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
‘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