Ambitious Conditions: Taiye Selasi’s “Ghana Must Go”

About a year ago, Nell Freudenberger called Taiye Selasi’s Ghana Must Go “an ambitious first novel” in the New York Times, and observed that “ambitious” has a different meaning on each side of the North Atlantic. In the British sense, “ambitious” is a barely-buried criticism of people who would presume to rise above their station, so Freudenberger is quick to clarify that she means it in the American sense, in which it marks an ambition to succeed and better oneself that Americans have traditionally honored and revered (or to which we at least pay lip service). In Britain, you see, the ambitious are discouraged, urged to stay in their place. In the United States, ambition is a virtue.

This is certainly a story that Americans like to tell themselves. But as was the case with many reviewers of Ghana Must Go, Freudenberger’s “ambitious” is a back-handed criticism, a way of positioning Selasi as a promising writer who had written a flawed first novel.

This is not to say that the book was un-generously reviewed, by the way. The British press particularly loved it, for example (The Independent: “Can this fanfared debut live up to its billing? After a few wobbles – yes, a new star is born”; The Guardian: “Before you get to page one of this book there is a noisy overture…one of the most hyped debuts of recent times…It stands up to the hype”; The Economist: “Ghana Must Go comes with a bagload of prepublication praise. For once, the brouhaha is well deserved.”)
But her ambition marks how far her reach exceeded her grasp, the potential that was unrealized: after some measured praise for Selasi’s prose, Freudenberger makes it quite clear that the young writer was not ready for prime-time, suggesting that “agents, editors and publishers may have rushed a young writer’s book into print before it was ready.” Faulting “the author’s unwillingness to explore her characters’ motivations fully,” she questions the novel’s plausibility:

“[The main character] Fola makes a devastating decision — one that’s plausible if you consider her in the context of her “generic” history, but unconvincing if you rely on what Selasi has shown us of her personality. Fola concludes that she can’t handle four children on her own, and sends the twins to live in Lagos with her half brother, a wealthy drug dealer. It was hard for me to believe that Fola — who gets into law school but doesn’t balk at selling flowers on the street when times are hard — was once too proud to ask a prep school for scholarship money for her twins so that they could stay with her”

I understand why Freudenberger says the novel feels “rushed,” though I would use a different adjective. I can’t praise the book without qualifications; some of the prose is brilliant, fresh, and scintillating, and sometimes it feels painfully and chokingly overwrought. The first time Selasi described the quality of the moonlight as it strikes the world I was struck; the fifteenth time, I was beaten like a dead horse. And I also suspect that Ghana Must Go is probably the first book by a writer whose first book will not be her best book. She’s a very talented writer, and this novel is not the best book I’ve read this year.

But it’s a fiction that Americans respect the “ambitious,” and a first novel by Taiye Selasi doesn’t have the luxury of being an fascinating failure, or even of being a modestly successful first novel. The United States has a different kind of underclass than the British, and our class system is no less powerfully devoted to keeping it in its place; it might be based much more on race, but it guides our sense of where people and things belong with the same rigid certainty. If there is something improper, crass, and unseemly in lower-class “ambition” to aristocratic prestige—in the British class-consciousness that we Americans like to distinguish ourselves from—it is also true that our conservative gatekeepers swing into action when non-white artists trespass onto the territory reserved for the people who deserve to be called “great.”  Rather than seeing her as doing what any novelist does—trying to write a great novel—her “ambition” marks her, distinguishes her, and sets her up for failure. Or, rather, it sets her up to be patronized, as a writer whose burden is specifically racial: Freudenberger’s review closes by asserting that Selasi’s book was rushed into print because the story of her generation, the “Afropolitans,” have a “large audience eager to hear their stories.” And so, to hear her tell it, it’s a shame that Selasi’s book wasn’t better, precisely because “Selasi’s ambition — to show her readers not “Africa” but one African family, authors of their own achievements and failures — is one that can be applauded no matter what accent you give the word.” True art suffers because of the ethnographic imperative. We’d like to applaud her, but darn it, she just wasn’t good enough.

I suspect that Freudenberger’s review must have stung; in an interview on NPR, Selasi obliquely mentions and responds to it, though she delicately shifts the terms of the criticism, suggesting that the problem is not what is or isn’t plausible, but rather Fredenberg’s lack of familiarity with the cultural context at play:

“[O]ne reader said, I don’t understand why Fola, the mother, would be willing sell flowers outside of a hospital in Boston, but not beg for money or, you know, beg for financial aid. And I thought to myself I understand that confusion because West—Nigerians and Ghanaians—let me speak for my own people Nigerians and Ghanaians we have so much pride and so much dignity in ourselves. There is a difference. There is a huge difference between driving a taxi, selling flowers, working, in our minds, and begging or relying on other people for help. This is something that, I think, it often gets lost in the American context because when a West African person who has never thought of him or herself, has never conceived of him or herself as lacking finds him or herself in a position of economic difficulty there is a bit of cognitive dissidence there. Even when we, West Africans, find ourselves in middle class environments and, you know, the doors to scholarships are closed our instinct is to work. And this is something that is so related to our sense of ourselves as dignified, even if poor.”

This exchange will tell you a great deal about the context in which Taiye Selasi published her first book, and she could have been—perhaps should have been—quite a bit harsher in her response. After all, why is it Selasi’s job to “convince” Freudenberger? How is the fact that Freudenberger does not “believe” in Fola’s pride a mark against Selasi’s novel? Who gets to define the “reality” against which the novel’s portrayal gets evaluated as plausible or not? An important class distinction for both Selasi and her characters—the crucial difference between “begging and relying” and sub-professional labor like selling flowers—floats totally beneath Freudenberger’s radar: Freudenberger finds implausible the pride that demands work over a hand-out, a kind of pride that must be utterly familiar to both Americans and Britons, but which, perhaps, we do not expect to find in Africans. Africans, we are perhaps accustomed to imagining, are accustomed to scraping by with nothing. Africans, we may expect, do not have the luxury of pride.

If I’m being hard on Nell Freudenberger, it’s because her review is so typical, so symptomatic, and because she overlooks the extent to which even she is playing the part in the very racial drama that Selasi was writing about. Taiye Selasi has written a novel about failure, failure for people for whom failure is not an option. The family at the center of Ghana Must Go reminds me a bit of the Royal Tenenbaums—or, really, J.D. Salinger’s Glass family—because of the intensity of their failure to live up to perfection (and the accompanying self-loathing), an inability to love themselves that becomes their inability to love, full stop. The novel is about coming to terms with that, about accepting pain that has no cure, and old wounds that cannot be explained or fixed, that just are.

Just like Selasi’s characters, this novel set forth under such a great burden of expectation that there was no margin for error. It is one thing to be ambitious when you come from nowhere; when you enter the literary world endowed with the vast privilege of connections to the top, “ambitious” describes the heights from which you must struggle not to fall. Yet class never quite trumps race in America, only complicates it: being born with everything but white skin, there is no excuse for the failure that racial barriers will still impose. Taiye Selasi should have written a great book; to say she wrote a good one is to damn her with faint praise.

Long before you actually get to the book that Selasi actually wrote, after all, you have to claw your way through the author’s pedigree, the litany of achievements and distinctions which have made every review more about the author than the book. Before turning to fiction, Selasi was best known for her 2005 essay “What Is An Afropolitan?” an essay which has named—and claimed as a “movement”—the bourgeois class of young and transnational Africans who, as she put it, are “not citizens but Africans of the world.”

Her website claims that she is “born in London, raised in Boston, living in New York, New Delhi, Rome.” She has also recounted getting the idea for the novel while on a yoga retreat in Sweden.
There’s now a magazine called Afropolitan, you can buy “handmade and designer accessories such as jewelry, bags and shoes” from the Afropolitan shop, and because it’s a term that means everything and nothing, its use proliferates, from self-identification to critique. After inventing the Afropolitan—even taking out a trademark on it—Selasi became a fiction writer, and had almost instant success: her first short story, “The Sex Lives of African Girls,” was published in Granta and republished in The Best American Short Stories. Then, the fragments that would become her first novel, Ghana Must Go, was guided into print by no less than Toni Morrison and Salman Rushdie; before she had even finished it, she was given a two-book deal.
“The version of Selasi’s Ghana Must Go that Andrew Wylie sold this week to Ann Godoff at Penguin Press consisted of a hundred or so pages plus an outline. Even so, Wylie was wooing publishers by saying he would deliver blurbs from his client Rushdie as well as Morrison. Considering that an agent might typically mention a writer’s “very supportive” teacher as someone who “would be open” to blurbing, that’s a bold move with some big names.”
But high expectations bring exacting criticism. When you are aggressively mentored by Toni Morrison before you’ve written a word—and when publishers have a bidding war for a novel that isn’t even finished—your novel damn well better be scintillating, or your critics will take you down. This is the line along which her criticism breaks: either she has written a scintillating masterpiece, or she’s dropped the ball.

It’s probably true that if this novel had been written by an unknown or less well-connected first author, it might not have been reviewed in the New York Times in the first place. We need not cry for Taiye Selasi. But without the easy narrative of Selasi to hang it on, I wonder whether a reviewer like Freudenberger would have focused so closely on the gemstone’s flaws, or if she might have been more likely to see a diamond in the rough. The point, in either case, is that this is a book whose reception was always going to be mediated by the narrative of its author, and it was. What this book is—and what it has been read as being—has a lot less to do with the words written inside it than with the conversation into which it has been embedded. But something has been lost.

I didn’t like the book nearly as much as Teju Cole did—who wrote one of the glowing blurbs on the back cover, “With her perfectly-pitched prose and flawless technique, Selasi does more than merely renew our sense of the African novel: she renews our sense of the novel, period. An astonishing debut”—but a year later, I find myself flipping through the book and realizing how much better and more interesting it gets the less you convince yourself that you already understand it. When Freudenberger used the phrase “unconvinced,” after all, she was covering up the fact that she was, in fact, quite certain of something: she knew that the character she sees on the page would not have acted the way she does. But where does such confidence come from? When do we ever know another human being, fictional or not? When do we ever, truly, know ourselves?

In the novel, Fola’s decision is a smoldering ember of pain, buried just beneath the surface of the novel, and the fact that it’s far from clear why she chose to send her two children away when she did is exactly the point. It is easy to know, in retrospect, that it was a truly bad choice; when the events of the novel take place, years later, that choice is the subterranean truth that the familial order smothers with silence, depriving it of oxygen in the hope that, if no one talks about it, it will go away. It does not go away; in one of the novel’s climactic scenes, Fola’s daughter Taiwo throws her mother’s decision in her face, demanding to know how she could have done it, and in a long flashback scene, we finally learn what it is that happened to the twins while they were in Nigeria. “How could you send us there?” Taiwo demands; “How could you send us? You knew what would happen. You knew, Mom. You knew.”

But Fola doesn’t understand her own motivations any better than Freudenberger does, or Selasi. Fola never knew what happened to her children while they were in her brother’s hands, and she certainly hadn’t known what would happen when she sent them. And more to the point, there was never anything so clear as an intention behind her choice, nor anything so coherent as pride. At the root of that decision was something like the opposite, fear, even terror: having been abandoned by her husband, her children’s father, Fola loses faith in her ability to be a mother, to be a family to her children, and so she takes refuge in the hope that another family member will be able to do what she fears she cannot. Her failing is a very human one, in other words, less an expression of her particular character than its collapse under the weight of stress and uncertainty.

One of the most unsettling ways to read the novel’s moment of catharsis, in fact, would be to observe that Fola herself can never know why she did what she did, all the more so at the moment when she realizes the full consequences of that terrible, terrible choice. She can only remember what she remembers having once told herself about it, the self-preserving stories we tell ourselves about ourselves. There’s a truth in that. The hardest failing to forgive is the one you cannot understand, cannot excuse, cannot rationalize. To know that she caused her children great pain, and to know that she will never know why she did it, that, is Fola’s burden.

Do the characters in Nell Freudenberger’s novels always make decisions that can be justified, rationalized, and understood? Most real people, in the real world, I would suggest, tend not to behave in this way. In times of crisis, we do the best we can with whatever we have, racing against our demons and struggling with everything that makes us fall short of whatever it is we think we’re supposed to be. We fail, a lot. And our failures do not always make sense. That’s might even be what failure is, the problem of adding two and two and having no choice but to end up with five, and to live with it.