Ghana Must Go
Penguin Press, 2013
336 pp., $25.95
A Bit of Difference
Interlink Pub Group, 2012
224 pp., $25.00
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.