I was lucky enough to go and meet Taiye Selasi last week thanks to a generous Waterstones competition on Twitter. Taiye Selasi is one of ‘Waterstones 11‘, their pick of the début novelists of the year.
For those of you, like me (until last week), who haven’t heard of Taiye before, here’s what Waterstones have to say about her:
Taiye Selasi was born in London and raised in Boston to parents of Ghanaian and Nigerian origin. She is a graduate of Yale and Oxford Universities. Her seminal essay ‘Afropolitans‘ was published in the cult magazineLiP in 2005 before going viral and being used to define a new generation. Her story ‘The Sex Lives of African Girls‘ was published in Granta in 2011.
Her debut novel is called Ghana Must Go, a novel in three parts – Gone, Going, Go – that is the story of the simple, devastating ways in which families tear themselves apart, and of the long, troubled journeys that they make to bring themselves together again.
What Waterstones neglect to mention is that she is also a fantastic photographer – check out her website (see right) and you’ll see what I mean!
But, she was visiting Waterstones in Manchester last Thursday evening in the capacity of a writer and here’s what she had to say* in response to questions during our intimate gathering of perhaps twenty:
Q: She is suggested to have coined the term ‘Afropolitans’ thanks to her Race & Culture essay in 2005 of the same title – what does this mean?
A: She was inspired by the query ‘Where are you from?’ which always gave rise to complicated answers for her (see biography above). Originally it specifically referenced those in West Africa but appears to have taken hold for those who have more world experiences now. Put simply it means someone who has strong African connections but is a citizen of the world.
Q: Themes throughout Ghana Must Go include love and family but one that stood out was shame: why?
A: She doesn’t really know why she wrote Ghana Must Go but she does know that shame tore this family apart. They are an unconventional family and have had to learn how to accept shame into their lives.
Q: Family is obviously very important and the mother in the book is certainly a character – how does this influence her?
A: Her style of writing is heavily influenced by music and growing up with ‘Afropolitans’ – passionate people – this has translated into her writing.
Q: She travels a lot (she currently has a home in Italy), are there any particular places that have influenced her?
A: She doesn’t really have an answer for this. She feels the same in all places, because humanity exists in all places. She is given the strong sense that all thing are true for people in all places, so that makes place less relevant. She tends to look deeper into her own identity rather than being affected by travel.
Q: If this is the case, then where does she perceive home to be for her characters?
A: She believes that her characters find home in one another, finding home in the relationships they have with each other.
As for Taiye herself, she likes to think that her house has wheels and can be stored in the overhead cabin. She likes to believe that home is the place wherever she is surrounded by people she loves.
Q: Who have her writing influences been?
A: She admires to many really, she admits. As a scatter plot of suggestions she answers – Fitzgerald, Nobokov (an Italian one I can’t find called ‘Banka?’), and she also loved The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins. Her recommendation would be to read A Heart so White, by Javier Marias.
Q: How difficult does she think is it for debut novelists to be recognised?
A: She believes it’s impressive that Waterstones promotes them, encouraging them to give it a go. She considers that you can help a smart person become experienced, but an experienced person can never really taught how to be smart. Therefore it’s affirming that Waterstones are behind her and are being supportive – giving her experience. For her, this is a dream come true.
Q: How many languages can she speak?
A: English, obviously (she says with a smile), Italian and some very bad French.
Q: What’s the next step for her in her career?
A: She did sign a two book deal therefore after the tour she will be writing a Love Story, set in Rome.
She also mentioned that her novel is currently being translated into other languages, including Italian – and because that is the only language she can read it other than English, she feels she is driving the translator a little mad because she is desperate for the translation to be perfect.
Q: What experiences made her want to write?
A: She has always wanted to be a writer as she adored writing. Reading was her favourite thing to do. She can remember a very distinct time when she changed her desire from being a writer (someone who writes) to a novelist (someone who writes novels). This was because of two books: The God of Small Things, by Arundhati Roy and The Unbearable Lightness of Being, by Milan Kundera. These two were read and re-read and are still being read by her and they were the first realisation that she wanted to do what they were already doing – they were writing stories they wanted to read, so she wanted to do the same.
Q: Where did the idea come from for Ghana Must Go?
A: She can’t be sure. But she had quit her job to become a writer and then gone to a Yoga retreat that called for three days of silence. She recalls being in the shower when these people showed up in her mind – like a knot. The whole family appeared as a single character. It was only when she became still and silent that she heard the story.
Q: How does she spend her time writing and planning?
A: She wrote Part One – Gone – in a tear. She was hopeful and foolishly thought this was the way it would go from the beginning. She was fortunately enough to find an agent based on that first section (100 pages) and an outline.
Being a bit of a ‘geek’ she created a spreadsheet showing the entire family year by year – showing when they were born, major events etc against one another as a reference. This made things a lot easier.
However, even at the end she had to catch a mistake – because one of the children – Sadie – was a December baby she neglected to take that into account when Kweke dies and had to alter Sadie from a 20 yr old to a 19yr old when this happens!
Most of her time was actually spent on the words – she believes it takes time to choose the right words.
Q: What is her writing process and how does she go about research?
A: Her research consisted of thirty years spent in a family that was a consistent process to keep in mind.
As for writing – ideally she has the same lofty dream as everyone else (get up, write, breakfast, leisurely walk, write, lunch, edit in the afternoons, wine in the evenings…). But, more realistically she is distracted and procrastinates a lot. She needs stillness to write and then she will go until she stops.
With editing she tends to print out her work (double sided, she admits) and reads it out loud. Her neighbour must have thought she was crazy, talking to herself, but now has adjusted to the sound. She then marks up the pages and tends to make the changes then and there, whilst they are fresh.
She says she has ninteen copies of Stephen King’s On Writing (the only book your family buys you when they find out you want to be a writer) and agrees with the quote that “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” That is what writing is.
Q: What was the process of editing, and how was the editorial input for her novel?
A: She admits that there was not too much both her UK and US agent are nurturing and supportive with a hands-off approach. They made a few micro-suggestions, such as over-use of the word ‘beautiful’ but no major ones because they say they trust her voice. She thinks it’s useful to have a reminder of what went before from others and didn’t find the process intrusive – sometimes it can feel that way in shorter works, but not for the novel.
She also mentioned that she has worked on three screenplays. One is with Alicia Keys and has been optioned by her. It is an adaptation of The House at Sugar Beach memoirs. Another is currently with a producer and she hopes will be done this year. The third she hopes she will be able to self-direct.
I had a really enjoyable evening hearing about Taiye’s experience and her novel – I did buy a copy and get it signed (much more personally than other authors she did sign it ‘with love’ which I like). I haven’t yet read it, but I’ll let you know when I do!
*Answers are paraphrased based on the notes I took on the evening and I only hope I captured the essence of what Taiye meant by them!