There was one particularly telling line in Taiye Selasi’s essay Bye-Bye, Barbar (Or: What is an Afropolitan?) – included within my copy of this book as a Waterstone’s exclusive – that I think sums up the themes and messages of Ghana Must Go quite succinctly:
“There is a brain drain back home. Most Afropolitans could serve Africa better in Africa than at the Medicine Bar on Thursdays… When will the scattered tribes return? When will the talent repatriate?”
Ghana Must Go – the title referring to both the expulsion of Ghanaian immigrants from Nigeria in 1983 as a result of a boom and bust in the oil industry, and the distinctive white, red and blue travel bags they used to transport their belongings – tells the story of the Sai family; prime examples of the Afropolitans Taiye Selasi expounds in her essay. Surgeon Kweku and his florist wife Fola – having emigrated from Ghana and Nigeria respectively – live with their son Olu, twins Taiwo and Kehinde and daughter Sadie in Brookline, Boston. After years of hard work and dedication, Kweku and Fola are now wealthy, privileged and successful, their children intelligent, talented and going-places…. until Kweku is wrongfully dismissed and blows all his finances on an unsuccessful attempt to sue Beth Israel Hospital. Too ashamed to face his family, he abandons them and flees home to Ghana. From there, the tribe falls apart and scatters across the world, irreparably broken and unable to fit in anywhere. Only when the estranged Kweku suddenly dies are the Sais forced back together again. Will they be able to heal their various scars and reconcile their differences as they make their way back to Ghana?
I picked up Ghana Must Go purely because at the time I fancied something decidedly out of my comfort zone; generally speaking I avoid literary fiction if I can help it, especially the contemporary kind, and on top of that I was interested in reading about a culture that I am otherwise not familiar with. I thought it would be interesting to read about an immigrant family – and a successful one at that – during a time when immigration in England is being so hotly debated.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the ‘literary’ aspects of this book were the main things I disliked about it. Taiye Selasi’s writing style is at times incredibly beautiful and poetic, but more often than not felt extremely overwrought and irritatingly self-aware. On the opening page for example, it takes a whole paragraph and multiple, repetitive similes to describe how heavily a woman sleeps. One sentence– “She sleeps like a child” – would have served just as poetically well. This trend continues for the rest of the book. I did settle into the rhythm of the prose eventually, but it was hard work slogging my way through so much superfluous text.
Another thing I noticed as a non-US reader was that whilst the descriptions of Ghana, Nigeria and its inhabitants were sublime, the descriptions of America were extremely limited. It took me a long time and a perusal of Google Maps to work out that Brookline and Brooklyn were in fact two completely different locations, and that Brookline is about a 3-4 hours’ drive away from New York. Clearly Taiye Selasi is writing about Africa from an American author’s perspective, and it was confusing to me as a reader.
Despite these not-insignificant flaws, Ghana Must Go has many strengths that helped me to get past the laborious writing style. The deceptively simple story of a dysfunctional family overcoming everyday hardships is really quite gripping, told in a historical-present tense that enables Taiye Selasi to squeeze decades of family history into a mere few days: the time it takes for Kweku to die, for his family find out, and for them to fly out to Ghana in order to attend his funeral. The theme of social displacement, whilst being the kind that is wholly unique to immigrants and minorities, is not an entirely alien concept for any reader to relate to, and so it is very easy to empathise with the Sais’ plight. The characters are also very well-developed (the brave independent Fola and poor smothered Sadie being my particular favourites). Occasionally they make decisions that are not fully explained and consequently feel unrealistic (I’m still baffled as to exactly why Kweku gave up and abandoned his family completely, or why Fola sent the twins to Nigeria to live with a brother she knew nothing about), but then I suppose that is life. Sometimes we make horrendous decisions that we don’t think through properly. Sometimes we do things without meaning to that have an enormous entropic impact on the rest of our lives.
All in all, Ghana Must Go is a surprisingly dense family-centred drama with a lot to say and a lot going for it, but I myself did not personally find too enjoyable. Taiye Selasi’s writing style is a little like Marmite; you’ll either love it, or you’ll hate it. Now, having satisfied my curiosity with regard to literary fiction, I’m pleased to be moving on to something else.
For more information on Taiye Selasi, Ghana Must Go and her other works, including essays and short stories, please visit her website: