AiW Guest: Jovia Salifu
In From Pasta to Pigfoot, Frances Mensah Williams tells a beautiful story of cultural education, self-identity, and love. It is a story of a young black woman whose quest for knowledge about her culture and identity takes her on a journey back to her native Ghana. While there, she discovers not only her roots, but also herself, and true love as well.
On the first few pages, the reader encounters Faye, the protagonist, as a very unsettled young lady lacking in self-esteem and direction. In contrast to her well-grounded older brother William, Faye comes across as clumsy and bereft of self-confidence, a helpless romantic whose love is unreciprocated, and a clear underachiever with an underwhelming career as a secretary in a London based law firm. Much to the chagrin of Lottie, their Scottish housekeeper, Faye cannot hide her desperation for the attention of Michael, her boyfriend of two years:
‘Lottie, I don’t want to lose him. I know you hate him but he can be really sweet when he wants to be, and I don’t see anyone else chasing after me, do you?’ (p52).
Despite her desperate efforts to prove herself worthy of him, Michael and his Caribbean friends continue to denigrate her at the least opportunity on account of her lack of ‘ethnic consciousness’ (p11). Wesley in particular sounds overly critical of her limited knowledge of Ghana.
Things take a dramatic turn for the better when she takes up the challenge to visit Ghana, the country of her birth which she barely remembers, having left it at age five. In Ghana, it turns out that the abundance of sunshine comes with two gorgeous suitors in Rocky and Sony. Not even the chaotic road traffic, or the piercing crow of the cock at dawn, or even the social ceremonies that tend to be ‘a bit over the top at times’ (p301) can stifle her soaring confidence. The attention from the boys, the reconnection with her late mother’s family, and the new moniker of ‘superstar interior designer’ (p239), gracefully bestowed on her by her host family, all combine to transform Faye into a bubbly young lady exuding confidence. After her three-week sojourn in the land of her ancestors, Faye returns to London reinvigorated and motivated enough to return to school and get herself started on a better career. Fittingly, the man she falls in love with while in Ghana surprisingly shows up at her doorstep in the final scene of this fairytale.
Faye’s struggles with her identity can be put down to her uncertainty about her place in a society where in one instant she feels at home with Caroline, Dermot and her other white childhood friends, and in another moment she is hounded by Michael and his lot about her rootless existence. She complains to Lottie:
‘I know I’m black, Lottie…But, it’s like Caroline and the other girls see me as white because we’ve all been friends for so long. You know, it’s like it’s a compliment that they don’t see me as any different from them, but why can’t they just like me and see me as black?’ (p56).
Her predicament is akin to a case of double consciousness, which W.E.B Du Bois describes as the condition ‘of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.’ When this happens, the individual tries to act in ways that they think will gain the approval of the people around them, instead of being honest and true to themselves. This need to represent one’s self in order to impress others stems from ‘self-doubt’ and a feeling that one’s worldview is ‘marginal and subjective’, instead of ‘mainstream and objective’. Faye’s redemption in Ghana, then, appears to be an affirmation of Wesley’s theory:
‘So, today, if we black people don’t know our homelands, we have allowed ourselves to become cultural slaves…It is our responsibility to stay close to home as much as possible. That’s the only way we can keep our souls connected to our roots. You don’t do that, then you’re just a slave to the white man!’ (p31).
Upon arriving in Ghana, it doesn’t take long for Faye to feel that she belongs, and ‘for the first time in a very long time, she was not the one who stood out as a minority’ (p316). The point the author seems to be pushing here is that visiting Ghana and reconnecting with her roots not only enabled Faye to understand her identity and become more confident in herself, but also equipped her with the knowledge to fashion an appropriate response to the condescending remarks of Jasmine, Wesley’s sister and Michael’s other love interest:
‘[F]rom what I learned in Ghana, African culture is also going through change, and some of the people I came across were just as “Western” as me, if not more so. It really doesn’t matter what I choose to eat or wear, or who I’m friends with, my culture is part of me, no matter what’ (p513).
In real life studies, psychologists have been able to show that knowledge of black history, for example, provides black minorities with ‘a healthier identity and serves as a source of resilience when they experience interpersonal racial encounters’. However, readers would be within their rights to wonder if a three-week-long stay in Ghana is enough to transform Faye so drastically.
Even though her writing style does not possess the aesthetic quality of classic African writers like Chinua Achebe, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, and Ayi Kwei Armah (to name a few), Frances Mensah Williams compensates with her ability to evoke emotion in the reader. She presents Faye in a way that makes it easy for the reader to be upset at her naivety and sympathise with her at the same time, as she is treated with contempt by Michael and his smug, intolerant, self-conceited, judgmental friends. On occasion, she even manages to put together a seamless narrative that holds the reader’s attention. And characters like the chatty Amma, with her interesting but unsolicited gossip, help to keep the story interesting. Overall, given the rich storyline, even the most critical of readers will forgive the lack of eloquence in the narrative.
There is no doubt that Williams’ Ghanaian readers will thoroughly enjoy the story she tells in this novel, although a few critical ones will have minor concerns about some of her claims, especially the one about kissing being the standard greeting in Ghana. In describing Baaba’s response to Rocky’s arrival, she writes:
‘Reaching up, she kissed him on the cheeks three times in the traditional Ghanaian fashion, and grasped his arm firmly as they walked to where Amma, Edwin and JB were sitting’ (p194).
Baaba’s behaviour in this scene hardly qualifies as the ‘traditional Ghanaian fashion’. The same claim is made later. This time Faye kisses Edwin ‘on the cheek in the Ghanaian fashion that now came to her so naturally’ (p425). This form of greeting might be typical of certain classes of people but it is certainly not the general practice in Ghana. Again, readers who are really in the mood to nitpick will be baffled that Faye neglected to take a camera along for her Ghanaian adventure. For someone going to see her ancestral home for the first time, the camera would seem like the first item in the bag.
Even so, this fascinating story of Faye’s journey from Pasta to Pigfoot; from global dish to local delicacy; and from a rootless existence as a member of what Frantz Fanon calls the ‘race of angels’ to a well-grounded black woman; holds much promise for lovers of great stories. Even nit-picky readers like me will still find this book worthwhile, regardless of the very minor quibbles about aesthetics.
 Du Bois, W.E.B (2008) The Souls of Black Folk. Rockville: Arc Manor. p 12.
 Gates, R. (2013) “Identity crisis.” Cinema Journal, 52(4), 123-128. p 124.
 Chapman-Hilliard, C. & Adams-Bass, V. (2015) “A conceptual framework for utilising black history knowledge as a path to psychological liberation for black youth.” Journal of Black Psychology, 1-29. p 6.
 Fanon, (1963:170); cited by Hall, S. (1990) “Cultural identify and diaspora.” In Rutherford, J. (ed) Identity: community, culture, difference. London: Lawrence & Wishart. p 226.
Jovia Salifu is a Ghanaian doctoral student at the University of Birmingham. His research explores the impact of women’s access to microcredit on household gender relations in Ghana. Jovia also loves to write and publishes his own blog at josalifu.wordpress.com.
Frances Mensah Williams grew up and was educated in the UK before returning to her native Ghana to build a successful career in international human resources. In addition to two novels, From Pasta to Pigfoot (Jacaranda, 2015) and the much-awaited sequel, From Pasta to Pigfoot: Second Helpings (Jacaranda, 2016), Williams is the author of two career-advice books, I Want to Work in Africa: How to Move Your Career to the World’s Most Exciting Continent and Everyday Heroes: Learning from the Careers of Successful Black Professionals. She is also the publisher of ReConnectAfrica.com, a careers and business website for African professionals in the diaspora.
Categories: Reviews - Books