The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. Or does it? Part one of Taiye Selasi’s novel, Ghana Must Go, narrates the complex personal relationships in the Sai family after the death of their estranged father. To tell their story, Selasi uses an intrusive narrator that delves into the inner thoughts and feelings of each character. This narrative style works to expose her characters’ emotional wounds and personal flaws to her readers. Within the first 2 chapters of the novel, Selasi sets up a parallel between the father of the family, Kweku, and his eldest son, Olu. Both Olu and Kweku are surgeons and in their sections of the novel, Selasi slips into clinical imagery which suits their medical minds. However, though these sections use similar diction, when taking a closer look at the structure of her sentences, the differences and strain underpinning the father-son relationship become clear.
In the second chapter of the novel, Selasi describes Olu finding processing the death of his absent father. Selasi writes, “…he’ll picture it- his father, there, dead in a garden, healthy male, fifty-seven, in remarkable shape, small-round biceps pushing up against the skin of his arms, small-round belly pushing out against the rib of his top…”(6). Selasi begins by using emotional, but terse phrases such as “his father”, “there”, and “dead in a garden”. The simplicity of these phrases demonstrate Olu’s unwillingness to engage with the emotional trauma of his father’s death. Just as these phrases do not take up significant space in his description, nor does he allow the event’s reality to take up space in his mind. As the passage progresses his thoughts shift into physical and clinical phrases such as “healthy male”, “fifty-seven”, and details such as “small-round bicep…small-round belly”. Though the physicality of these phrases suit his identity as a doctor, their medical nature communicate his deep dissociation and emotional repression in this moment. Instead of confronting the fact of his father’s death, Olu can focus only on the comfortable and clinical facts of the body.
Later on in the novel, Selasi flashes back to a moment when Kweku was under intense emotional stress- when his daughter was born prematurely. In this chapter, Selasi details Olu and Kweku walking together in the hospital the night of his daughter’s birth. From Kweku’s perspective Selasi writes, “He looked at Olu closely now, surprised by his height (and by other things he’d seen but never noticed before: the wide latissimus dorsi, the angular jawline, the Yoruba nose, Fola’s nose, broad and straight, the taut skin the same shade as his own and so smooth, baby’s bum, even know in adolescence)”(14). Kweku uses similar clinical language to describe his son’s body such as “latissimus dorsi, angular jawline” and “taught skin”. However, unlike Olu, Kweku’s emotional descriptions are interspersed throughout the clause. For example, he uses “Fola’s nose”, invoking his emotional relationship to his wife. Further, he describes Olu’s skin as “the same shade as his own and so smooth, baby’s bum”. Through identifying both parents in Olu’s features and using the word “baby’s bum” which associates Olu with childhood, Kweku’s identity as a father is highlighted. Though there is clearly strain on his relationship, as he has “never noticed” these traits, Kweku is not using his identity as a doctor to retreat from these realizations. Instead, his identity as a doctor and provider has wiped away the parental emotions that he is now grasping at.
Though Selasi’s word choice in these moments link these two characters as Docotors, her descriptions highlight essential differences between them. In both moments these characters’ are responding to intense emotions by falling back into their comfort zone of clinical knowledge. However, where for Olu it is a form of emotional dissociation, for Kweku his clinical knowledge is his natural state. Thus when emotions organically bubble up Kweku does not revile them, but rather grasps for them. Kweku’s sparse outward emotions communicate a future risk for Olu. Though disconnecting from emotions may have been a way to succeed for Kweku, it ultimately leaves him alone and estranged from his family. Therefore, Olu’s emotional retreat into clinical knowledge demonstrate a potentially dangerous outcome- abstracting himself so much from emotional connections that he ends up just like his father.
Selasi, Taiye. Ghana Must Go. Penguin Books, 2013.