BY GARETH LANGDON
It often is the case that as readers, we try intently to separate genres and styles. It helps us to classify the art and literature we encounter, making it easier to make sense of the variety. In the case of Taiye Selasi’s exquisite Ghana Must Go, however, the distinction is not so simple.
Tracing the lives of a middle class family of Ghanaian descent, the novel weaves its way seamlessly through time and space, crossing oceans and continents. The life of the family is turned upside down when the patriarch, Kweku, decides he can’t handle the calm family life in the Boston suburbs any longer and opts instead to move back to Ghana, leaving his wife to fend for herself with the children. After this, the family’s relationship to themselves and to each other becomes fraught as each tries desperately to find their place in the world – as Ghanaians in America, as successful artists and students and ultimately, as individuals in a family. When news arrives of their father’s sudden heart attack, the family reunites and travels back to their motherland, with emotionally gripping consequences.
Selasi’s prose style can only be described, paradoxically, as poetic. The narrative finds a rhythm on the page which lulls the reader into a sense of calm and ease in the language. This rhythm, however, is noticeably and purposefully interrupted at particular moments of unease in the story, resulting in a kind of double effect – a jarring on two levels. We are taken aback and surprised by whatever the turn of events in the narrative may be, as well as by the language which conveys it.
The poem’s rhythmic tendencies is not without its flaws though. I often found myself lulled too much into a comfort with the language which actually resulted in a loss of concentration. There were sometimes big gaps in the plot which I had missed and had to fill in, and often I found myself reading the same page over several times. However, when it was important for me to focus, I could focus, as the language allowed me to focus. In this way then, Selasi has succeeded in writing a novel which rather cleverly manipulates the mind and emotions of the reader – no mean feat.
In the same way that Ghana Must Go walks closely on the precipice between poetry and prose, so too it carefully navigates questions of national identity, race, home and heritage – the centre of these conflicts being a resounding “Who am I?” Each character is torn about their place in the world as they move rudderless and fatherless through it. They do not feel at ease in their home, where their father is tangibly absent, and they do not feel at home abroad, in Ghana, where any semblance of “home” is missing. They feel compelled to call Ghana their home, but nothing about it is familiar – the poverty, dirt and alienness of their Ghana is scary for them, to the point of evoking traumatic memories. There is a tangible disconnect between the self and the “home”.
In this way then, Selasi has created a narrative which is at once prose and poetry, while being both introspective and questioning. The language and plot work together to instil an experience of shifting in the mind of the reader and so too leave them feeling moved – moved through the rhythm of language, and moved emotionally.