By page 7 of Taiye Selasi’s first novel, Ghana Must Go (out March 12), I was under its spell. Two minutes after meeting 33-year-old Selasi, I’m under hers as well. But no wonder: The London-born, Massachusetts-bred West African author’s somewhat un-authorlike ability to command a room is literally the reason we’re here today.
Here being Wallsé. a quiet, stealthily fashionable Austrian restaurant in New York’s West Village, which typically charges a $5,000 location fee for photo shoots. What we’re hoping to capture on this grey afternoon, as the homey scent of apple strudel wafts out from the kitchen, is the vivaciousness that Selasi brings to the hushed resto from the moment she walks in the door—as she first did two years ago, in search of a washroom. She made such an impression on chef Kurt Gutenbrunner that he sent over champagne, and later that night told her they should get married. They dated, but have since split. Nevertheless, there’s a happy ending of sorts—and not just the waived location fee: “His steamed halibut is now my favourite thing to eat in New York, full stop,” she says.
Baggage, romantic or otherwise, doesn’t seem to weigh down Selasi; instead, it becomes a stepladder on which to climb—a mainstay dish to comfort her, or a plotline to one of 2013’s must-read novels (inspired in part by being abandoned by her dad). Even breaking into her vocation of choice seems—perhaps because her star is already shining bright when we meet, or perhaps because she is a little magic—deceivingly simple.
Her creation story also involves the type of chance encounter that any wannabe-writer would lop off a hand for: an invitation to a party in honour of Toni Morrison. Selasi thought she’d been summoned to a standing-room-only reception. Instead, it was an intimate dinner, and she took the only remaining seat—next to the Pulitzer Prize–winning author.
After telling Morrison her bio—child of doctors, Selasi grew up visiting family in Africa, Saudi Arabia, England and Spain—she confessed that she, too, hoped to become a writer. Upon witnessing first-hand Selasi’s big personality and big-time smarts (“Pause for gloss!” she intones midway through our interview–cum–makeup session, while explaining how she coined the term Afropolitan), I see why Morrison was drawn in. The author became a friend, wondering when Selasi would share a manuscript and finally proposing a deadline: “‘By the end of next year, you should send me something.’” That got Selasi producing after a 10-year bout of writer’s block; on New Year’s Eve 2007, she emailed Morrison a short story. “Her feedback was sheer and utter encouragement,” Selasi tells me in a can-you-believe-my-luck? hush.
But luck is only one part of the equation. That short story, “The Sex Lives of African Girls,” was a dark, deftly written piece, bought by Granta for their now-canonical “The F Word” feminism issue. The partial manuscript for Ghana Must Go—in which, a family struggles to cope with their absentee father’s sudden death—garnered a two-book deal, and the inevitable comparisons to Zadie Smith. Unfortunately, Selasi fell into another writing rut after signing the contract, cured only by moving from New York to Rome.
That she had to go to Italy to write a novel set in North America and Africa is fitting for Selasi, who first explored the concept of Afropolitanism in a much-circulated essay published in The LIP Magazine: “You’ll know us by our funny blend of London fashion, New York jargon, African ethics and academic successes…We are Afropolitans: not citizens, but Africans of the world.” That idea also reverberates in Ghana Must Go: “For all the hoopla about authenticity, authentic blackness…it was obvious to Sadie that all of them carry this patina of whiteness…they are ethnically heterogeneous and culturally homogeneous.”
There are countless other more-surface similarities between Ghana Must Go’s Sai family and her own. Like Fola, her mother loves flowers; like Sadie, her father left her family when she was very young. And like Kehinde and Taiwo, Selasi also has a twin, a surgeon, whom she texts throughout our shoot (“She just told me to pose through my fingertips!”).
But that’s as many parallels as she’ll draw, aside from conceding that she believes both her father and pater Sai suffered most for their absence. As for other less-surface likenesses? “The emotional similarities, if they exist, are either so nuanced or so painful that I don’t think they can actually be captured by me in fiction.”
In describing her writing style as condensed and gestural—“It’s how I live”—Selasi doesn’t do justice to a heart-shredding novel that arrests with both language play and plot. (From the aforementioned page 7: “inside the wife opened her eyes to find slippers by the doorway and, finding this strange, went to find, and found him dead.”) And the many variations of raw, aching grief expressed over Kwaku’s abandonment suggest that she’s cutting closer to home than she claims.
On the page and in person, Selasi knows how to draw people into her narrative. Aside from Morrison, and Gutenbrunner—and myself, long gone by this point— there’s the Burberry Prorsum saleswoman who dismantled a holiday display so Selasi could buy a purple quilted velvet coat, and gave her a discount to boot. And the clerk at an eyeglass shop who, upon Selasi’s purchase of embellished Tom Ford frames, gave her a second pair to celebrate her first book. It’s clear that Selasi thrills to fashion, but like so many adherents, denies she follows trends. “It’s like I like sports, but I don’t have a favourite team and I don’t follow the season,” she says…then name-checks McQueen.
We wrap the shoot in front of one of Wallsé’s large windows. As Selasi sits tall for the camera, a pair of male passersby can’t help but gawk. There are no marriage proposals, or designer discounts, or life-altering offers of friendship just yet, but it’s only four o’clock.