by Priya Basil
© September 2013 / Berlin
In the early1950s an American sociologist, Ruth Hill Useem, coined the term Third Culture Kids “to refer to the children who accompany their parents into another society”. At that time, the term mainly focused on the children of the military, missionaries, diplomats and business people posted abroad, though of course there were immigrants from all rungs of society to whom it would have applied as well. Today, the term Third Culture is also used to express the status of those whose parents are of one culture, but who are born into and grow up in a different culture – and then themselves go on to live and work in yet another culture.
This condition of living in a society other than the one your parents originated from has become much more common for peoples all over the world and explains the widespread use, in the twenty-first century, of the neologism ‘Global nomad’. Such an existence is a modern phenomenon, but the impulse to define oneself in a broader context is a very old one. When Diogenes, the founding father of the Cynic movement in Ancient Greece, was asked where he came from, he answered: “I am a citizen of the world” - Kosmopolitês in Greek. From there derives an English word in use since the mid-nineteenth century: cosmopolitan – a sexy state of being which, for a long time, mostly only white Westerners could achieve since they had the passports that enable free movement and the wealth to finance such a lifestyle. Over time, political upheavals, free markets and cheaper travel have shaken up the world’s population and distributed us a bit more haphazardly around the globe.
“I am from there. I am from here.
I am not there and I am not here.
I have two names, which meet and part,
and I have two languages.
I forget which of them I dream in.”
With these words, the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish captures so well the slipperiness of a perch between two cultures. How much more precarious might this negotiation be for the Global Nomad? The lines would perhaps rather read:
‘I am not from anywhere,
I am made of everywhere.’
This may well be the case for Taiye Selasie. Her mother is part-Nigerian, part-Scottish, her father is Ghanian. She was born in London, England, the elder of twin girls. When she was eight the family moved to America, where the twins were raised by their mother. Selasie visited Ghana for the first time aged fifteen. Before that, she’s said she spent “more time in Switzerland (where her godfather was a diplomat) and Spain (where her half-Scottish grandmother was mastering flamenco) than in Africa.” Selasi did a BA in American Studies at Yale. She went on to do an MPhil in International Relations at Oxford University. She now lives in Rome, apparently because she couldn’t find an apartment in Paris.
No doubt it was this transcultural background that led Selasie to write an article called “Bye-Bye Barbar” in 2005, reflecting on what she called a “new demographic – dispersed across Brixton, Bethesda, Boston, Berlin – that has come of age in the 21st century, redefining what it means to be African.” Selasie christened this group the Afropolitans. The term had previously existed, but Selasie boldly elucidated different aspects of a contemporary Afropolitan identity, loading the word with new meaning. A lot of what she described will resonate with anybody who has a more global existence. Yet, the way she articulated it, and the timing of the piece meant that it had tremendous resonance.
The words Africa and African can be used carelessly. I recently read a book called 10 Billion, in which the author brazenly wrote “countries like Africa, Brazil and China…”. Africa, the continent, comprises fifty four countries, around three thousand ethnic groups, and by UNESCO’s count about 2000 languages – no wonder people get frustrated when ‘Africa’ is casually bandied about cloaking great variety in a blanket of homogeneity. Selasie’s ‘Afropolitan’ also has its detractors, even as many embrace the term. Defining identity can be a provocative act, as Selasie well knows for she concluded her article by asserting: “And if it all sounds a little self-congratulatory, a little ‘aren’t-we-the-coolest-damn-people-on-earth?’ – I say: yes it is, necessarily. It is high time the African stood up.”
The emphatic style of Selasie’s piece presaged the energy that would later characterize her fictional prose. In an interview with The Telegraph, Selasie said she wanted to be a writer from the age of four, but admitted she wrote no fiction until she was almost thirty. As a graduate student, she wrote a play, which was seen by the writer Toni Morrison whose niece had produced it. Later Selasie met Morrison and confessed that she desperately wanted to write fiction but that ‘she'd somehow tricked herself out of even being able to dare to do it.’ Toni Morrison encouraged Selasie to keep writing and even gave her a deadline. As a result, Selasie wrote a short story called The Sex Lives of African Girls, which was published in 2011. Two years later, in April 2013, just as her first novel Ghana Must Go was being published, Granta magazine named Taiye Selasie one of the Twenty Best British Novelists under Forty.
Kweku Sai, the father of the family in Ghana must Go, has a simple, minimalist house built for himself in Accra. In the novel, Kweku has the vision of the house while he’s in America, and realizes it almost two decades later, after returning to Ghana. His home is an anomaly in a place where, we are told, the “high-end architect-contractors had their own ideas (same one idea) of how a house should look; namely as gaudy and gargantuan as financially possible, with no reference to any notion of African architecture whatsoever.”
Kweku’s house, emblematic of a forgotten heritage, would probably be admired but not built in the West, and is at odds in the local Ghanian milieu where everyone is eager for a modernity defined by excess. It’s the original that no longer fits comfortably into any world – a bit like the emigrant returnee himself.
That house is the stage for Kweku’s death in the first pages of Ghana Must Go. Amidst the throes of a fatal heart attack, Kweku looks around at what he has created and considers all that he has lost. The Bedroom Wing remains empty because he was never reconciled with the four children he abandoned. A statue called “mother of twins”, a gift to his ex-wife remains standing in the fountain outside although Kweku has long since left Folasade, the woman who mothered his kids, the woman he still loves. And then he notices something new, Selasie tells us: “A commotion of colour. Rebel uprising of green.” With shock Kweku realizes that “In nearly six years of looking…he’s never once seen it. His garden. Never could. He didn’t want a garden.”
This refusal or unwillingness to see what is right there is a recurring theme in Ghana Must Go. It is, of course, very human to avoid what is difficult. The members of the Sai family, some of whom would certainly fit Selasie’s description of Afropolitan, struggle variously with racism, parental neglect, sexual abuse, depression, bulimia. The novel suggests that often, what is hidden, especially from ourselves, is what most defines us. These intimate struggles are played out in the wider context of identity as defined by ethnicity, geography and history. The Afropolitan, for all the suggestions of achievement in the word, can – like anyone - carry a splintered self within. Identity, whatever labels we put on it, remains a fragile shifting thing.