by Sabo Kpade
Taiye Selasi gets full marks for swimming against the currents of fiction published by African writers, though “writer of African origin” might best describe her. The trace of war found in Ghana Must Go, while being a catalyst for emigration, is reduced to near inconsequence by the varying accomplishments of the family at the centre of the book, the Sais.
Kweku Sai, the patriarch, was a renowned surgeon before his dismissal. Fola, his wife, was a promising law student who gave up her career to raise a family. Olu, the eldest is an orthopaedic surgeon in a relationship with a Chinese-American called Ling who specialises in gynaecology and obstetrics. Of the twins, Kehinde is a successful painter. His sister Taiwo is ex-Oxbridge and the editor of the Law Review in Columbia University. Sadie, the youngest, is at Yale.
An unsuccessful operation is the reason for Kweku’s sack. The patient in question happened to be one of the wealthy patrons of the hospital whose family demanded that someone takes the blame for it, even when the other doctors had agreed that there was little surgery could do to save her. Kweku takes the fall, his renown not enough to help keep his job. He doesn’t tell Fola and the kids. Instead he maintains the façade of a daily working life while he spends time in parks and in his lawyer’s office pursuing a settlement. His lawyers, despite being the best in Boston, are unable to successfully sue because the judge before whom the case is brought is a relative to the wealthy clan he took to court.
It is not said if this made Kweku unemployable elsewhere but it is strongly suggested that the hospital which no longer wants him is an umbilical cord to his life and identity. Now severed from it, the effects not only lead to him deserting his family for a life in his native Ghana, but reverberate in the lives of his grown-up children. Selasi’s attempts, whether at distinguishing between things or conveying nuance in emotions or observations, at most times are impressive. Occasionally they are wordily described in the text but hard to envision in real life. On one occasion it causes more problems than it intended to solve.
Ama, a local girl Kweku marries in Ghana, is said to be “simple” by people. To him she is unlike the “insatiable women. Un-pleasable women” that he had known. Ama has a genius which he admires “a sort of animal genius, the animal’s unwavering devotion to getting what it wants. To getting what it needs without disrupting the environment. Without tearing down the jungle.” Restoring the humanity others have unfairly deprived a person of could hardly be achieved by comparing that person to an animal, regardless of how tempting the parallels may be. Those who described Ama as “simple” may have done her a favour by not elaborating as Selasi has done. The writer has dug one hole to fill another by painting a portrait of a person who is as passive as a stone, but then stones have that enviable quality for resisting wear. Perhaps this is Selasi’s idea of non-simplicity, if being complex is too high an ambition for Ama.
Of Fola’s approach to parenting we’re told, “she never raises her voice at them. Whenever one of them shouts at her she simply tips her head and waits. It’s not exactly patience, nor dismissal, something in between, an interest in the shouter’s plight, empathy, with distance”. It reads like a precise feeling, but put yourself in Fola’s shoes and try inhabiting it and see how close to it you will get.
The free indirect style that Selasi deploys discards the subjectiveness of a narrator within the text. This way the characters are not sieved through any one colander in particular. While this opens up possibilities of character roundedness, it truly only reaches one layer of subjectivity. The story is operated on by someone – the writer as Chief Surgeon – who is also the apportioner of points of view. Any improperly sewn viewpoint could haemorrhage onto the page causing dysfunctions.
Take the instance on page 163 when we’re told of Kehinde’s visits to a psychiatrist after half a year of analysis and medication to cure him of suicidal thoughts. This takes place in an office “in a room overlooking a garden, very dizzily, very English…” An undemanding eye may carry on to the next sentence perhaps convinced of what an English garden looks like. But this, in a way, points to the fulcrum of Ghana Must Go. Is it Selasi or Kehinde who thinks of the garden as “very English” as opposed to one that is, say, very Swedish? If it is Kehinde, that he doesn’t care to tell us why this garden is English may not set the reader’s imagination alight, but it is not his failing given that his story is being told. He could claim not to be a native Londoner. Besides, he has other pressing matters like dying to occupy him.
Fola, who is the repository of the family’s disappointments, would be best placed to refract the Sais’ complexity if her emotional range wasn’t muted. This burden falls to Sadie. She’s the youngest sibling and the closest to Fola. That she studies in Yale does not make her exceptional compared to her older siblings. She is not blessed with looks and was little when Kweku left. What she has grown to meet is his looming absence and Fola’s need for companionship, all of which could coagulate unfavourably in a teenager. This is well conveyed in Sadie and even more so in a conversation she has with Kehinde on pages 239-243 which captures the siblings’ disconnect.
Sadie’s suffocating closeness to Fola comes to a head in a row after which Fola moves to Ghana where she resettles. There she embarks on gardening as a hobby, a demonetised version of her florist business back in Boston. While in this new garden of hers Fola ponders, “it amused her, always has, this disregard of Africans for flowers, the indifference of the abundantly blessed (or psychologically battered – the chronic self-loather who can’t accept, even with evidence, that anything native to him, occurring in abundance, in excess, without effort, has value)”. That different cultures have different value-sets and pastimes doesn’t factor in here. Fola was raised in Lagos and is part-Yoruba, a people for whom greeting by prostration is a sign of good breeding. Wouldn’t it give a sense of balance to know what she found lacking in the American way of life? Or are disregard and disinterest no longer distinguishable? If it is not the novelist’s place to even out the differences in cultures, neither should she indulge in psychoanalytic quackery.
The Sais are a family with First World problems – a sense of emptiness in apparent abundance. Having one child accepted into a top ranked university could bring about a generational shift in social status and aspirations in other families. If you’re a Sai a place at Yale is the least you could possibly do. Their individual and collective problems, no doubt legitimate and life-defining for them, are difficult to empathise with. But then emotional transference is not prioritised in the book and need not be. Unstitching the threads of the Sais’ complexity, a rigour with language, punctuation and paragraphing take precedence, all of which fall in the vein of mould-breaking that Selasi has boldly attempted.
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Sabo Kpade’s stories have been published in Verdad, Glasschord, The Writer’s Room, Sable and Gertrude Press. His play Have Mercy On Liverpool Street was staged by Talawa Theatre Company. He is currently at work on his first novel Anyone’s Ghost.
More by Sabo Kpade
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