tethered to any place.
Where does it come from? “My mother grew up without a strong sense of home,” she says. “She was born in London and for lack of a better word, she looks mixed. She’s not only Scottish and not only Nigerian. But this didn’t inspire in her a desperate need to travel. Rather, she was looking for a sense of home. For some immigrants who are born into movement, the instinct is to find a place to plant their flag, a piece of earth to call their own. I have a completely different impulse. I want to go.”
She laughs and looks pleased. In fact she really does have to go. She is flying to Berlin in a few hours. “The characters in my novel are always leaving,” she says as she stands up. “I’m always going, which I think is the most hopeful action a human being can take. It represents possibilities. Go, for me, means life.” And with that, she’s gone.
• Ghana Must Go is published by Viking, £14.99