The borders be­tween bod

Taiye Se­lasi unset­tles the space on to which iden­tity is mapped — forc­ing her au­di­ence to seek out al­ter­na­tive forms of be­long­ing

Mail & Guardian - - Books - Danielle Alyssa Bowler

‘Taiye Se­lasi does not ex­ist.” A screen­shot of a Twit­ter search for her ac­count yields this re­sult, in July 2015. The writer posts this im­age to her Instagram feed, de­fy­ing this dig­i­tal dis­hon­esty, ac­com­pa­nied by the play­ful cap­tion: “ex­is­ten­tial cri­sis”. It’s amus­ing, pre­cisely be­cause the fact of ex­is­tence is at the very core of Se­lasi’s work.

The theme of ex­is­tence breathes in the ideas in her 2011 es­say Bye-Bye Babar or What is an Afropoli­tan? It shim­mers on the sur­face of her TED talk, in­spired by the es­say that probes how we un­der­stand be­long­ing, home and iden­tity. And it sat­u­rates her re­mark­able novel, Ghana Must Go, that sten­cilled lyri­cal sen­tences into the minds and bod­ies of brown and black peo­ple across the world, ac­knowl­edg­ing that, like Se­lasi — and in de­fi­ance of ev­ery at­tempt to ren­der us in­vis­i­ble — we ex­ist.

The real ex­is­ten­tial cri­sis that in­spired Se­lasi’s search for be­long­ing was sparked by a seem­ingly sim­ple sen­tence, of the kind that can pierce our en­tire be­ings, ex­pos­ing the un­set­tled spa­ces that rest within us.

“‘And where are you from?’ he asked in that ac­cent I’ve only heard on Bea­con Hill, in films about the Kennedys, and drink­ing with my agent. Bos­ton Brah­min, bari­tone. A bit of ex­tra weight on ‘you’, as if the ques­tion mark be­longed to me (the ques­tion­able thing), not ‘from’,” Se­lasi writes.

On to her en­counter, re­told in an ar­ti­cle in the Guardian, I trans­pose my own mul­ti­toned ex­pe­ri­ence: how my race is read at din­ner ta­bles and in in­ti­mate spa­ces — and how th­ese read­ings have sparked a search for a sense of be­long­ing in my skin.

For me, the “Where are you from?” e x i s t s i n t a c t , a n d i s s o me t i me s re­phrased as the crudely asked “What are you?”

Both ques­tions are at times ex­pressed in the hopes of hear­ing some ex­otic lo­cale — Brazil per­haps, or the Do­mini­can Repub­lic. Any­where but here. Any­thing but “coloured”.

For Se­lasi, there was no neat an­swer that the mul­ti­lo­cal writer —born in Eng­land to par­ents of Nige­rian, Ghana­ian and Scot­tish roots, raised in the United States and now liv­ing in Ber­lin — could give. There is no neat an­swer to sim­i­lar ques­tions that I can give now.

Our ex­is­tences echo.

It is pre­cisely th­ese kinds of echoes that make Se­lasi’s work — which spans writ­ing, photography, pub­lic speak­ing, screen­writ­ing and other poly­math pur­suits — so rel­e­vant.

Her de­but novel Ghana Must Go sparkles with the hu­man ex­pe­ri­ence of be­long­ing that so many of us in­ti­mately know and crave. Par­tic­u­larly when we know the dis­tance we would have to travel to be ac­cepted, loved, and seen: in the of­fice, across con­ti­nents and even in our own fam­i­lies.

In con­sis­tently con­fronting those four words — “Where are you from?” — Se­lasi has ar­rived at a per­sonal, yet shared, “ver­sion of home”, that is “not just a place, but a way to be in — a way to know — the world”.

It is not tightly bor­dered by na­tion­al­ity. It is not de­pen­dent on the pass­port you clutch. It is ex­pan­sive, mul­ti­ple and com­pli­cated. It meets ques­tions such as “Where are you from?” and “What are you?” with an­swers that will never be sin­gu­lar.

Taiye Se­lasi ex­ists in mul­ti­ple di­men­sions.

To speak to the woman on the other end of the phone line is akin to watch­ing stages of mat­ter un­dergo their tran­si­tion from gas to solid. Con­structed out of a TED talk, a YouTube video, a novel and two panel dis­cus­sions — the “Taiye Se­lasi” that I hold on to in my imag­i­na­tion con­denses into a more fully re­alised fig­ure as our con­ver­sa­tion un­folds.

I en­coun­tered Se­lasi as an avatar and in print and HTML code form long be­fore we meet at Nirox Words — a green-lawned, cu­ri­ously dif­fer­ent fes­ti­val held at a sculp­ture park in Mul­der­s­drift two weeks ago.

Our con­ver­sa­tion is a re­minder that ev­ery form of dig­i­tal me­dia en­ables a strange, in­com­plete and il­lu­sory way to “know” each other — a kind of paint-by-num­bers ex­pres­sion of hu­man­ity that is of­ten more paintby-so­cial-me­dia-site in its mod­ern form. It can never con­tain the full spec­trum of who we are. Se­lasi’s Instagram han­dle is a writerly, rhyth­mic con­tra­dic­tion that speaks to this ef­fect: @Taiye.En­tirely is not en­tirely Taiye. Ob­vi­ously.

It is a fact she read­ily ac­knowl­edges, say­ing: “Still, the In­sta­gram­mic record of things that Taiye Se­lasi loves, do not add up to Taiye Se­lasi. It doesn’t even come close. It’s still an avatar. It’s an au­then­tic, gen­uine, love-driven one — but it’s still an avatar.”

She con­tin­ues in a deep, sonorous and melodic voice. “I’m still fig­ur­ing out what that is. I’m still try­ing to

Taiye Se­lasi: ‘Some­thing about this book con­nected with brown women read­ers.’ Photo: Leonardo Cen­damo/Leemage

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