Summer must-reads don't get much bigger than Taiye Selasi's Ghana Must Go.
Taiye Selasi is so perfect an image of a hotproperty author that the 33-year-old writer sounds like a character plucked from a novel herself: born in London to a half-Nigerian, half-Scottish mother and a Ghanaian father; raised in Boston by her paediatrician mother and academic stepfather; educated at both Yale and Oxford; mentored by Professor Toni Morrison (author of Beloved) and lauded by Salman Rushdie; and, to top it all, blessed with the appearance (and wardrobe – she favours McQueen and sky-high heels) of a style blogger. Her first published work, a 2005 essay called Bye Bye Babar (Or: What Is An Afropolitan?), captured the zeitgeist and coined the label by which a generation of young, educated and well-travelled Africans defined themselves. Now her debut novel, Ghana Must Go, has been translated into 15 languages and seen her included on Granta’s list of the best young British novelists.
Selasi’s seemingly charmed life makes a great story but, as ever, the reality is way more interesting than the dust jacket biog. Even though she’s in the middle of an exhaustive promotional tour, she’s a generous interviewee; nothing is off-limits, no question dismissed. When probed (as someone who’s been lazily compared to virtually every brown-skinned female author, from Zadie Smith to Maya Angelou, she surely must find the interviewing process frustrating?), she responds with a wry smile.
“Well, when I worked in TV, interviews were what I did. So I know what you’re trying to do, which is to bring a sense of someone – in this case, me – to a body of people. Similarly, I waited tables when I first moved to New York City and even today it takes me a lot to get irritated at waiters. I’ve been there, so someone would have to drop scalding food in my lap to get a rise out of me.”
So, that’s the early career sorted. Let’s talk literature…
You wrote your first short story, The Sex Lives Of African Girls, in 2006 after Toni Morrison gave you a year to write something for her. Did a deadline from a literary legend make it easier to write? Or more difficult?
Both. But more to the point, it made my writing a story inevitable; how could I not write something now? At that time I was still working full-time in television, but something kicked in. I wrote it, sent it off to Professor Morrison and she liked it. But leaving my job and forcing myself to live off my writing – that came from myself.
Many women dream about quitting their careers and pursuing something more creative. What made you take that leap?
I actually think I took a really long time to get around to it. But what made me do it is simple: I really, really love writing. So, to know this for 25 years and to keep on waking up and doing something completely different, well, it became painful. I was miserable – and I have a pretty low tolerance for misery. There is no part of me that misses working in TV. Yes, I learned a lot – I write screenplays as well and I aspire to direct at least one film by myself one day – and in my early 20s working in TV was an amazing way to learn about the nuts and bolts of production. Quitting my job and proclaiming that I was going to make a living as a full-time writer wasn’t easy. But at some point, if you’re honest with yourself – and you need to be if you’re an artist – you will hear the words, “This is not the creativity to which I was called.”
Ghana Must Go is about a sprawling family spread across different continents and draws on your own background. Had the plot been bubbling away for years?
Not at all. It was in late 2009 at 5am in the shower at a yoga retreat in Sweden with a friend that the plot of my novel – the entire Sai family – came to me. I emerged wrapped in my towel and said to my friend, Kirsty, “I think I just found my first novel.” She said “Where?” to which I replied, “In the shower.” And Kirsty said, “What, somebody left it there?” I know that yoga and meditation are critical to my creative process – in Sweden, I found myself still for the first time in years. I had no job, I had no phone; in fact the technology ban became a problem when I asked the yoga instructors if I could have my laptop back. “I need to get started on this novel that I’ve waited 20 years for,” I explained. And they said “No”. So Kirsty and I packed up, left and checked into a hotel in Copenhagen so I could get started.
How did you overcome this block?
I moved to Rome! Now that I’d quit my job, I couldn’t afford to stay in NYC. In desperation, I decided to go to Paris, because that’s where lady writers go. But after weeks on Craigslist and AirBnB with no luck, a friend suggested Rome, where short-term lets are far more common. In Rome, I’d unknowingly thrust myself into the best possible space in which to create art; a condition of absolute vulnerability. When you don’t speak the language, you look like an idiot all the time. You go back to a childlike state, relying on smiling, eye-contact, body language, instinct and the goodwill of others. It was a softening experience. At the same time, I was learning to put the Italian language together, rediscovering my love of language. The combination of these two things made writing play again.
So where do you call home?
There are four places. First, there’s Rome – I’m in the process of moving my books there now, which means it’s serious. When you spend all day indoors, trying to unlock the secrets of your characters, it’s wonderful to live someplace where, when you go outside, it feels like the city is waiting to greet you, with warm bread and cold prosecco. Then, Accra. I breathe in the air and it smells like home; the air is heavier, softer and completely engulfs you. I also feel totally at home in my stepdad’s place in New Jersey, which is crammed with books, as you’d expect from a man who chairs English Literature. And finally there’s a house in Chattarpur, Delhi, where the children I call my ‘fairy godchildren’ live and where I feel totally at home.
At the age of 24, you coined the word ‘Afropolitan’ in an essay about your problems answering the question ‘Where are you from?’ How do you feel these days when you hear the word?
In Bye Bye Babar, I write about my experience of living across cultures – in Accra, if I say I’m Ghanaian, people tell me, “No, not really, because you’re American-English and you live in Italy.” But in Europe or America, I’m not embraced as a native, either. So people like me exist in an in-between state, and need to forge an identity therefrom. To me, the experience of being an Afropolitan is that we have an unbreakable bond to Africa, yet we still have a problem identifying in the world. Of course, since I wrote the piece in 2005 the word ‘Afropolitan’ has become unhooked from my little essay and entered the sphere of label politics, but I haven’t followed it there...
For you, writing and travel seem to be intertwined...
They are. My writing is a very visual thing; it reflects what I see going on, so the very best thing I can do for my creativity is to observe the world. My second novel, in fact, is a love story set in Rome. I believe that if you go somewhere new and gaze out at the Italian seaside, the desert in Southern Mali or the Taj Mahal, your heart will open. Unless you are a miserly human being with no innate sense of wonder...
Ghana Must Go by Taiye Selasi is out now in hardback (£14.99, Viking)