Taiye Selasi gets full marks for swimming against the currents of fiction published by African writers (though “writer of African origin” might better describe her). The trace of war found in the novel, while being a catalyst for emigration, is cornered into near inconsequence by the varying accomplishments of the family at the centre of book, the Sais. Kweku Sai, the patriarch, was a renowned surgeon before his dismissal. Fola, his wife, was a promising law student who gave up her career to raise a family and sell flowers. Olu the eldest child is an orthopaedic surgeon in a relationship with a Chinese-American called Ling who specialises in gynaecology and obstetrics. Of the twins, Kehinde is a successful painter. His sister Taiwo is ex-Oxbridge and the editor of the Law Review in Columbia University. Sadie the youngest is at Yale.
An unsuccessful operation is the reason for Kweku’s sacking. The patient in question happened to be one of the wealthy patrons of the hospital whose family demand that someone should take the blame for it, even when the other doctors had agree that there is little surgery could have done to save the patient in question. Kweku takes the fall and his renown not enough to help keep his job. He doesn’t tell Fola and the kids. Instead he maintains the façade of a daily working life while he is spending his time in parks and his lawyer’s office pursuing a settlement. His lawyers, despite being the best in Boston, are unable to successfully sue because the judge before whom the case is brought is a relative of the wealthy Kweku is up against.
It is not said if this makes Kweku unemployable elsewhere, but it is strongly suggested that the hospital which no longer wants him is an umbilical cord to his life and identity. Now severed from it, the effects not only lead to him to desert her family for a life in his native Ghana, it reverberates in the lives of his grown-up children.
Selasi’s attempts, whether at distinguishing between things or conveying nuance in emotions or observations, at most times is successful. Often they’re wordily described in the text but hard to fathom in life. On one occasion they cause more problems than intended to solve. Ama, a local girl Kweku marries in Ghana is said to be “simple” by people. To him she is unlike the “insatiable women. Un-pleasable women” that he knows. Ama has a genius which he admires “a sort of animal genius, the animal’s unwavering devotion to getting what it wants. To getting what it needs without disrupting the environment. Without tearing down the jungle.” Restoring the humanity others have unfairly deprived a person of could hardly be achieved by comparing that person to an animal, regardless of how tempting the parallels may be.
Those who described Ama as “simple” may have done her a favour by not elaborating as Selasi has done. The writer has dug one hole to fill another by painting a portrait of a person who is as passive as a stone. Perhaps this is Selasi’s idea of non-simplicity, if being complex is too high an ambition for Ama.
And of Fola’s approach to parenting, we’re told, “she never raises her voice at them. Whenever one of them shouts at her she simply tips her head and waits. It’s not exactly patience, nor dismissal, something in between, an interest in the shouter’s plight, empathy, with distance”. It reads like a precise feeling being described but put yourself in Fola’s shoes, try inhabiting it and see how close to it you’ll get.
The diffused narrative style that Selasi deploys discards the subjectivity of a “narrator”. This way the characters are not sieved through any one colander in particular. While this opens up possibilities of character roundedness it truly only scalps one layer of subjectivity. The story still has to be operated on by someone – the writer as Chief Surgeon – who is also the apportioner of points of view. Any poorly sewn view point could haemorrhage onto the page causing dysfunctions.
Take the instance on page 163 when we’re told of Kehinde’s visits to a psychiatrist after half a year of analysis and medication to cure him of suicidal thoughts. This takes place in an office “in a room overlooking a garden, very dizzily, very English…” A casual eye might carry on to the next sentence perhaps convinced of what an English garden looks like. But this, in a way, points to the fulcrum of Ghana Must Go. Is it Selasi or Kehinde who thinks of the garden as “very English” as opposed to one that is, say, very Swedish? If it is Kehinde, that he doesn’t care to tell us why this garden is English may not set the reader’s imagination alight, but it is not his failing given that his story is being told. He could claim not to be a native Londoner. Besides he has other pressing matters like dying to preoccupy himself with.
Fola, who is the repository of the family’s disappointments, would be best placed to refract the Sais complexity if her emotional range wasn’t muted. This burden falls to Sadie. She’s the youngest sibling and the closest to Fola. That she studies in Yale don’t make her exceptional compared to her older siblings. She isn’t blessed with looks and was little when Kweku left. What she has grown to meet is his looming absence and Fola’s need for companionship, all of which could coagulate unfavourably in a teenager. This is well conveyed in Sadie and even more so in a conversation she has with Kehinde on pages 239-243 which captures the siblings’ disconnect.
Sadie’s suffocating closeness to Fola comes to a head in a row after which Fola moves to Ghana where she resettles. There, she embarks on gardening as a hobby, a demonetised version of her florist business back in Boston. While in this new garden of hers Fola ponders, “it amused her, always has, this disregard of Africans for flowers, the indifference of the abundantly blessed (or psychologically battered – the chronic self-loather who can’t accept, even with evidence, that anything native to him, occurring in abundance, in excess, without effort, has value)”. That different cultures have different value-sets and pastimes doesn’t factor in here. Fola was raised in Lagos and is part-Yoruba, a people to whom greeting by prostration is a sign of good breeding. Wouldn’t it give a sense of balance to know what she found lacking in the American way of life? Or are disregard and disinterest no longer distinguishable? If it’s not the novelist’s place to even out the differences in cultures, neither should indulgence in psychoanalytic quackery.
The Sais is a family with First World problems – a sense of emptiness in apparent abundance. Having one child accepted into a top ranked university could bring about a generational shift in social status and aspirations in other families. If you’re a Sai a place at Yale is the least you could possibly do. Their collective and individual problems, no doubt legitimate and life-defining for them, are difficult to empathise with. But then emotional transference isn’t prioritised in the book and needn’t be. Unstitching the threads of the Sais’ complexity take precedence, along with a rigour with language, punctuation and paragraphing. All of which fall in the vein of mould breaking that Selasi has commendably attempted.
A version of this review was first published on Mediadiversified.org