Taiye Selasi, in conversation with Stephanie Sy, about negotiating her identity in Ghana, Nigeria, and the U.S., and on being “a free spirit” (via Al Jazeera):
What is your relationship to Africa and specifically to Ghana?
We first went to Ghana when we were 15.
Besides the fact that that’s where your mom lives, did it feel more like what home does feel like?
We went back and forth between England and the States and also to Nigeria more often when we were young. But then when our father, who’s Ghanaian, came into our life, we started going every year to Ghana. And I think when we first went to Ghana, I thought we were going to feel sort of this open-armed embrace. Like, “Welcome home, prodigal whatever. Have some keke and fish.” But it wasn’t like that. There was no instantaneous sense of belonging. In fact, I felt the same combination of belonging and unbelonging in Ghana that I did in England and in the States. And I think for a time, that was rather heartbreaking, because it occurred to me that there is no place in the world that I can go and say, “This place is mine.” And I started thinking of myself as a sort of deterritorialized brown person. And it was only when I got to graduate school and I started thinking about that experience of being a deterritorialized brown person, of knowing yourself home in many places but not wholly at home in any, it suddenly occurred to me, “This is not just my experience.”
Is that what led you to write this — “History is real and cultures are real, but countries are invented”? What is that feeling of not having a geographical home?
No, that’s not what led me to write that. What led me to write that was going to grad school, studying international relations and learning, as I’d wanted to for a very long time, how did we come to this organizing unit in the first place. I was always really curious about what these countries were. It was very clear to me from some bizarrely early age that there was something slightly off about the concept or there was something that I wasn’t being told. Because my mom, we call her “Nigerian,” and we call my father Ghanaian, but when my mother was born, Nigeria didn’t exist. And when my father was born, neither did Ghana.
So already there was this question of how can your most salient identity be younger than you? I carry U.S. and U.K. passports, but I do so because I was born in England at a time when that was enough to get a British passport, at a time when sort of the postcolonial moment was still leading to a very different approach to immigration than European countries are taking now. And then I came to the United States at a time when it was enough to just live here and be a law-abiding, hardworking citizen, in order to get a green card and later convert that into citizenship. So I have U.S. and U.K. passports but on the basis of laws that don’t exist and haven’t existed for the last 15 years. And I’m very aware that there’s something so arbitrary about that, that my nationality, which is meant to be quite important, is completely an accident of history.
And one of the things you are, according to a prestigious list, is a great writer. Your debut novel, “Ghana Must Go,” earned you a spot on a list of best young British novelists. Talk about your inspiration behind that story.
Well, that’s the hardest thing to talk about, Stephanie. It’s the hardest question you’ve asked.
Why is that?
I often quote Leonard Cohen, whom I love, the songwriter but also the poet. Someone asked him once where his best songs come from, and he said, “If I knew, I would go there more often.” And I feel that way completely about everything I write, this novel and everything else besides.
I don’t really know where it comes from. I just don’t know. But what I can say is that from the time that I was 4 years old, I knew I wanted to be a writer. It’s the only thing I’ve ever loved this much, this long. I said to myself, “OK, by the time you turn 30, you have to know once and for all whether or not you can make it as a writer, and this is how you will do it.” I saved up enough money so that I could live without working for one year and also pay off some student loans. But you know, just the idea was I would just quit my job and do nothing but write for one year.
It has a lot of biographical moments, both the main character and your birth father were surgeons in Ghana. Both abandoned their wives and children. Was this book cathartic in any way? Was it a way to address your own feelings about your biological dad leaving when you were young?
I think that yes, the answer is yes. But perhaps not in the way I would have imagined, which is to say that writing this novel, I so completely inhabited the lives and the minds of all the characters but, of course, the parents as well that I came to love them deeply. And of course they’re flawed, and both mother and father in this novel make some pretty spectacular mistakes. I mean, with horrifying and heartbreaking consequences for their children. But living in them, as I did, I came to understand how it was possible for them to make those mistakes, even though they loved their children desperately. And when you are a child, sort of judging your parents, you sort of think, and, you know, the whole kind of psychobabble industry leads you to think, “OK, but you did that because you didn’t love me enough. And if you had loved me more, you could have never done that. It wouldn’t have been possible. It is proof positive of your insufficient love for me that you made this decision, end of story.”
And then I guess everyone’s supposed to cry and argue and hug and move on. But it turns out, I found writing this book, that I just had enormous empathy for these parents. And because I had enormous empathy for these parents, I suddenly had equal empathy for mine. And it occurred to me that my mother and my father, for all the mistakes that they made, were doing damn well the best they could, even if it wasn’t enough, as sort of judged by me.