An evening with Taiye Selasi

Published by Emma Lee-Potter in on Saturday 25th January 2014

I’ve IMG_0292been to a lot of author events over the years but I’ve never heard anyone read as beautifully as Taiye Selasi did on Thursday evening.

The event, at the super-cool Ace Hotel in Shoreditch, was packed with readers, all eager to meet the 34-year-old writer, whose acclaimed debut novel, Ghana Must Go has been showered with plaudits. You could hardly hear a pin drop as she read, the words on the page sounding like poetry as they reverberated around the cavernous basement space.

Selasi was named as a 2013 Granta Best Young British Novelist and her writing has been compared to that of Salman Rushdie, Zadie Smith and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. As Venetia Butterfield, publishing director of Viking, told the audience, Selasi “exploded on to the literary scene,” with reviewers using words like “brilliant,” ”mesmerising,” “unforgettable” and “wonderful” to describe her book. Butterfield herself has read the novel many times and said: “It never creases to make me cry.”

After a reading by Emma Healey (whose own forthcoming novel, Elizabeth is Missing, is hotly tipped for success), Selasi stepped onstage. From the moment she began speaking her star quality shone through. Resplendent in a flowing acid yellow skirt and black top, she exuded warmth, charm and a passion for writing.

The characters in Ghana Must Go, she said, came to her fully formed, while she was on a yoga retreat in Sweden.

“I could see them so clearly – as if they existed,” she said. “I knew them so well. I lived them, I breathed them and finally I wrote them.” She wrote the first 100 pages quickly and barely altered them afterwards  – “I maybe changed a semi-colon. They just came and they were and they are.”

Asked about the title, she admitted that for ages the book had a very unwieldy title: Kweku dies barefoot on a Sunday before sunrise, his slippers by the doorway to the bedroom like dogs.doc – the novel’s first line and the way her computer automatically saved it. In fact the title comes from the type of bags Ghanaians used to carry their belongings when they were expelled from Nigeria in the 1980s. They were known as “Ghana must go” bags.

Selasi was also quizzed about the notion that her book is an African novel, as some critics have declared. She doesn’t regard it as that at all. She recently gave a speech entitled “African literature doesn’t exist,” saying that “the practice of categorising literature by the continent from which its creators come is past its prime at best.” And indeed, she reiterated this view at the Ace Hotel. “I do not believe in the African novel,” she said. “Africa is a continent of 55 states, (56 if you count Somaliland). It is the single most complex continent and defies generalisation. I do not think the African novel exists.”

Selasi was born in London, grew up in Massachusetts, has degrees from Yale and Oxford and now lives in Rome. She recalled that she was once given advice by the writer Toni Morrison, who told her: “When you are writing, the reader can never be with you.” Selasi added: “I will never write a multi-character novel again. It is very difficult to keep six people in your head all the time.”

She herself knew that she was a writer at the age of four. “Every single day there were stories in my head. I regard writing as urgently necessary. When I don’t do it I become cranky.”

Ghana Must Go by Taiye Selasi (Penguin, £7.99)

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