Robert Gottlieb on his career as an editor and publisher, and a life spent among many of America's greatest writers.
Critics say 32-year-old author Taiye Selasi is one of the most exciting new writers. Part Ghanian and part Nigerian, Selasi was raised in London and educated in the United States. This biography is reflected in her new book which spans the globe from Accra, Ghana, to London to New York. It’s the story of a successful African immigrant family living in Boston. They seem to be fulfilling the American dream until the father, a surgeon, inexplicably leaves. This sets into motion an unraveling family that’s repaired only by a reunion following their father’s untimely death. Taiye Selasi joins Diane to discuss her first novel, “Ghana Must Go.”
- Taiye Selasi author of "Ghana Must Go."
Read An Excerpt
Excerpt from “Ghana Must Go” by Taiye Selasi. Copyright 2013 by Evan Taiye Selasi. Reprinted here by permission of Penguin Press HC. All rights reserved.
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. A recent article in London's Telegraph newspaper described Taiye Selasi as not quite African and not quite American, not Maya Angelou writing about American poverty or segregation and not Chinua Achebe writing about colonialism in African villages. The characters in her new book are worldly and sophisticated yet deeply defined by their immigrant experience and the political turmoil in their home country. Taiye Selasi joins me to talk about her first novel "Ghana Must Go."
MS. DIANE REHMAnd I hope you'll join us, 800-433-8850. Send us your email to email@example.com. Follow us on Facebook or Twitter. Good morning to you.
MS. TAIYE SELASIGood morning.
REHMBuongiorno, I'm so glad to see you. You know this is a remarkable novel. I understand that you have wanted to write and wanted to write and then you met Toni Morrison.
REHMAnd she gave you a deadline.
REHMTell me about that.
SELASII shall do. I met Professor Morrison at a dinner in Oxford and we reconnected when I got back to the States. And after having seen her for a number of times without managing to produce anything at all for her to read she said, send me something. Send me a manuscript by the end of next year.
SELASIAnd I thought I must, but how? I had nothing prepared, nothing written. The last time I'd written or rather finished any fiction was years and years prior and so I just sat down with so much trepidation for about six months that I didn't write anything at all.
SELASIAnd then finally one day I heard the opening line of what became the short story, "The Sex Lives of African Girls," sort of I've said playing in my head like a song remembered and I just ran out, wrote it down and the rest of the story came. That's what I sent to Professor Morrison.
REHMYou sent to her and what was her reaction?
SELASIShe liked it. Thank God.
REHMThat's so good and then when did you begin "Ghana Must Go:?
SELASI"Ghana Must Go" came sometime later. So "Sex Lives of African Girls" was actually meant to be a novel, but all that I could manage in that first instance was a bit of a sort of half-novella, if you will, which I knew even then wanted to be shorter and not longer.
REHMWhat kind of reaction did you get from that book?
SELASITo "Sex Lives" from that piece, yeah, "Sex Lives of African Girls" was magically, warmly received. But it's funny. "Sex Lives" has a funny story to it.
SELASII don't remember doing this, but I must have sent a manuscript for that short story to the U.S. office of Granta, long before anything else happened, certainly before I'd even started "Ghana Must Go." And over a year later, I write 100 pages of "Ghana Must Go." I find my way to Andrew Wylie who becomes my agent and he sends "Sex Lives of African Girls" to the U.K. office of Granta.
SELASIThey like it very much. They buy it and they decide to put it in the middle of their F-word issue, which was a blessing beyond a blessing. But then about, it was -- the timing was hilarious, Diane. A week after Granta U.K. buys "Sex Lives of African Girls," I get an email from the U.S. office of Granta saying, dear Ms. Selasi, thank you so much for sending us "Sex Lives of African Girls" for consideration, but we will not be printing it. We are not interested.
REHMOh, my heaven.
SELASIThe second person just doesn't work, et cetera. Et cetera. So I write to my agent and I say, well, I don't understand. If they changed their mind, why don't they just tell me? But it turned out that one editor on one side of the pond loved it and another one didn't want it. Same piece of writing, not a word changed and so the reaction to "Sex Lives" and then, of course, it went on to be printed more magically still in The Best American Short Stories 2012, same text.
SELASIAnd I have to tell you, Diane, that was a lesson that I will never forget in my life as a writer.
REHMWhat is the lesson?
SELASIIt's all subjective. It is all subjective. One person can love the text and think that it is, you know, a beacon...
SELASI...exactly, and another person, it just doesn't work for them. And I met the editor who rejected it. He just didn't like it. He just didn't. He just didn't like it and you know, that's allowed.
REHMThat's allowed. Tell me about the title "Ghana Must Go"?
SELASISo all of my titles come to me the way the stories come, which is immediately. "Sex Lives" came that way. "Ghana Must Go" came that way and when I first started typing it in Microsoft Word, I saved that original document, the first saved as. I saved it GhanaMustGo.doc not really knowing why that title, not really knowing whence the story came or where it was going, but sure that that was what it was called.
SELASILater, once the novel was finished, I thought, is this, in fact, the right title for the book? Because as you know, it carries with it a lot of baggage. So "Ghana Must Go" in 1983, the Nigerian government summarily dismisses about two million immigrants to Nigeria, most of whom were Ghanian, sending them back to Ghana with taunting slogans like, "Ghana Must Go" or "Ghana Go Home."
SELASIAnd as they leave, these immigrants must pack up all of their things in the grand tradition of globalization, plastic bags, in fact, imported from China made out of this red, white and blue plastic plaid material that you've -- that anyone who has been to an international airport has certainly seen.
SELASIAnd so the Ghanians leave. They return to Ghana, which at that time in '83 was itself going through the pains of a coup and of political unrest and somehow, I love that this happens in history. A term that is applied to a population in a derogatory context is embraced by that population and used in, if not a celebratory one, then at least an evolved one.
SELASISo now in Ghana we call them "Ghana Must Go Backs" or "Ghana Go Home Backs," too and Louis Vuitton has used the print. Salene just used the print in their latest show and I love that. I love what it says about the Ghanian spirit. I love what it says about the ability of human beings to take something that's tragic and make it triumphant. And in that sense it is the perfect title for this novel.
REHMTell me about your own background, how you came here.
REHMTo the United States.
SELASITo the United States, sure, I was born in London to a phenomenally beautiful, incredibly intelligent Nigerian, Scottish mother and a Ghanian, surgeon father. My father went shortly thereafter to Saudi Arabia where he still lives and my mother brought my twin and me to the United States. And we were raised in a suburb of Boston called Brookline which features prominently in the novel.
SELASIAnd then about 15, just under 15 years ago my mum moved back to West Africa, not to Nigeria where she's from but to Ghana. And so now our family is sort of spread out between the States, the U.K., the Middle East and the outlier, that would be myself living in Rome.
REHMAnd your twin sister?
SELASIMy twin sister is my best friend and she's finishing her training in Baltimore, getting ready to go to the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York.
REHMMedicine was not in your mind?
SELASIIt was, shockingly no, given that my father is a surgeon, my mother a pediatrician and my twin sister a podiatrist, but as I say, I put two and two together and get five. I'm absolutely innumerate and though I tried in my heart to excel at math science, nothing doing.
REHMIt didn't work?
SELASIIt just didn't, Diane.
REHMWere there expectations though that you and your twin sister would go on the same path?
SELASITo say the least, to say the least, I think that I started saying around the age of 12 that I wanted to be a lawyer. It was an out and out lie, but it was the most relevant thing I could think to say that I would do with a long, an age-old love of words and language and expression and argumentation even.
SELASIBut at that time in high school and even into college and grad school, I didn't have the courage to just simply say what I'd said at four, I want to be a writer. And so I was clinging sort of to this idea that I could, as a lot of I think creatively-minded people do, that I could maybe make it in a law firm.
SELASIThat faded quickly. I took about two tests LSATs and five or six logic games and I thought this is for the birds.
REHMNot for me, not for me.
SELASIBut I did, but I did go, more hilariously still, on to Oxford to do a grad degree thinking perhaps that I could get a PhD and then be a doctor, which didn't work either.
SELASISo I stopped with the master's in IR, an education for which I'm still grateful and then finally got around to pursuing my childhood dream of becoming an author.
REHMWhy do you think you knew at such an early age that you wanted to be a writer?
SELASIBecause I loved it so much, at four I told my step-dad at the time that I loved words and I meant it. And my mom, she's an incredible pediatrician. She taught us both to read when we were three and it was my favorite pastime then. It's my favorite pastime now. As soon as I could clutch a little Crayola in my hand I was writing very over-wrought poetry, even then.
SELASII and, you know, for Christmas this year, my mom gave me a framed poem she'd found. It was published in a newspaper in Brookline in 1989 when I was nine years old...
SELASI...and I wrote -- I was a little dramatic then. I'm still a little dramatic now but I wrote at nine that I was a piece broken-off of the written world. And when she showed me that, this Christmas we were in Ireland. I burst into tears because I thought to myself, well, you know, bloody hell, I knew. I felt this way my entire life, that somehow, something about the written world, about the written world, the spoken word is me, in me and I guess I always knew that.
REHMTaiye Selasi, her first novel is titled "Ghana Must Go" and we'll take a short break here. When we come back, she'll read for us and we'll take your calls.
REHMAnd welcome back. If you've just joined us, Taiye Selasi is with me. We're talking about her debut novel, which has been praised to high heaven both in London, across the pond here in the United States. It's titled "Ghana Must Go." And it's important for you now to hear the opening. Will you read for us, please?
SELASII shall. "Chapter one. Kweku dies barefoot on a Sunday before sunrise. His slippers by the door way to the bedroom like dogs. At the moment, he is on the threshold between sunroom and garden, considering whether to go back to get them. He won't. His second wife Ama (sp?) is asleep in that bedroom, her lips parted loosely, her brow slightly furrowed. Her check hotly seeking some cool patch of pillow and he doesn't want to wake her, he couldn't if he tried.
SELASIShe sleeps like a coco yam a thing without senses. She sleeps like his mother unplugged from the world. Their house could be robbed by Nigerians in flip flops rolling right up to their door in rusting Russian army tanks. Assuming subtlety entirely as they had taken too doing on Victoria Island or so he hears from his friends. The crude oil kings and cowboys de-mobbed to greater Lagos. That odd breed of African, fearless and rich.
SELASIAnd she'd go on snoring sweetly, a kind of musical arrangement, dreaming sugar plums and Tchaikovsky, she sleeps like a child. But he's carried the though anyway from bedroom to sunroom, making the production of being careful a show for himself. He does this, has always done this since leaving the village, little open air performances for an audience of one or for two him and his cameraman.
SELASIThat silent invisible cameraman who stole away beside him all those decades ago in the darkness before daybreak with the ocean beside and who has followed him every day, everywhere since, quietly filming his life or the life of the man who he wishes to be and who left to become. In this scene, a bedroom scene. A considerate husband who doesn't make a peep as he slips from the bed, moving the covers aside noiselessly, setting each foot down separately, taking pains not to wake his un-wakeable wife.
SELASINot to get up too quickly, thus unsettling the mattress, crossing the room very quietly, closing the door without sound. And down the hall in this manner, through the door into the courtyard where she clearly can't hear him but still on his toes. Across the short heated walkway from master wing to living wing, where he pauses for a moment to admire his house."
REHMAnd then he dies.
SELASIAnd then he dies. He actually dies in the first two words of the book.
REHMHe really does, he dies in the first two words of the book. Tell us about this plot that you have created.
SELASIThis plot came to me in all of its tangled glory. I think of Nabokov and look at this tangle of thorns. And I thought to myself, how on earth am I going to tell this story. But that first line Kweku dies barefoot on a Sunday before sunrise.
REHMSort of came to you.
SELASIThe whole thing. His slippers by the doorway to the bedroom like dogs. Like something I was remembering. And I remember sitting there thinking, you can't start the book with the words Kweku dies.
SELASII mean, that's sort of giving the thing away, isn't it? But I, you know, like all of my first lines, it just, it stuck. And it, it insisted upon itself and the rest of the story unfolded. And that story is simply one of a man and a woman, Kweku from Ghana, Fallah (sp?) from Nigeria, who meet in the States at a time when bright West Africans were given scholarships to come study in this part of the world.
SELASIThey fall in love, they have four children, they raise those children in Brookline, MA. And everything seems to be going along quite swimmingly until one evening when everything goes terribly awry. Kweku leaves the family shockingly without explanation.
REHMHe just leaves. He's gone.
SELASIPoof. He's gone. And the rest of the family is forced to come to grips not only with his departure and the painful events that it precipitates but also their selves, their identities, their hurts, their losses, their longings, and indeed their love. And so by part three of the novel, in part one Kweku dies as advertised. In part two, the family finds out sort of Brookline's no chain style. One child calls the other, calls the next. And then in part three, the entire family goes to Ghana for Kweku's funeral, reuniting for the first time in years. So part one is gone, part two is going, and part three is go.
REHMIt was interesting to me that his wife waited for 10 weeks. I think she thought he might come back. She didn't know why he left.
REHMAnd we don't learn why he left until much later.
REHMHe's a successful surgeon.
SELASIThat's right, that's right. Well, you know, it's interesting. I think that when I was writing this novel, I struggled a lot with the way Fallah and Kweku come apart. I knew on some level, I still know I think that human beings can make decisions that are not decisions at all. It's almost the absence of a decision that calcifies into a choice. And I think when Kweku drives away, he does it in such a moment of deep disappointment of fundamental existential despair.
REHMIn whom or what in himself, in the marriage, in the children, in the...
SELASIIn the dream, in the dream. The dream that has carried him from the shores of Kokrobite, as he describes it, the edge of the world, the frayed edges to this mansion in Brookline. This dream, which has motivated him, inspired him, and I am sure at times blinded him, to his weaknesses as a human, his failings as a husband and a father. This dream in a moment falls apart. It crumbles and it dissolves.
SELASIAnd in that moment, I believe, he is without identity because he has put so much of himself into this dream. Of course, he isn't, but he doesn't know that until he leaves. And I think that Fallah, meanwhile, you know, I joke. I think about 21st century movies and I laugh that storytellers have a much harder task in the age of cell phones than they ever did before.
SELASIBecause, of course, in the 90's when this happens Fallah can't find Kweku because he doesn't have a cell phone because there weren't cell phones. So the only way she would be able to reach him would be if he told her how to find him and he doesn't. And so she can't. And in that moment Fallah is taken back to a previous identity of hers, which is when she lost her father. It's the beginning of a series of losses that Fallah experiences.
SELASILosses that take place in the course of an evening, going from the spoiled daughter of a very wealthy father at breakfast to an orphan by nightfall.
REHMAnd the question is how much of your own life is built into the patterns of this novel.
SELASIInteresting. All of the surface details in "Ghana Must Go" were harvested shamelessly from the life that I shared with my family. So my father's a surgeon, Kweku's a surgeon. My mother is Nigerian and Scottish and loves flowers, Fallah is Nigerian and Scottish and loves flowers. My twin went to Harvard Med, Olu (sp?) goes to Harvard Med. My twin and I went to Yale, Sadie goes to Yale, and so forth.
SELASIBut the characterizations, the motivations, the psychology, the hurts, the shames, the loves, these belonged to the characters. These were not taken from my life. And I believe that they arose to the extent that fiction does from the world of the novel. If that makes sense. Informed, though, it is by the world that I know.
REHMDid your mother and father separate and divorce?
SELASIEarly and often.
REHMWhat a wonderful response.
SELASII once was trying to describe to a friend. I go to India every year and I stay with my ex-stepdad's ex-wife. That's exactly what she is.
SELASIAnd now one of my dearest friends, Nellie.
REHMOh, a (unintelligible).
SELASILike my surrogate sister. And I was meeting a friend in India and he said who are you staying with again? And I said, oh, you know, my ex-stepdad's ex-wife and her now husband. And also my ex-stepdad's now wife sometimes comes too. And he said, oh that's quite easy to understand. At a different point in time, we used to say we were related by marriage and now we say we're related by divorce. So I've got a wonderful family by divorce. My family marries well but divorces even better. Anyway, so we know separation, we know loss, we know comings and goings in my family for sure.
REHMIs that part of what it means to be Afropolitan?
SELASIHmm. Interesting. Afropolitan, this identity, this experience is something that I described in a essay that I wrote in 2005. Trying to kind of get a handle myself on the question of where are you from. So when I'm asked where are you from, it always takes sort of nine tries to get to a satisfying answer. It's like I was born in England. Oh, but you don't really speak with a British accent. Okay, I grew up in Brookline.
SELASIOh, but you don't really speak with a Boston accent. And also, there's the issue of your melanin content. Okay. Well, I'm from Ghana. And then I'm a Ghanaian. You're not really Ghanaian. Okay. Well, my mom's Nigerian. Yeah, but you don't speak Yoruba. So I thought to myself. Okay, masta, there has to be something that I am. And I am because I say I am Afropolitan, meaning simply someone who is African.
SELASILet me say, first and foremost, that the two things are by no means mutually exclusive. And it always hurts my heart a little bit when I hear someone say Afropolitans are people who are African but are sophisticated and as if the things are mutually exclusive. I am African and I am Afropolitan. And I have British and American passports. And I of course know comings and goings because that is a feature of the immigrant experience that gave rise to this identity in the first place.
REHMWhat are the things, in addition to literature, that you love that create this Afropolitan designation, sensibility, creation?
SELASIInteresting. Well, for me, the thing that I love almost as much as literature but not quite, the two things are photography and music. My work is hugely informed by my own study of music. I studied piano and cello and I listen to music endlessly. And my passion for photography. So the visual and the auditory go so much into my experience of literature. So those are my loves. But in terms of the Afropolitan identity, I think we're speaking of global culture.
SELASIAnd that's true for Africans, young Africans living in Africa and those living outside of it. We draw on an incredible and an incredibly rich and diverse cultural tradition as Nigerians, Ghanaians, South Africans, Kenyans. Hugely diverse one to the next. But we also participate in a global culture. And that is something that I think can sometimes go overlooked.
REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." The idea that somehow Americans may have of Africans very different from what you represent. You've had an opportunity to be educated, to be recognized, to have your work acknowledged. Are there many, many others waiting for you to breakthrough so that they can follow?
SELASIIndeed, there are many like me. There are more where I came from. And that's the exciting thing. It's true that representations of "Africa," and I'm putting it in quotes because the way that that word gets used in this country always sort of makes me laugh as if this entire continent, 54 countries deep, could be reduced, collapsed into a single cultural, political, economic, spiritual entity is sort of laughable, quite frankly.
SELASIBut, yes, it's true that that monolith which is already a misrepresentation gets further misrepresented in a very monochromatic way. And the wonderful Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Adichie has it that we are in danger of telling a single story about a monolithic continent. And what I represent is nothing different than what you find in every, in all 54 of those counties on the African continent. My family, rural and urban, values education above all else.
SELASIAnd what I think that I am always reminded of when I look at my family living in Africa and in different countries around it is that, yes, it's true that large parts of the population on the African continent are poor. But we have to be careful not to conflate poverty and lack of intelligence. It's a dangerous thing that happens often in the context of the African continent and African countries.
SELASIAnd if there's anything that I represent, I think it's the fierce commitment that my family has that indeed every West African family I know has to education. And what happens when you lower the barriers simply the physical, socioeconomic barriers to receiving it.
REHMWhat happens when, say, educated physicians from Ethiopia come here or Ghana come here and get into a taxi?
REHMAnd they tell me their background.
REHMAnd they are trained as physicians, they are trained as...
REHMUniversity professors, and they are driving taxis. How does that make us as Americans associate Africans differently from what we would do if, say, an American, a white person were out of a job and had to take to driving a taxi?
SELASIRight, right. I mean, not a taxi ride goes by in a day in New York City where I don't encounter one such. And, you know, it's interesting, I was in London, I was leaving London to go to the airport and the taxi driver was from Ghana. This was an incredible case of life imitating art. It actually made me cry. And the taxi driver, his name was John. He was from Ghana, he was trained as a surgeon. He came to England and he was fired from his job because of an accident in the operating room.
SELASIAnd he told me this before I told him a word about my novel. I mean, my eyes were welling with tears as he was talking. And he said I lost my job, but I did not lose my dignity. And I took this job driving taxis because I had to. And now I use the money that I've made driving this taxi to pay for Ghanaian students to come and study medicine in the U.K. I think about my mom who went to med school in Lusaka in Zambia. And when she got to Boston had to go through her residency again.
REHMAll over again.
SELASIAll over again, which of course means so much to me now watching my sister go through her residency. Imagining my sister doing what she's doing now, already having finished her training somewhere else. But I know what is true of my mom and what is true of that taxi driver, John, and what is true of a number of my taxi drivers and security guards and parking attendants and restaurateurs here in the United States. These are dignified people who are determined to give opportunity to others even if it has been taken from them.
REHMTaiye Selasi, her first novel is titled "Ghana Must Go." Your calls, your email, when we come back.
REHMAnd before we go to the phones I know, Taiye, you want to complete a thought...
SELASIThat's it, Diane. One reader -- it was interesting -- one reader said, without giving away too much of the plot, I'll say one 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.
SELASIThere 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.
REHMAll right. We have had a caller waiting from North Carolina. Carl, you're on the air. Thanks for waiting.
CARLHey, Ms. Diane, how you doing?
REHMI'm good, thanks.
CARLYou got the greatest show on air.
CARLI was going to ask the lady did she ever get discouraged when she first got rejected. And also as an African, like, the ladies like Ms. Diane, the elite, the most powerful people in the world, they used to really tell that for -- you're the old civilization. Before the Arabs were there, you were all over the world. King Tut's tomb is the greatest find in all earth. Rosetta Stone comes from Africa you always was in a language -- so why didn't black folk brag on their own culture. They said -- I mean, white folk, like Ms. Diane said, way before Arabs or Rome even existed, black folks was all over the world so why black folks don't brag on black folk?
SELASIIt's -- Carl, hi, it's a wonderful, wonderful point you make. To your first question, did I get discouraged with the rejections? I cried so many tears. I have the best waterproof eyeliner you will ever know because of the tears that I cried. I mean it was so discouraging, but you just -- you have to somehow believe in your own work. You have to believe in your own voice. And I remember when "Sex Lives" was rejected I thought, okay, okay, this reader does not, like the second person, does not like my, sort of, dense lyrical writing, but do I? And I really had to confront that question. And I realize that if I was OK with it, then it was OK with me.
SELASITo your second point, my Aunt Renée, she runs an institute on Ghana called the Kokrobitey Institute. She always says that West Africa must be thought of as an old world to the Americas, no less than Europe. And she has done a wonderful job of helping me understand the extent to which, specifically West African, but East African also culture, wisdom, understanding has informed the culture, the experience, the humanity in this part of the world, but it doesn't get discussed. I think what you're pointing to is a lack of education. And I think if we knew more about the ways in which African cultures have informed...
SELASI...cultures here we would celebrate it.
REHMHere's a wonderful email saying, "You are telling my life story."
REHM"I have Cameroonian parents who were born in London. Both parents were in the medical profession. We went back to Cameroon. When we returned to England our father never joined us and stayed estranged for decades. When he tried to muscle back in our family collapsed in a heat of deceit and disappointment. I made it to the states 20 years ago and finally found the depth of my African heritage that has brought me full circle to where I am today. I, too, am an Afropolitan with a Jamaican American husband."
REHMThe world is incredible.
REHMIsn't that wonderful?
SELASIThank you so much for that email.
REHMLet's go to Macomb, Mich. good morning, Alicia.
ALICIAGood morning. I am so giddy and filled with joy right now.
REHMI'm so glad.
SELASIMe, too, Alicia.
ALICIAI have more of a comment than a question. Diane, thank you so much for lighting a political fire in my life.
REHMOh, I'm so glad.
ALICIAAn absolute inspiration and I often go out and purchase books after I hear them talked about on NPR, but this is probably the quickest. Through the course of just listening to your prose you have such a beautiful tone and your message just seems like a true inspiration for the entirety of the human race. So thank you...
REHMOh, thank you, Alicia.
ALICIA...For your show today.
REHMAnd thank you for letting us know what it means to you. Here's an email from Gabriella who's in Dallas, Texas. First she says, "Your guest has a delicious laugh." And then she says, "I just tuned in and will pay attention to the interview, but I just had to make that comment. It seems to speak of her sincerity and her open heart." How refreshing.
SELASIOh, Hook 'em Horns.
REHMAll right. And let's go to Barry who is in Jacksonville, Fla. Good morning.
BARRYGood morning, Diane, thank you. I always listen to (word?).
BARRYI'm just really -- I love it. But I just have a simple question. (word?) -- I mean (word?) I'm Ethiopian American. The name sounds like an Ethiopian name.
BARRYSo an African name, Haile Selassie. Is that how you -- it sounds or I misheard you?
SELASIIt's -- no, okay, it's a common mistake. So the name Selasi is a very common Eve name from the Eve-- we live in -- we find the Eve in Ghana and in Togo and in other parts of West Africa because the Eve people, as you would know, lived, sort of, in a horizontal band before those countries were chopped up. But my father is Eve and he gave me the name Selasi which means in Eve God has heard or answered prayer.
SELASIBut I'm happy to say that there is an incredible linguistic connection between the Eve language and the Amharic that you find in Ethiopia and even the Hebrew. And that is something that I intend to study next. I'm so fascinated by the fact that we find in Ghana, in our Eve language, words that you have in yours.
REHMIsn't that interesting. And words connect us all around the world.
SELASIThey sure do.
REHMTaiye, read for us again, if you would.
SELASIAnd I will. I'm going to read from the middle of the book. This is in the voice of Taiwo whose name you may notice sounds shockingly like mine because our names mean first twin in Yuroba. "There was the sense in her house of an ongoing effort. Of an up swinging emotion, a thing being built, a successful family with the six of them involved in the effort, all striving for the common goal as yet unreached.
SELASIThey were unfinished, in rehearsal, a production in progress. Each performing his role with an affected aplomb and with the stress of performance ever present for all as a soft sort of sound in the background, a hum. There was him straining daily to perform the provider and Fola's star turn as suburban housewife and Olu's as fastidious come favored first son, the artist, gifted, awkward and the baby, then she. Determined to deliver a flawless performance, to fly from the stage chased by thunderous applause darling daughter of champions, elementary school standout, the brightest of pupils in bright-eyed class pictures. No one asked her to do this.
SELASINot him, never Fola. No one mapped their joint progress toward the one goal. Were they there yet? Had they made it? Had they become a successful family? But she knew to keep going, to keep striving by the hum. The families in the windows were successful families already, had finished the heavy lifting generations ago. Were not building or straining or making an effort. The goal had been reached. They could rest now, calm down. At night through their windows she saw them there finished, with silence between them in place of the hum. Placid familyness captured in paint above mantles with feet up on cushions at rest and at home."
REHMThere is the sound of poetry in your work and one wonders whether you are reading aloud to yourself as you write.
SELASIOh, that's a wonderful question. I do not read aloud to myself as I write because the words come so quickly.
SELASIThey do, Diane. When I...
SELASI...They come or they don't so. Sometimes when there is a drought and then there are other times when it's deluge. And when that happens I go to the computer and my father always says I type like a maniac just it's clack, clack, clack. My hands just go until they stop. And then what I have to do is I have to print out the words on two sides, of course, out of respect for the environment. And then I read them out loud. And I think that's because, as I say, the music of the language is so important to me.
SELASII studied Latin forever and we were always studying meter. And I listen to music incessantly and the phrases, the bars, the repetition, the motif. All of this is as important to me as the language itself. As my editor said two days ago, for me words are not enough. There is something -- there is meaning. There is truth in sound and in something that exists beyond the world -- the world of the novel and the words themselves. And that is something that I only know how to access in the flow.
REHMHow is fame affecting you?
SELASINot at all. The best thing about having a twin sister is that you will always, always stay humble.
REHMNow tell me what that means because I know you had said you can be on separate coasts...
REHM...And feel what the other is feeling.
SELASIIt's unreal. I was in -- again, I was in England about to do an interview. And it was 8:00 in the morning in England and so dead of the night in Baltimore. And I was getting -- I woke up in perfect calm, was getting ready, putting on my waterproof eyeliner, when all of a sudden I was in a panic. And I was sitting there and I thought, there's nothing wrong with me. So this panic must be my sister's.
SELASIAnd this happens. Sometimes it's just misplaced. And I thought to myself, okay, I should call her, but then I thought, no, it's so early and she's a resident. She doesn't get to sleep. I'll write to her. So I wrote to her on WhatsApp. I just wrote, Yetsa, are you okay, thinking that she would see it when she woke up. She wrote back right away. I just woke up from a nightmare in which I was being chased and I was in a panic. And I just wrote to her -- and it's not even really surprising at this point. It's just, sort of, like, oh, okay, would you like to take your panic back because I've got to do an interview.
SELASIAnd then the interviewer asked me, can you tell me about your connection to your sister. I just showed her the dialogue.
REHMYou're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Let's go to Clifford in Reston, Virginia. Good morning, you're on the air.
CLIFFORDHey, Diane, how are you today?
REHMI'm fine, thank you, sir.
CLIFFORDI love your show. I love your show.
CLIFFORDSo much. I listen to your show every day.
REHMI'm so glad.
CLIFFORDAnd sometimes I return to reach you on the phone. I can't reach you because of thousands of people who are about to call you.
SELASIClifford, you sound like you're from my part of the world.
SELASIFrom my part of the world.
CLIFFORDNo, no, no, I'm from Nigeria. (unintelligible) .
SELASIMy mother is from Nigeria.
CLIFFORDFrom (unintelligible). I'm from Nigeria.
REHMOkay, so what would you like to say to Taiye?
CLIFFORD(unintelligible) Nigeria are you from?
SELASIOh, we're Yoruba.
CLIFFORDOh, Yoruba, okay, (unintelligible).
CLIFFORD(unintelligible) I really want to thank you. (unintelligible) listen from the beginning of the program, but from where I started hearing it you have been so wonderful, so wonderful.
CLIFFORDAnd I really, really, really encourage you (unintelligible) express and to tell the world what you are. I really, really, really support your courage.
SELASIE se, Clifford, e se.
REHMThank you so much for calling. And one last quick call from McKinney, Texas. Good morning, Ricky.
RICKYHey, good morning, Diane. Thank you for having me on your show and thank you for still providing authentic journalism in a day and age where we don't get it anymore.
RICKYAnd also I might have more of a comment. I just wanted to thank the author for finally telling the African story of hard work and diligence and never giving up because I, myself, am from Zimbabwe and I came to the United States and had so many doors shut. But I had to work through different things with jobs and any job I could get until I got my degree.
RICKYAnd paid my way through everything so it was painful...
RICKY...And I appreciate you putting this story forth and letting everybody know.
SELASIIt's my honor and my pleasure. Thank you.
REHMOne thing we want to say here is you write about childbirth. And many of your characters experienced death. How does that relate to you?
SELASIIt's interesting. I know as little of childbirth as I know of death. I'm not a mother and I have been blessed in my life not to have lost terribly many people. But I think when -- I think when any novelist writes, but certainly a young one, you have to open yourself. You have to open your receptors, if you will, to truths that are beyond you. You have to let those flow through you. You have to allow yourself to be a conduit for them and "Ghana Must Go" is full of things that I know to be true, but I don't know from my own experience to be so. And I love it that way.
REHMTaiye Selasi her new novel, her first, is titled, "Ghana Must Go." Congratulations, Taiye.
SELASIThank you so much, Diane.
REHMThank you. Thanks for listening. I'm Diane Rehm.
ANNOUNCER"The Diane Rehm Show" is produced by Sandra Pinkard, Nancy Robertson, Denise Couture, Susan Nabors, Rebecca Kaufman and Lisa Dunn. The engineer is Tobey Schreiner. Natalie Yuravlivker answers the phones. Visit drshow.org for audio archives, transcripts, podcasts and CD sales. Call 202-885-1200 for more information.
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