AiW Guest Emylia Hall
One of my favourite quotes on the subject of the craft of writing comes from the Pulitzer Prize-winner, Katherine Anne Porter: ‘Get so well acquainted with your characters that they live and grow in your imagination exactly as if you saw them in the flesh; and finally tell their story with all of the truth and tenderness and severity you are capable of.’ In Ghana Must Go, Taiye Selasi gives us a cast of characters who pull apart and come together to tell a story with an immaculate sense of truth, tenderness, and severity. As far-reaching as the novel feels, at its heart it is the story of one family; their sorrows and rupture, and their attempts at healing.
The novel opens with the death of Kweku, an excellent surgeon who suffers a wicked injustice in his workplace, a catalyst that turns him into an outcast in his own life. Then there’s Fola, once his bell-bottom-denim wearing wife, law-school-graduate-turned-florist, irrevocably let-down, and letting down. Their children; intense, serious Olu, who follows in his father’s footsteps, while desperate to break out of his shadow; the beautiful, brilliant, broken twins, Taiwo and Kehinde; Sadie, the last child, the twenty-year-old baby, who never feels good enough, or smart enough, or shiny enough. The six members of this fractured family constantly seek to define and redefine one another and themselves throughout the novel, handing out roles and assuming them, shackling and being shackled. They are, we are told, a family who are ‘weightless’, ‘without gravity, completely unbound’ but the reader, and author, know better; on the page they have terrific gravitas, because we’re made to care deeply for each and every one of them.
While the interior and exterior lives of each character are examined with an exact and microscopic lens, the fabric of the novel is relentlessly dynamic, demanding that we buckle up and hang on tight. The story sweeps from East Coast USA to West Africa, from the snow-filled streets of Boston, to a white-sand beach in Accra and ‘urban-gray’ THIS IS LAGOS (so reads the sign, ‘not Welcome to Lagos’, or ‘Lagos Welcomes You’). We enter palatial houses and daring new-builds, village huts and warehouse hideaways. We go from randy Law professors to evil uncles to green-smoking, green-fingered sage-cum-carpenters. The story takes in poverty, racism, conflict and civil war, with a touch that is delicate, fleeting even, but always robust and provoking. A little girl, Kweku’s sister, dies with ‘the calm eyes of a child who has lived and died destitute and knows it’. A line like ‘we were immigrants. Immigrants leave’ holds a whole world in its four words, one repeated. The student Fola, with her Beatles posters and ‘tragic glamour’ is from ‘just some war-torn nation’; generically calamitous, so we’re told. These short passages and just-glimpsed back-stories are no less affecting for their brevity. Perspective switches back and forth, from past and present, view point to view point, and all written in a rhythm that took me a few pages to get used to, but, once I was tuned in – just like in a memorable scene near the novel’s close – felt joyous. The language throughout is relentlessly buoyant, unendingly sumptuous.
In an exceptional piece for The Guardian, Selasi writes about her relationship with her own family history, and the journey she went on after writing Ghana Must Go; it’s clear that autobiographical beats have inspired the story, without ever restraining it. In her memorable essay, ‘Fail Better’, Zadie Smith talks about writing as our means of expressing our ‘way of being in the world’. She writes of ‘language as the revelation of a consciousness’ and ‘the watermark of self that runs through everything you do’. Fiction, then, but our fiction, possible only through the facts of our individual existence. It strikes me that Ghana Must Go is a story that only Taiye Selasi could write, and that’s how it reads; a dispatch, at once personal and expansive. For a novel that begins with death and dying – stretching, elongating that moment in time until it snaps into infinite silence – the story ends very much with life; messy, knotted, extinguishable, inextinguishable life.
At one point Fola, arranging blooms, ponders the ‘African disregard for flowers’, and talks of ‘the indifference of the abundantly blessed’. Upon finishing the novel I returned to this line. Ghana Must Go has garnered rave reviews, glowing endorsements from literary legends, and has rocketed its author onto the Granta Best of Young British Novelists list, while Selasi’s words bristle with intelligence, worldliness, and unselfconscious smarts. Abundantly blessed, certainly. But at the same time, its force field is never less than kind, heartfelt, and non-cynical; the antithesis of indifference. That’s why Ghana Must Go isn’t just a book by which to be impressed, it’s a book to love. Truthfully, tenderly, severely.
Emylia Hall was born in 1978 and grew up in the Devon countryside, the daughter of an English artist and a Hungarian quilt-maker. After studying at York University and in Lausanne, Switzerland, Emylia spent five years working in a London ad agency, before moving to the French Alps. It was there that she began to write. Emylia now lives in Bristol with her husband, also an author. Her first novel, The Book of Summers, was a Richard and Judy Summer Book Club pick in 2012. It’s published by Headline in the UK, MIRA in the US & Canada, and has been translated into eight languages. Her second novel, A Heart Bent Out of Shape (or The Swiss Affair, in the US) will be published in September 2013 (Feb 2014 in the US).