Ies and be­long­ing

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un­der­stand my­self in my en­tirety. It’s not Taiye En­tirety. Maybe we’ll get there,” she says, laugh­ing.

“But I’m still ac­cess­ing th­ese parts of my­self, and in and amongst African cre­atives there is much talk about the right to opac­ity. The right not to lay ev­ery­thing out. The right not to be trans­par­ent. The right not to al­ways have to ex­cuse, ex­plain one­self, but to just be and to trust and to know that as an artist, one must plumb the depths of one’s own mys­ter­ies. This must be pro­tected for the African artist, for any artist, I be­lieve.”

What Se­lasi has al­lowed us ac­cess to, how­ever, is a vast land­scape of words — spo­ken and writ­ten — that in turn al­low us to ac­cess, per­ceive and ques­tion our­selves.

The ori­gin story of Se­lasi’s de­but novel plays out like lit­er­ary leg­end.

Its rep­e­ti­tion tells us that Ghana Must Go was birthed from a dead­line, given by Toni Mor­ri­son when Se­lasi stated her in­ter­est in fic­tion while at Oxford Univer­sity. The process was more com­plex than this neat nar­ra­tive sug­gests — as Se­lasi in­tones in nu­mer­ous in­ter­views.

She pro­duced the stir­ring short story The Sex Lives of African Girls, and while adapt­ing it at a yoga and med­i­ta­tion re­treat — at Mor­ri­son’s in­sis­tence — the idea that would be­come her de­but novel in­ter­rupted a 5am shower. In­spi­ra­tion, as many artists know, does not care to re­spect our plans. And so the story of the Sai fam­ily was born.

Se­lasi knows the ther­a­peu­tic power of books. “Be­fore I am a writer, I am a reader, re­ally,” she says. “I read Yvonne Owuor, I read Chi­ma­manda Adichie, I read NoVi­o­let Bulawayo. This is what I do mostly, and then ev­ery now and then I write some­thing. But mostly … I just think, ah th­ese women, look at th­ese names, look at this ge­nius … this is the heal­ing for me, for what I went through in th­ese white spa­ces with this brown face.”

Her work in­vites heal­ing — do­ing this be­cause of its au­thor. I feel a kind of rad­i­cal em­pa­thy, on the other side of our phone call, al­low­ing space for dis­clos­ing em­bod­ied ex­pe­ri­ences un­spo­ken out­side the con­cen­tric cir­cles of friend­ship.

Th­ese are vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties that re­veal a reck­on­ing with my own body and iden­ti­ties, on a call to a not-but-still stranger. As she sits in the North­ern Cape, and I in Jo­han­nes­burg, the spa­tial dis­tance be­tween us col­lapses.

This is what Ghana Must Go does, for many black and brown women. Is the in­tensely per­sonal con­nec­tion to the book com­mon, I ask?

“It is a com­mon thing and it is my great hon­our to be able to elicit that re­sponse,” Se­lasi says.

“I have yet to travel any­where, through­out Europe and the New World in­clud­ing South Amer­ica, West Africa and now here with­out en­coun­ter­ing brown women who un­der­stand some­thing about this book, by which I mean, who have seen some­thing of them­selves in the same. That is my great joy.” Her voice bursts with ela­tion. An emo­tive snap, crackle, pop.

“Re­ally Danni,” she con­tin­ues, “… I love all read­ers, but some­thing about this book con­nected with brown women read­ers, and I’m say­ing brown be­cause it was as much for non-African brown im­mi­grants as it was for African im­mi­grants … it was as much the amaz­ing women in Nairobi as it was the In­dian Amer­i­cans in New Jersey, re­ally, that could just see some­thing about what it is to be specif­i­cally a girl, specif­i­cally a daugh­ter in this kind of fam­ily. That has been my great joy.”

The ideas Se­lasi be­gan to pur­sue in Bye-Bye Babar or What is an Afropoli­tan? have their roots in her body and sense of place and place­less-ness. The jour­ney into this iden­tity and mul­ti­lo­cal ex­pe­ri­ence of home be­gan as a way to un­der­stand “African young peo­ple work­ing and liv­ing in cities around the globe” who “be­long to no sin­gle ge­og­ra­phy, but feel at home in many”.

Th­ese con­cepts, par­tic­u­larly Afropoli­tanism, have since been at­tached to a ra­dio sta­tion’s iden­tity, em­bla­zoned across a mag­a­zine and rein­ter­preted as an aes­thetic and life­style. This was not Se­lasi’s in­ten­tion.

For Se­lasi, the con­cept was mapped in a mind try­ing to ar­tic­u­late an ex­pe­ri­ence, a way of be­ing in the world, not a set of ma­te­rial pos­ses­sions or pur­suit of pass­port stamps, for their own sake.

“The is­sue of class, of money, of eco­nomics, of ac­cess, of priv­i­lege — th­ese stark re­al­i­ties cross-cut ev­ery­thing I’ve thought, said, writ­ten about iden­tity in ways that are in­escapable, in ways that I’ve never sought to es­cape,” Se­lasi says.

Ideas, when we re­lease them into the world, take on their own lives. They are no longer ours, but ex­ist in com­mu­nity, at­tached to other ex­pe­ri­ences and pro­jec­tions of self, sub­ject to cri­tique.

Iwon­der aloud, care­fully ne­go­ti­at­ing my thoughts, whether Se­lasi’s idea that we can have mul­ti­ple ideas of home or be­long­ing can be at­tached to race.

She read­ily re­sponds: “A world view based on borders is a world view based on dif­fer­ence. You are ab­so­lutely right to say those borders can fall be­tween any groups of hu­man be­ings. It can be black or white, it can also be South African or Nige­rian … It can be any­thing,” she says. “Hu­man be­ings will use any old thing as a rea­son to jus­tify a border. But no­body within them is par­tic­u­larly con­vinced by our be­long­ing. So we are both within and with­out borders — it falls to us, I feel, to do the dif­fi­cult but sort of daily work of prob­lema­tis­ing the border in the first place.”

As ques­tions of be­long­ing at­tached to race and op­pres­sive his­to­ries emerge, Se­lasi ad­mits: “When the per­sonal iden­tity is shaped by pol­i­tics and by power, that’s when it’s dif­fi­cult to rec­on­cile. I ac­knowl­edge I don’t have the once-and-for-all an­swer to any of th­ese ques­tions. In fact, I am at a point in my life and in my re­search where I am con­tent to just ac­cu­mu­late the ques­tion,” she says.

“One of those re­stric­tions that I men­tion in the TED talk is power, and I al­luded in the talk to those who don’t have power. I have not yet con­tended with those who do. And that is some­thing — the more power I ac­quire in my life and in my jour­ney — a ques­tion that I need to an­swer. I would be ly­ing if I said that I had the an­swer just yet, but I am look­ing for it.”

The search for this kind of knowl­edge is end­less. As my con­ver­sa­tion with Se­lasi ends, deep into a Jo­han­nes­burg night flecked with stars, I’m left with mul­ti­ple thoughts — all jostling for men­tal space. There is a sense of won­der­ing about the world, about my place and place­less­ness in it — and the set of priv­i­leges at­tached to my body.

Self-knowl­edge is never com­plete. Se­lasi is com­mit­ted to in­ter­ro­gat­ing the bor­der­line, think­ing it through, con­nect­ing our bod­ies and ex­pe­ri­ences to its bound­aries, and seek­ing our col­lec­tive lib­er­a­tion from its lim­its.

Taiye Se­lasi ex­ists.

Fact and fic­tion: Taiye Elasi didn’t ‘ex­ist’ on Twit­ter, but ex­is­tence, be­long­ing and sense of place are strong themes in her writ­ing

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