Ghana Must Go
Penguin Press, 2013
336 pp., 25.95
A Bit of Difference
Interlink Books, 2012
224 pp., 27.17
Toni Morrison once said that she learned to write with authority from Chinua Achebe. As an African American woman, Morrison was struck by the natural narrative authority Achebe had as a Nigerian, a person normative in his own culture. This authority that Morrison found so revolutionary, it must be acknowledged, is a local and a national authority. It is not a global one. To Achebe's successors, contemporary authors of Nigerian heritage like Sefi Atta and Taiye Selasi, the subversion of that authority is a central question, as so many West Africans become immigrants and leave their homeland for the wider, whiter world. Their characters leave, return, bear children abroad and bring them back, and the tapestry of their choices binds multiple generations.
In Sefi Atta's A Bit of Difference, we meet Nigerian-born Deola Bello as she lands in Atlanta on a business trip for a London-based charity. Deola's life is one of perpetual arrivals and departures at various international airports: New Delhi, London, Atlanta, Lagos. The narrative is off-kilter from the first few pages, Deola blinking in the jet-lagged suddenness of her arrival in the sprawling city, shuttled by her American coworker Anne from airport to hotel to restaurant. She returns to work as an accountant in London only to begin preparations for another trip home to Nigeria, which she has disguised as work—she will meet with and assess three charities that have applied for funding from her organization. Her true purpose in returning to Lagos, however, is to be present with her mother and siblings for her deceased father's five-year memorial service.
The book is almost itchingly uncomfortable in its attention to conversation and social minutia. The dialogue is often jarring and fragmented, unmoored from Deola's interior world. After pages of internal complexity, we break the surface for something like, "Would you like another scone?" Her social interactions are fraught with the things she doesn't feel she can say. On a trip to Atlanta she decides she must forgo the word "actually" after contradicting a few of Anne's misunderstandings about West Africa. She doesn't want to seem antagonistic. It is clear that Anne, meanwhile, has no need for such linguistic caution.
Meaning in Deola's world is maddeningly unstable. A white man ignores the line at the airport and the flight attendant takes his ticket instead of Deola's. So trivial, she thinks. Too trivial to be discrimination, though she still remembers it for some reason. She remembers also her very first audit after accountancy training. When she arrived at the front desk, the company's receptionist told her deliveries were through the back.
But then there is her friend Subu, who did accountancy training with her and has now risen to the corporate stratosphere. Can any of these small, remembered slights mean what Deola feels they must if someone like Subu has met with such fabulous success in a city like London? Does it mean Deola is imagining everything?
Her trip home to Ikoyi, the richest neighborhood in Lagos, does not bring any kind of certainty. Deola is a child of Nigeria's oil boom, a generation raised in fabulous wealth—they were educated abroad, spent their holidays lounging in clubs, but everywhere in their exclusive world are the signs of decay. No one likes to drive anywhere at night anymore—armed robberies are a serious threat, even in Ikoyi. Marriages crumble as everyone conducts affairs. The specter of disease and death hovers over every romantic encounter—AIDS is one plight against which even the powerful cannot adequately inoculate themselves.
This is a Nigeria Deola's American and British colleagues have no conception of. In charity work, Deola knows, things have to be simple. Someone has to be above and someone has to be below. There is no place for an experience like hers. Coworkers hesitate, then say "these people" when talking with Deola about the populations their charity benefits. They know that she is not one of them, though she is an African. Her prosperity is something they simply don't know what to do with.
Ultimately, it seems, wrong is done when complexity is ignored, however benevolently. Deola wonders if Anne, so eager to bemoan America's imperfection, thinks that "the rest of the world is incapable of transgressions." In the face of such simplistic guilt, Deola thinks of the checkered laundry bags still popular in Nigeria, emblazoned in the 1980s (when Ghanaian immigrants fell out of favor and were summarily kicked out) with "Ghana Must Go."
This same incendiary slogan serves as the title for Taiye Selasi's first novel. In Ghana Must Go, surgeon Kweku Sai dies barefoot of a heart attack on the threshold of his house in Accra. His history unfolds as the chest pains begin—a multitude of memories traversed in the forty minutes of his condition's progression. His scattered family, four children and a wife abandoned in the U.S. years before, hear the news one by one and begin the work of assembling in Ghana for his funeral: his ex-wife, Folasadé, who has just moved to a house she has inherited in Ghana; Olu, his eldest son, a doctor in Boston just like he was; beautiful Taiwo, who has dropped out of law school after years of academic success; Sadie, the baby, a Yale student struggling with bulimia and confusing sexuality; and Taiwo's twin brother, Kehinde, a famous artist whose family has not seen him in years.
Selasi's prose is beautiful, if challenging. Kweku (a general surgeon trained at Johns Hopkins) thinks in lists lettered a-c, with a scientific thoroughness that returns again and again to previous subjects not yet exhaustively understood. These thought-based narrative patterns, once familiar, are fascinating, and alter slightly as each new character comes to prominence.
What emerges is a picture of a family that has tried to build itself to required specifications and failed spectacularly. The story is full of the various roles Kweku has attempted to inhabit, all capitalized:
"There was one basic storyline, which everyone knew, with the few custom endings to choose now and again. Basic: humming grandmas and polycentric dancing and drinks made from tree sap and patriarchy. Custom: Boy child Gets Out, good at science or soccer, dies young, becomes priest, child soldier or similar. Nothing remarkable and so nothing to remember.
Nothing to remember and so nothing to grieve."
Kweku's mother, who never leaves her village on the Ghanaian coast, does not seem to have this problem. She lives and dies as calmly indifferent to the world as the world is to her. Kweku, however, has lived elsewhere, and encountered firsthand stories for his life not written by him or anyone in his community.
The same is true of the Nigerian woman he meets and marries in the States, Folasadé. She left Nigeria after losing her father during the civil war, and finds that living in America impedes her very ability to grieve his loss: "she'd stopped being Folasadé Somayina Savage and had become instead the native of a generic War-Torn Nation. Without specifics."
They are all without specifics. Kweku has a habit of imagining a cameraman filming the scenes of his daily life as he walks down a hallway or tiptoes out of the bedroom early in the morning so as to not wake his wife. He is a man so bereft of authentic identity that he cannot do anything unless someone is watching him. His children know without being told that they are all working together to become a Happy American Family, and the failure of this enterprise sets them all adrift when he leaves.
Kweku fears that in leaving his family he has become something else always expected of the African man, but the man who leaves is also the man who sits awake at night to watch his daughter sleep and wipe the sweat from her upper lip. Kweku is incapable of harnessing such actions to his identity.
The characters of Ghana Must Go suffer from the same malaise examined in A Bit of Difference—victims of stories they did not write. They are a whole family nursing wounds they can't explain. There are no words for the reality of their experiences or the truth of their identities, and this proves to be a life-destroying problem.
And perhaps a nation-destroying problem, as well. At Deola Bello's final meeting in A Bit of Difference, her AIDS charity applicant asks if Deola is Yoruba or Hausa. "I consider myself Nigerian and I hope we can be united in the face of this epidemic that threatens us," she says, as the situation grows awkward. As soon as they are spoken, her own words strike her as without meaning, lines from a script in a language that doesn't exist. The edge beneath the woman's seemingly simple question, how much it matters, anything that might address or alter that reality—there are no words for this, either.
Catherine Hervey is a writer in Glen Ellyn, Illinois, where she lives with her husband and daughter.
Copyright © 2013 Books & Culture. Click for reprint information.