Men stare, women stare, the waitress stares: Everybody in the too-trendy Toronto restaurant wonders who she is. The star in the room, the resplendent woman sitting by herself with a billowing cloud of dreadlocks on her head and electric-blue stilettos on her feet.
She is too commanding to be a model, something merely decorative, too distinctive to be a movie star whose name escapes. Nobody in this milieu would ever guess that Taiye Selasi is that frumpiest of all public figures, a literary novelist.
“This is something I kept being told,” she says. “‘You don’t look like a writer!’ And finally I said, ‘You know what, dammit? So be it.’”
“No,” Selasi adds. “I’m not a normal literary lady. I’m wearing electric blue shoes!”
More to the point, normal literary ladies don’t get sent on 21-city publicity tours to hawk their first novels, nor are they apt to see such efforts greeted with the fanfare that has attended publication of Selasi’s debut, Ghana Must Go. But the star-making machine knows it when it sees it, and Selasi is more than capable of playing the role.
Who is she? “I am an obsessive traveller,” she answers, “a lover of almost all forms of creative expression – music, painting, film, dance, literature. I am a little bit of a nerd so I study everything I love too much, beyond necessity. I am African.”
Selasi is currently living in Rome in a friend’s apartment near the Spanish Steps, “because I couldn’t find an apartment in Paris,” she explains. “I’m so happy now that I didn’t.”
Home is an open question. For the time being – and unlike so many writers – Selasi is delighted to be living on the road, talking books. “Some authors enjoy being with the work but not so much with the world,” she says. “I’m just not built that way. I love the work just a little bit more” – she gestures extravagantly as heads turn – “than I love the world.”
Although she is new to literary life, Selasi’s training for the spotlight began early. Born in London to a Ghanian mother and Nigerian father, both doctors, Selasi and her twin sister were raised by their mother in the affluent Boston suburb of Brookline with a mission to excel. She was by her own description “a championship student” whose training took her from an elite prep school to Yale and then Oxford, where she completed a masters’ degree in international relations before leaving academia to work, briefly, at a hedge fund on Wall Street.
Selasi’s upbringing mirrors that of the characters in Ghana Must Go, a family fractured by its many displacements yet burning with genius in every branch.
“My family is intimidating,” Selasi agrees, “especially to me!” She doesn’t want readers to think Ghana Must Go is her autobiography. “But that’s certainly something I know from personal experience, the sense of being in a family where everybody is an incredibly high achiever.”
So it was only natural that Selasi would find herself at Oxford one day confessing her secret literary ambition to Nobel Prize-winning novelist Toni Morrison.
“She gave me a deadline,” Selasi recalls. “She gave me a year to produce a manuscript of some kind to share with her.” The result was a short story, The Sex Lives of African Girls, that was published in the magazine Granta. Followed soon by the acquisition of one of the world’s top literary agents, Andrew Wylie, and a lucrative two-book deal with Penguin. Wall Street didn’t stand a chance.
Even before she became a novelist, though, Selasi had already acquired a grassroots following due to an essay titled Bye-Bye, Babar (Or: What Is an Afropolitan?)” in an obscure London magazine. Shared among thousands like an electronic samizdat, the essay landed back in her own inbox two years later – without a byline, but with the recommendation that “he [the presumed author] is a really good writer.”
“I wrote that essay intending really just to get a handle on my own identity, to get my own answer to the question, ‘Where are you from?’” Selasi says. But the generation she described – often the internationally raised children of parents who left postcolonial Africa in search of education and jobs – welcomed the label as its own.
“I describe myself as Afropolitan to suggest perhaps a more complicated African identity than the ones available to my parents’ generation,” Selasi says. She lays out the formula with practised ease:
“There are three criteria. Number one, some unbreakable bond to some country or countries in Africa. Number two, a global perspective. And three, a desire to effect change, however that manifests, in Africa for African people – in some way, somehow, at some point.”
She laughs like Joni Mitchell in Big Yellow Taxi. “That’s it!”
Reading Ghana Must Go, which deals with the same issues of identity as they intrude into the heart of a struggling family, suggests a more complex human reality. But it has no political purpose, Selasi insists, and she rejects comparisons with the work of other afropolitan writers.
She is delighted that Penguin has publicized her as “the next Zadie Smith” but frowns at comparisons with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, another U.S.-educated Nigerian author whose second novel, Americanah, is being published this spring.
“I’m not particularly interested in comparing myself to people because we are brown and female and well-spoken,” she says. Demography is not destiny. “I’ll be genuine – I don’t know where that impulse comes from, and more importantly I’m not quite sure I know where it goes.”
The “identity of consequence,” Selasi insists, “is the writing, not the writer.”
But she is also a photographer and filmmaker, currently raising funds for a documentary that will focus on the daily lives of young Africans. And in that role she is frankly political.
“It just thrills me to no end to think that people will finally be able to see an alternative vision of how young people live in African countries – an alternative to the rather redundant representations of war and famine and chaos and so forth,” she says.
But novels are different. “I reserve the right to write about whatever I want to write about,” Selasi insists. “I don’t think of novel-writing as an exercise in identity politics. I really don’t.
“I know I get dragged into that conversation a lot and that’s fine, because it interests me,” she adds. “I use essays for that. The documentary is for that.”
But not Ghana Must Go. “My novel,” she concludes, “is for itself.”
Afropolitans are “not citizens but Africans of the world,” Taiye Selasi wrote in the influential essay that gave birth to the term less than a decade ago. “You’ll know us by our funny blend of London fashion, New York jargon, African ethics, and academic successes,” she wrote at the time. “Some of us are ethnic mixes, e.g. Ghanaian and Canadian, Nigerian and Swiss; others merely cultural mutts: American accent, European affect, African ethos.”
Since then, the meaning of the term has expanded to include not only expatriates but also virtually any young, creative, urban person both within Africa and without. Membership is inclusive, Selasi says. “Lawyers, musicians, students, photographers, filmmakers, writers – Chinua Achebe, may he rest in peace – I drag them all into this network with me and say, ‘Let’s go change the places we come from.”
Leaders among the Afropolitan elite include architect David Adjaye, artist Chris Ofili and writer Chimamanda Adichie. Canadian novelist Carole Enahoro, of mixed Nigerian and British heritage, is a classic Afropolitan. So are such elder statesmen as musician Hugh Masekela and novelist Wole Soyinka.