Ies and belonging
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