by Jean-Thomas Tremblay
Published by Penguin Books, 2013 | 336 pages
“Kweku dies”—this is “our” entry into Taiye Selasi’s Ghana Must Go, and “we,” like Kweku’s children and their mother Fola, must come together, attempt to reconcile this irreconcilable opening.
We begin with death fugitive to all reckoning, as we always must. Disequilibrium, vertiginous tumbling in events, words, silences, and logics pregnant with the secret of some illegible, elegant design, or the undecipherable hieroglyphics of some causality—we begin in the dislocation of this “here,” pensively stirring soymilk into liquid awakening, lost. We are Olu in the void of unanswerable questions; we are Kweku, arrested, in a world stopped, on the threshold between sunrise and death; we are Fola, feeling death’s interruptive force with our empathic flesh; we are many. And we are halted by what we may never know, with impossible questions spilling from eyes scanning pages, lips mouthing words, fingers turning pages, and imaginations at their limits. Where, but “here,” to begin?
And where does the “camera man”—a central, abstract figure in the text—lead us but through a steady, unflinching engagement with death and its ripples across (family and cultural) history and geography, black time and space? Death as it reverberates through the many complex familial relationships that give this unflinching engagement emotional and corporeal form; death as it permeates the interlocking variations of black cultural existence in the world—here, the interwoven living, moving philosophies of black life, death, grief, and growth from Nigeria, to Ghana, to the United States; and death as it makes impossible demands on those swept in the violent current of its wake, those who must reconcile the irreconcilable, who must live with death, black. Taiye Selasi carefully wields words to guide this death-tinted lens through language that moves between past and present; between Ghana, Nigeria, and the US; between moving, fluid scene and vivid, still snapshot, revealing and meditating upon what it is to live with death, black, to live and die, black.
Selasi, a Ghanaian/Nigerian writer, thinker, and photographer, whose life and career span numerous continents, histories, names, and media, is multiplicitous and complex. The distinct and shared cultural histories of her Nigerian mother and Ghanaian father, the shifting letters, identifications with, and meanings of her last names—from Williams (stepfather), to Wosornu (father), Tuakli-Wosornu (mother-hyphen-father), and Selasi, which in Ewe translates to “God has heard” or “answered prayer—the travel between countries, between continents, the imagination inflected by photographic and writerly sensibilities—all of these converge in the gorgeous language, meticulous plot, and deathly meditations of Ghana Must Go. Selasi’s novel, prismatic in perspective, approaches from different angles—at least six, six that are central (Kweku, Fola, and their children), and yet greater and fuller than six; it reveals the unique convergences of history, culture, age, experience, and feeling in their orbit of death in its relation to a complex, though undeniably black, blackness: as inhabited, envisioned, and sculpted from Selasi’s own complexity.
“Here,” the philosophical stakes are high, and the metaphysical meditation is varied and intricate, all emergent in the thick, gorgeous writing itself. Selasi demonstrates a mastery of the written (which is, in many ways, a mastery of the sensory altogether) that aesthetically deepens what appear to be her larger metaphysical questions. Describing the inner, psychic approach of death, she writes:
It is knowing, not knowledge. Inconspicuous among his other thoughts. Not even a “thought.” A sound traveling toward him through water, not rushing. A shape forming far off out of a negative space. A bubble just beginning its ascent into consciousness, still ten, fifteen minutes from awareness, behind schedule, all the facts being returned to their upright positions, the attendants preparing the cabin for arrival.
Death as something just outside the capacities for attention or thought, something known and yet resistant to being known, moving along up from the depths, its arrival imminent, inevitable, born out of nowhere, that negative black space, a wet, dark, fragile silhouette, approaching on its own time, speaking, saying, singing, calling—sounding something, someway, yet unheard through the thick and oceanic water of life.
It is a death hurtling or wading toward us, swimming with us, from the void creating voids, holes, openings, a death that opens, and opens up into a hungry emptiness, “incredible, unbearable, interminable… around… above… beyond… a gaping, inside… a hole, or a mouth: unfamiliar, wet, hollow and hungry. Un-appeasable.” Selasi’s brilliant text is a moving through, traveling with, orbiting around, and simple, and beautiful, inhabitation of this hole, this void, the whole of it, that deathly opening, this dark singularity that emerges, on its own time, but inevitably. Which is to say of Ghana Must Go that, in its nuanced gorgeousness and brilliance, it is an inhabitation of the unique and densely complex singularity, the inescapable, gravitational convergence, of black life, of death, of the convergence of the two.
Where to begin but “here?”
John Murillo III is a PhD student at Brown University in the English department. His primary research interests include twentieth century black literature, afro-pessimism, critical theory, quantum mechanics, astrophysics, and cosmology. He is currently at work on a novel and comic book, both entitled Dark Matter.