I am drawn to family dysfunction, and Taiye Selasi’s debut novel, Ghana Must Go, reinvents that dynamic into something delicate, searing, and graphic. She manages to create a family—the Sai family—into something simultaneously pitiful and charming. Selasi truly examines the different roles all members in a family play—the father, the mother, the eldest, the twins, the baby—with lyricism and intimacy.
But it wasn’t the family nature of the story that drew me to the novel at first. I was drawn to the title, to the location of Africa that consumes parts of the story. As someone who briefly lived in southern Africa, I notice how quickly this continent is dissected, categorized, romanticized. At first, I was skeptical that Selasi would contribute something original to the African novel. I quickly discovered that this novel is as much an American novel—the American Dream novel—as an African novel.
The novel opens with the death of Kweku Sai, a doctor and father raised in Ghana, who emigrated to New England to capture the American Dream of success and wealth. But a professional misunderstanding causes him to flee back to Ghana, abandoning his wife and four children. The novel charts the paths each Sai member has taken since Kweku left, examining not just their relationships (or lack thereof) with each other, but their relationships to place, and the bridging between America and Africa. Kehinde, the artistic son, is struck by “the movement [of Ghana], neither lethargic nor frenetic, an in-the-middle kind of pace, none of the ancientness of Mali nor the ambitiousness of Nigeria, just a steady-on movement towards what he can’t tell.”
The allegory of the immigrant coming to America enacts the same steady movement. I was impressed that Selasi could present a new face of Africa, a face contrary and difficult, modern and stunning. At the same time, she led me down the path of an immigrant who became successful, then failed, then fled, leaving behind four children to combat their own inner struggles of achievement and failure.
Read Ghana Must Go for the delicate way Selasi presents the histories of each member of the Sai family, for her powerful invocation of place—the winters of the Boston metro area shimmer off the page as much as the shoreline of a Ghanian village; for the language, for the sharp notes she strikes with fragmented sentences: “The moments that make up an outcome. The quiet ones.” Read it for the attention paid to detail, to each object, which unravels memories and a succession of feelings and stories, like the slippers on Kweku’s feet; for Fola, a stately, beautiful mother who makes hard decisions where her children are concerned, and who must learn to reunite these fatherless children, however painful the process, a character I both feared and admired.
This book gifted me with an American family to whom I could empathize, an African family from which I could learn, and an immigrant family full of dysfunction that was both painfully familiar and brutally fresh. Ghana Must Go reminds me that “American” is a term ever morphing, and this changeability is inherent to its definition.
Courtney McDermott’s short stories and essays have appeared in Berkeley Fiction Review, Daily Palette, Found Press, Italy from a Backpack, A Little Village Magazine, The Lyon Review, Raving Dove, Sliver of Stone, and Third Wednesday. She also writes book reviews for NewPages.com and various journals. A Returned Peace Corps Volunteer in the Country of Lesotho, her first collection of short stories, inspired by her experience, will be released by Whitepoint Press later this fall. She has her MFA in creative writing from the University of Notre Dame and currently lives in the Boston metro area.