Setting much of the plot in Ghana Must Go—Taiye Selasi’s engaging first novel about two African immigrants and their children—in Boston was an clever choice: A hilly colony established by English immigrants fleeing religious restrictions, now teeming with people from all over the world who go to the universities, drive cabs, open restaurants (or serve in them), build grassroots organizations, and work, clean or are treated at the hospitals; buy the homes, pay the taxes and gripe about the T; and, in quiet moments, agonize about their fears and desires. The immigration narrative is one of movement and ascension, running toward fantasy from nightmare, or in some cases, opportunity to opportunity as privilege is gained or lost.
Ghana Must Go is a mostly well-written, occasionally devastating first attempt from an author who pondered the specifics of the African immigrant experience in her 2005 article “Bye-Bye Barbar” on the rise of the “Afropolitan”: interracial, interethnic, international. Enter tragedy starting with the title, which refers to the mass expulsions of African immigrants in Ghana and Nigeria in the 1960s and 1980s, respectively. The patriarch of this family and story, Kweku Sai, of Ghana, is promptly introduced in the first sentence by the announcement of his death. It’s the action that sets off the corporeal and mental movement of the rest of the characters—his Nigerian-born wife Fola and four Boston-born, overachieving children: Olu, twins Kehinde and Taiwo, and Sadé, called Sadie.
Kweku’s metaphysical flight sets off a chain of Toni Morrison’s so-named “rememory” among each family member about their own physical flight from place to place, running from, toward or away whatever they believe the ideal is.
Selasi makes the reader an immigrant, by time-traveling and weaving fragments of the family’s happier times living in Boston’s Mission Hill neighborhood with more recent tragedy in Lagos, twin confusion and hurt spread across Manhattan, Mali, Paris and London, denial and bulimia in New Haven, corrupted American dreams in Brookline, Mass. They are exhausted from always running, embracing or trying to avoid heartbreak, mostly from each other. Each section is a variation of this passage written toward the end of the book: they “drift to their rooms with their hurts and faint hopes drifting softly behind them, beneath closed doors.” The narrative device builds the tension, though Selasi’s lyrical prose is overwrought at times. Five or six metaphors and descriptions per sentence where two well-curated gems would have been fine. It is a relief when the Sai family finally reunites, heavy emotional baggage in tow.
A particularly poignant illustration of the overarching immigrant story is found early in the book, with Kweku reminiscing on the differences between his homes in Mission Hill and Brookline. The family first lived along Huntington Avenue in Mission Hill, a couple of blocks away from the Jamaicaway parkway that separates Boston from its verdant and affluent suburb of Brookline. The family rents one of the overpriced and cramped neighborhood apartments at a discount while Kweku finishes his medical residency. Drug dealers, broken windows, and litter dot blocks full of strivers, other immigrants like their Irish landlord and young African and Asian students, some like Kweku, finishing their residency at Harvard Medical School. Fola sells flowers near the Longwood Medical area from a small stall, but keeps her law school acceptance letter framed in the living room. Selasi skillfully contrasts this with the large Brookline colonial where the family moves once Kweku becomes a respected surgeon. The children all enrolled in typical upper-middle class leisure activities: art classes at the Museum of Fine Arts, piano lessons with private teachers, ballet. Kweku loves driving around the rotaries and staring at Boston’s brilliant foliage. Fola gets her own flower shop, where she makes whimsical, holiday-specific creations. The imagery appears unsubtle on the surface, but it’s Kweku’s desire to remain on the “right” side of the parkway—the thin taut line between hustle and success—that drives his actions and sets his family on the run, internally and externally. If that weren’t American apple pie enough, Kweku and daughter Taiwo tend to view their present-tense situations through a reality TV show lens, adjusting their masks accordingly.
One of the story’s compelling threads is between Kehinde and Taiwo. Selasi teases out an unnamed tragedy that splits their lives starkly but saves the horrifying reveal for the final 50 pages. It’s such a departure from the mostly trivial upper-middle class concerns addressed earlier in the book that it almost feels like it’s from a different novel, but perhaps serves to show the more extreme outcome between leaving versus staying. Immigration doesn’t always mean a better opportunity on the other side.
When Selasi coined “Afropolitan,” she understood that “the media’s portrayals won’t do. Neither will the New World trope of bumbling blue-black doctor.” Though there are two doctors in this story, she situates the characters within the context of the American privilege of movement, up and down through class boundaries, across oceans, by Amtrak trains and tro-tro. The Afropolitans of Ghana Must Go have a sense of individuality and humanity shaped not by what they do for a living or their material success, but by their desire and capacity for love. It gives Fola pains in her chest, exiles the twins, and displaces Sadie.
Ghana Must Go, despite the suggestion of its title, is really about the high stakes of staying, to face challenges and deconstruct some of those American ideals of success, failure and nuclear family. Selasi (Nigerian-Ghanaian, born in London, grew up in Boston, lives in Rome) renders the journey with love and a true understanding of immigration, and makes it resonant whether the country is from Nigeria to Massachusetts, rich to poor, shame to pride or hate to love.