Novelist Taiye Selasi, hailed as next big literary star, visits Baltimore

Author of "Ghana Must Go" is being compared to multicultural literary It-Girls Zadie Smith and Jhumpa Lahiri

  • Taiye Selasi, author of "Ghana Must Go."
Taiye Selasi, author of "Ghana Must Go." (Nancy Crampton, Baltimore…)
March 09, 2013|By Mary Carole McCauley, The Baltimore Sun

Taiye Selasi's debut novel has been in publication for less than a week. But even before a single copy was sold, the glamorous 33-year-old was being hailed as the newest star of the literary world.

Selasi's publisher, The Penguin Group, is promoting "Ghana Must Go" big-time. Penguin describes the family saga as "one of the most eagerly anticipated debut novels of the year."

Because of her book's multicultural tapestry, Selasi has been compared to such literary It Girls as Zadie Smith and Jhumpa Lahiri. But her narrative voice — dense, layered and poetic — is decidedly her own.

"Ghana Must Go" begins with the death of Kweku Sai, a renowned Ghanaian surgeon who decades ago walked out on his wife and children. The novel traces the impact of that almost accidental decision on the surgeon's former wife and four grown children, all of whom have secrets of their own.

Selasi is in the midst of an international book tour that includes Ghana, several European countries and 10 U.S. cities, including a visit to Baltimore on Thursday. It's fair to say that this isn't standard treatment for a novelist whose previous publishing credits consist of a single short story.

It's worth noting, however, that that story was praised by The New York Times, which described "The Sex Lives of African Girls" as "a standout piece of fiction."

It's also worth noting that Selasi has dazzling intellectual credentials, including a bachelor's degree from Yale University and a master's degree in philosophy from England's Oxford University, where she studied international relations.

And it's worth noting that Selasi's talent has been endorsed by such literary luminaries as Salman Rushdie and literary laureate Toni Morrison.

"I've known since I was 4 years old that I was going to be a writer," Selasi said over the phone, in advance of her reading at the Enoch Pratt Free Library.

"I was talking a walk with my stepdad, and I pointed to some flowers and said, 'Those flowers are so beautiful, they make my heart sing.'

"He said, 'Why, you're a regular little poet. You're quite the writer.'

"I told him, 'Yes, that's what I want to be.' Nearly 30 years later, I still feel the same way."

You were born in London, raised in Massachusetts and wrote a book set in Ghana. So imagine my surprise when I came across several references to Baltimore in your novel's opening chapters. Have you spent much time here?

My twin sister, Yetsa Tuakli, did her master's degree in public health at Johns Hopkins University. In 2008, I bought a house for her, and she still lives there. My best friend at Oxford was Westley Moore, who is from Baltimore and who wrote "The Other Wes Moore." And my favorite TV program of all time is "The Wire."

How did you get to know Toni Morrison?

When I was at Oxford, I wrote a stage play that was produced by Avery Willis, who is Toni Morrison's niece. She invited me to a reception to meet her aunt, who by magical coincidence was receiving an honorary degree.

I sat next to Professor Morrison at dinner. During that conversation, I told her that I wanted to be a writer but that I hadn't finished any work of fiction since high school. She invited me to visit her when I returned to the United States.

I went to Professor Morrison's house, and she told me she'd give me a year to show her a manuscript. That deadline, for which I will be forever grateful, prompted me, inspired me and pushed me a little with fear to write "The Sex Lives of African Girls."

What was your inspiration for "Ghana Must Go"?

I had been trying to expand my short story into a novel, and six months before my 30th birthday I decided I needed to quit. I wasn't working. I was just waiting for an idea. I was just despairing. In the midst of my panic, I went to Sweden for a yoga retreat — and there they were. All at once, I had a story and a family of characters. I saw their loss and their betrayal.

But, because I was at a retreat and we were supposed to be doing silent meditation, I didn't have my laptop with me. I was so desperate, I was writing on napkins from the dining room.

I asked the friend I was with if she thought I should leave and start writing, and she said yes. So I went to Copenhagen, which was just a short train ride away, and holed up in a hotel.

Your novel seems to contain certain autobiographical elements. Both your main character and your birth father were surgeons in Ghana, and both abandoned their wives and children. Is your novel an attempt to come to terms with having been deserted by your biological father?

Sure, I mean, it's interesting. I joke that it takes me so much effort and attention to focus and write the work, it almost absolves me of the responsibility to psychoanalyze either the novel or the writer. I'm open to all possibilities.

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