Taiye Selasi and some of the horrific things going on
Taiye Selasi is interviewed by Granta and on NPR’s Tell Me More and speaks about her debut novel “Ghana Must Go” [see my collection here] and now infamous short story “The Sex Lives of African Girls” [which I have not read]. Its not difficult to figure out why this has become so popular. Neither of the interviews are that great though no fault of Taiye’s, so this is just me following the hype – with Granta she talks briefly about her novel
YI: Your story takes places in a rich household in Accra. Even though many of the characters are leading comfortable lives, a sense of menace runs beneath the surface. I was scared for all the women, especially the young narrator. Did you mean to paint the sex lives of African girls as dangerous and doomed?
TS: It’s hard to say what I meant, but that’s certainly what I’ve done. To be honest, I was rather surprised to discover that I’d painted such a devastating portrait. It was only months and months after I’d finished editing — focusing narrowly on rhythm, image, pacing, form — that I noticed how dark the content was, how fundamentally damning the comment.
This piece is told from the perspective of a girl who is just starting to grasp the sexual dynamics at play among the adults around her. It’s interesting that you chose to inhabit her limited point of view. Was it hard to get this narrator’s voice right — to figure out what she does and doesn’t understand?
I suspect the second person helped a great deal. This ‘you’ voice appeared in my head from the beginning and guided me through the text, limiting my view of things to her view: I rarely looked where she wasn’t looking. In the first draft I’d included a passage alluding to the nature of Uncle’s work in Ghana’s oil extraction industry — but omitted it when it became clear that the narrator wouldn’t (couldn’t possibly) understand such politics. I’d slipped for a moment into an ‘I’ voice, an ‘I’ mind, and it showed.
Tell me More with Michelle Martin is slightly crass in parts with the usual stereotyping questions on “Africa” and writings by writers from various parts of the continent. It makes no sense to be talking to a writer from say, Ghana about African writing. Would she be asking a British writer about European writing or an Indian about Asian writings? Why are writers from Africa expected to speak for the continent and deal with “issues” for example, “some of the horrific things going on on the continent right now”. Hmm there are some pretty amazing things going on on the continent right now – uprisings in Senegal, Swaziland, Mauritania to name a few. The truth is there are horrific things happening and the truth is there are some amazing people responding to these horrors. Not just the big names, high profile movement people but people on the ground in their every day lives refusing the violence being thrown at them.
A reminder there are some pretty horrific things going on in the US right now for Black women, women of colour, immigrant woman – there is a woman in New York from Guinea who had the courage to speak about being raped by a powerful white man – Dominique Strauss-Kahn. The problem is most people dont believe her. Its hard to be believed when you are a black woman, a poor woman, an immigrant woman. People dont believe you because you dont have papers or you told some untruths to get your papers – that means you must be telling a lie about being raped. It means you are not credible. Who on this planet has never told a lie, or misinformed someone about something – does this mean if I am raped and its discovered that I committed some fraud x years ago that I am lying about being raped? What is the connection except to deny me my truth? The system is set up so people have no choice if they are to survive and its damn arrogant and inhumane to condemn people for trying to survive. This is obscene. Other obscenities are the sly comments on black woman and sexuality, on poor women being “greedy bitches” – being made on Twitter by men including black men and by some women. People are so conditioned to believe powerful white men in grey suits even though this group have proved time and time again to be the biggest liars, the biggest cheats, the biggest violators throughout our world history. Eve Ensler has written an excellent essay on what we can learn from this tragic story
This is a stream of the questions running in my head all morning.
How do you fight a rape case if you have lied in your past? How do you fight a rape case if you have been sexually active? How do you fight a rape case as a woman who wants a future in journalism, politics, banking, international affairs? How do you fight a rape case and ever hope to be taken seriously again or be perceived as anything other than a raped victim?
How do you fight a rape case as a woman in places like Congo where there are no real courts and no one is held accountable? How do you fight a rape case as an illegal immigrant with no rights in that country?
How do you fight a rape case if you still believe rape is your fault, if you don’t even know what rape is, if you are afraid of upsetting your boyfriend/husband, or afraid of getting him in trouble because he will be more violent to you?
To return to Taiye Selasi. Much has been written on the duty or responsibility of the writer. In response to a question on this, Selasi speaks about the need for the truth to be told. I agree with her on that but I dont see it as the artist’s responsibility – I see it as a responsibility of humanity . Does the fact someone chooses to write or paint or take photographs mean they now have a responsibility to everyone – why? Personally I dont see that the writer has a responsibility to anyone but themselves. Notwithstanding that there are many truths and we, as part of humanity, have a responsibility to be true to ourselves and take responsibility for our actions, words, and mess ups.
And the thing that frustrates me the most when I think about the countries from which I come, Nigeria and Ghana, is the sense that the lives of millions of women and children and young men should somehow be held hostage to the ego-maniacal ambitions of a few middle-aged men. I think this idea is obscene and I think it needs to be discussed. I think it must be discussed. And I think literature that ignores this truth isn’t telling the truth. That hasn’t been said.
To leave out the other stories or to let them sort of lie under the rubble of things having fallen apart is incomplete. And so as a writer I think I’m always sort of seeking to excavate human narrative from underneath all of that and hold it up to the light of universal experience. And to say as the highbrow social magazine Us Weekly says: Africans, they’re just like us. We’re living the lives that everyone in the world is living. And when that happens and only when that happens, I think does it start to seem obscene. Does it start to seem absurd? Does it start to make you crazy to think that teenagers using Facebook, dating, breaking up, mothers wanting the best for their children, fathers finding work, losing work, pursuing dreams. The whole panoply of human experience, to think that that is being pressed down, limited and curtailed by these really limited and in many ways outdated political squabbles, that becomes absurd.
Only when we can see that human beings being limited, being fundamentally limited by that are exactly the same as human beings everywhere else.
It’s a question of whether you feel the rain or just go through life getting wet!