Family Dysfunction, African Style

The title of Taiye Selasi’s first novel, Ghana Must Go, is enough to make you turn around and head in the opposite direction.  More about that later.

Rather, let’s begin with one of the most powerful scenes in the novel, guaranteed to test the most closely-knit family.  After his classes are over, a teenage boy goes to the hospital where his father is a celebrated surgeon in order that the two of them can ride home together.  But what the young man encounters is totally unexpected.  His father is dragged through the hospital lobby, kicked out by the guards, as the hospital director shouts at them, “He’s not a doctor here…  He was fired!  Last year!”

And the back story, which Kweku, the father, explains to his son, Kehinde?  Eleven months earlier, Kweku was pressured by the hospital to give an appendectomy to a “seventy-seven-year-old smoker with a ruptured appendix and a bloodstream infection,” a final attempt to save her life.  Kweku didn’t want to make the operation but the woman’s family, her own physician, and the hospital hierarchy put incredible pressure on him.  The woman died, and everyone else needed a scapegoat, so Dr. Kweku was fired, an easy scapegoat because of his African heritage.

For eleven months, Kweku has left his family (wife, four children) each morning, concealing the incident, and spending hundreds of thousands of dollars with a lawyer to get the decision reversed.  When he realizes his situation is hopeless, he makes one final attempt to talk to the hospital’s directors—unfortunately, the day his son decided to ride home with him.

What does a father say to his son under such circumstances?  He’s broke, been unemployed for nearly a year and spent all of the family’s money on lawyers, who have not been able to do a thing for him.  His son has witnessed the most humiliating incident of his father’s life—unfathomable for the boy because his father is a renowned surgeon and the family’s been living a life of opulence in Boston, including private schools for the children.  Once they get to the car, Kweku says, “I’m sorry you saw that.”  And the boy—a talented artist—responds, “Sight is subjective.  We learned that in class.”

Then, in the tenderest scene in the novel, Kweku realizes that he hardly knows his son; he’s spent so little time with him.  As they reach home, Kehinde shows his ghanafather his most recent painting and the two of them discuss family dynamics, because the painting is of his parents.  Kehinde gives the painting to his father, after signing it with an expensive pen, as his father tells the boy to keep the pen and not to mention the incident at the hospital to his family.  Then he drops off his son, drives away, abandoning his family forever.

This moving scene—one of many powerful incidents in Ghana Must Go—occurs early enough in the story that it is totally deceptive, suggesting that the subsequent dysfunction in the family is solely the result of the father’s departure.  Fola, his wife, is left to pick up the pieces, which specifically means raising and providing for the four children.  She’s a Nigerian, her husband Ghanaian, and although the four children have spent most of their lives in the United States, Africa will loom in the future for all of them.  The oldest son, Olu, will eventually become a doctor, like his father.  The twins, Kehinde and his sister Taiwo, will undergo a psychologically damaging summer with an uncle in Ghana.  The youngest child, Sadie—also called “baby” because there’s a ten-year gap between her and her siblings—will suffer from bulimia.  All four of them struggle with their father’s departure and break-up of a supposedly closely-knit family.

Selasi’s canvas is vast, with multiple flashbacks to earlier generations (the four children’s grandparents), with settings in the United States, Ghana, and Nigeria, and above-all with plenty of pent-up frustration and rage.  Olu resists marrying the Asian woman he loves for fear of failure.  As he tells her, “I don’t believe in family.  I didn’t want a family.  I wanted to be something better than that.”  The twins—who ought to be close because of their biological origins—hardly communicate with each other for years because of a horrifying incident that was forced on them by their uncle, the year they lived with him in Ghana.  Besides her bulimia, Sadie seems pent on destroying herself in other ways.  And their mother, Fola?  Well, she’s the key to the entire story, as the sense of betrayal on the part of the four children slowly shifts from their father to their mother.

And the obscure title of the novel?  Literally, it’s the slogan bantered about in 1983, when the Nigerian government expulsed two million Ghanaians from the country.  Perhaps the reader is expected to extrapolate from that incident later tensions between Kweku and Fola, though I’d say that is a bit of a stretch.  Ditto the novel’s sometimes annoying diffuseness.  There’s a clue as to what may have contributed to that structure revealed in the “Acknowledgments” at the end of the book.  About 150 people and organizations are mentioned, suggesting that too many readers may have given Selasi suggestions about her work-in-progress.  That’s too many cooks to prepare a meal.  All the more disturbing, because Taiye Selasi has talent aplenty.  She needs to trust her own best instincts.

Taiye Selasi: Ghana Must Go

Penguin, 318 pp., $25.95

Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University in Washington, D.C.  Email: clarson@american.edu.

Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email = clarson@american.edu. Twitter @LarsonChuck.

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