Taiye Selasi talks to Stephanie Sy

Author Taiye Selasi says the simple question ‘Where are you from?’ is a difficult one for her to answer

Stephanie Sy: I have read that you do not like to be asked where you're from.

Taiye Selasi: It's not that I don't like to be asked the question. It's just that I've begun to question what it actually means and where that question, where that convention comes from. I think that when someone says, "Where are you from?" and is waiting to hear a country, that person is not actually accessing information that I think is essential to who I am or to who we are as people. I've said that it's like a code for "Why are you here?" If someone asks me here in the States "Where are you from?" it's exactly as you say. It may mean "Tell me a little bit about your background" or "I'd like to know something about who you are as an individual." But it may also mean, "Why are you here?" The same in Germany, the same in Italy, the same in England — there is a sense that certain people have to explain their presence and for other people, they're entitled to that presence. And so I think that question, innocent as it often is in the hearts and the mouths of the questioner, I think has become code for a lot of other conversations that are a lot more difficult to have.

And asking you that question [requires] actually kind of a complicated answer.

Right, because I can't answer.

You were born in London. You were raised in the United States. Your father is from Ghana. He left when you and your twin sister were about a year old. Why don't you pick up from there?

He went to Saudi Arabia, where he has lived for most of my life. My mom, who's from Nigeria, was born in England and had us in England and then brought us to the States and has now gone to Ghana. And my sister and I, for all of that, I think grew up with actually a very firm sense of our identity. I was her twin, and she was mine for a very long time.

Your identity was being a twin?

It was being her twin. We joke that there are only two people in the world who sort of speak with our strange accent, which is mostly American but has other things thrown in, and that's she and I. But then, of course, you go into the world, and the world tends to speak of itself in terms of categories, with this vocabulary of categorization. And that was a bit difficult for us specifically, because we were raised by a single mom who is proudly and ferociously Yoruba. I started to say "Nigerian," but for her, it's her ethnolinguistic cultural identity is much more important than her national one. So my mum's Yoruba, and we grew up eating Yoruba food and listening to Yoruba music, and all of our Yoruba relatives were always piling in and out of the house. And we did this in Chestnut Hill, MA., which is not the most, let's say, heterogeneous of American suburbs. 

When you were growing up as a kid in this suburb of Boston, this very white suburb, Chestnut Hill, when did it become apparent to you that people did see your skin color first?

Oh, that's interesting. I think when I started hearing people refer to us as black people.

And you didn't think of yourself as a black person?

It's an invention. One has to learn to think of oneself that way. I have brown skin. I spend as much time in the sun as I can so that it will get even browner, but to call me black — what does this mean? This refers to a category. This refers to a race that we know is a social construct, that was constructed to support a sociopolitical and a socioeconomic hierarchy. And one need only ask who is black and who is white to understand that it's easier sometimes when I tell people about this in the reverse. These are power categories, not cultural and certainly not biological ones.

Did you growing up feel oppressed by racial stereotypes that were existent around you?

Yes, and that's the thing I should say. To say that race is invented isn't to say that racism isn't real. So I may not consider myself a black person — I may find other categories much more salient in terms of thinking of myself — but that's not going to stop someone who has incredibly simplistic and derogatory views of black people from treating me poorly.

And so yes, time and again, time and again, we were discriminated against on account of our skin color in Boston, MA. Time and again, and I was not — no one in our family was — blind to that reality. At the same time, when my sister and I got to high school, we started spending time with brown-skinned people who were not all from West Africa. African-American people who were very unconvinced by our cultural identity and who would say things like "You don't act black" or "You don't talk black" or "You talk white."

So you felt that you weren't fully accepted by the blacks in America in some ways? The African-Americans?

Well, it was clear that we didn't belong fully to a white American demographic, neither a black American demographic, but that there wasn't some third option available. So we were very much so in between. 

To call me black – what does this mean? This refers to a category. This refers to a race that we know is a social construct, that was constructed to support a sociopolitical and a socioeconomic hierarchy.

Taiye Selasi

When you think about those racial stereotypes, again, going back to your upbringing in Boston, did you feel the need to emphasize to people "Hey, look, my parents are both surgeons" to separate yourself, perhaps, from unfair racial stereotypes?

It's a tricky space to negotiate, I think. There were times when the assumptions of other people, they just became noxious. I mean, and it happens still now, in such subtle ways. I remember I was at a table, and I was across from someone, and someone said, "Who is that?" pointing to me. And this was in Italian, so I could understand the answer. And someone said, "That's the author." And the person he was speaking to said, "No, the black woman." And the other person repeated, "No, that is the author." And it's just those subtle moments where something about the way I look made it impossible for that man to believe that I could be the author of the hour. My mom has had this same thing. She's a doctor — my father too and my sister now as well in the family business. They'll walk into the consult room, and the patient will say, "This must be the nurse. This can't be the doctor." 

Is this an American problem? Is this a world problem, that people can't accept the truth of what people of African origins are capable of doing? Of what they are doing?

It is not an American problem, [although] the United States has this particular and particularly gruesome history with regards to people of African descent. Obviously the trans-Atlantic slave trade is a horror of unique proportions and of very peculiar brutality, and it has left a legacy which we are watching now. I came to the United States just in time to hear the rulings in Ferguson and on Staten Island, and it's heartbreaking to think that my friends in West Africa and in Western Europe are asking, "But let's get this straight — there are just unarmed people being killed on the streets of the United States and left for dead, and no one is being charged for this?"

And to have to say, "Correct, that is what's happening" — that is in every way a continuation of a history of brutality unique to this country. 

What is your relationship to Africa and specifically to Ghana?

We first went to Ghana when we were 15. 

Besides the fact that that's where your mom lives, did it feel more like what home does feel like?

We went back and forth between England and the States and also to Nigeria more often when we were young. But then when our father, who's Ghanaian, came into our life, we started going every year to Ghana. And I think when we first went to Ghana, I thought we were going to feel sort of this open-armed embrace. Like, "Welcome home, prodigal whatever. Have some keke and fish." But it wasn't like that. There was no instantaneous sense of belonging. In fact, I felt the same combination of belonging and unbelonging in Ghana that I did in England and in the States. And I think for a time, that was rather heartbreaking, because it occurred to me that there is no place in the world that I can go and say, "This place is mine." And I started thinking of myself as a sort of deterritorialized brown person. And it was only when I got to graduate school and I started thinking about that experience of being a deterritorialized brown person, of knowing yourself home in many places but not wholly at home in any, it suddenly occurred to me, "This is not just my experience."

Is that what led you to write this — "History is real and cultures are real, but countries are invented"? What is that feeling of not having a geographical home?

No, that's not what led me to write that. What led me to write that was going to grad school, studying international relations and learning, as I'd wanted to for a very long time, how did we come to this organizing unit in the first place. I was always really curious about what these countries were. It was very clear to me from some bizarrely early age that there was something slightly off about the concept or there was something that I wasn't being told. Because my mom, we call her "Nigerian," and we call my father Ghanaian, but when my mother was born, Nigeria didn't exist. And when my father was born, neither did Ghana.

So already there was this question of how can your most salient identity be younger than you? I carry U.S. and U.K. passports, but I do so because I was born in England at a time when that was enough to get a British passport, at a time when sort of the postcolonial moment was still leading to a very different approach to immigration than European countries are taking now. And then I came to the United States at a time when it was enough to just live here and be a law-abiding, hardworking citizen, in order to get a green card and later convert that into citizenship. So I have U.S. and U.K. passports but on the basis of laws that don't exist and haven't existed for the last 15 years. And I'm very aware that there's something so arbitrary about that, that my nationality, which is meant to be quite important, is completely an accident of history.

Some would say that the construct of nation actually helps to mitigate those conflicts?

How so?

Well, I mean, in the sense of the United States, you have a shared national identity. You have a country that was formed from people that came from all over.

But do you think Michael Brown's family would say that? Do you think that Eric Garner's family would say that?

So you would say that Michael Brown's family or Eric Garner's family feels that they have been left out?

I don't think that they alone think that. I wouldn't dare to speak on behalf of the grieving. But I can certainly say that, as I've written, there's a reason we don't speak about American-on-American violence. We speak often about black-on-black crime, but you never hear anyone say "American-on-American crime," "American-on-American violence." Why? Because on some level, we don't expect that identity, that national identity, to operate in a way that would preclude the kind of violence, a kind of brutal violence that has led to the injustices that we're seeing now.

So just to be clear, you're saying that African-Americans, to a certain degree, feel left out of that shared identity?

I'm not talking about a feeling. I'm speaking about a reality. So it doesn't matter how you feel. If you're shot and killed, your feelings don't matter. Your very rights as a citizen have been trampled upon, and the country in which you live, the country which has observed that trampling, has said, "That's OK." You don't have to feel any way about that. As far as I'm concerned, it's self-evident. And I'm very clear, as a brown-skinned woman, as a proud West African, that this is a context in which it becomes very, very difficult to feel entirely safe, to feel entirely valued and to feel entirely at home.

You coined a term in your essay "Bye-Bye, Babar" — "Afropolitan."

This is the essay that I wrote when I was leaving grad school and when I was thinking about what I'm calling "deterritorialized brown people." So I was asked to write an article for the Africa issue of a magazine. I was thinking about that context. But it occurs to me that what I was describing is something that one finds, in fact, all over the world. I described it as being sort of like in this anteroom. Like this waiting room, and there are these doors to full belonging. So there's a door, I could be American. There's a door, I could be British. There's a door, I could be Nigerian. There's a different door behind me, I could be Ghanaian. But nobody in those places looks at me and says, "Yes, she is Ghanaian." Like, there's no doubt in anyone's mind here.

So what is an Afropolitan? What are some of the characteristics?

In 2005, so about 10 years ago, all I was describing was the experience. I didn't need to suggest that everybody who shares that experience is the same or can be defined by sort of, like, seven criteria. Rather, I was just fascinated by that experience, by what it is to come into your 20s, into your 30s, into yourself, without there being one place in the world to be deplaced. To be someone who knows yourself most saliently through your relationships, through your passions, through what means most to you. Also through your heartbreaks, through the discrimination you've experienced, through the racism you've experienced, through the misunderstands and so forth but who does not fundamentally tie the sense of self to just one place. That's what I was describing. 

‘I have US and UK passports, but on the basis of laws that don’t exist and haven’t existed for the last 15 years. And I’m very aware that there’s something so arbitrary about that, that my nationality, which is meant to be quite important, is completely an accident of history.’

Taiye Selasi

Do you regret that this Afropolitanness arose out of what essentially was a brain drain out of parts of Africa?

The question would be "What would I be regretting?" Do I regret that my parents were both born incredibly intelligent and incredibly poor in soon-to-be countries, the governments of which made it impossible for them to pursue their dreams in the places that they loved? Of course I do, because that's heartbreaking. I can't imagine what it would be like to have been born in Ghana, to love Ghana in the way that I do. To love being there, to love the smells, to love the food, to love my family members but to feel on a very fundamental level that I was not going to be able to become who I wanted to be if I were to stay.

My mum, as many immigrants do, created a world in Boston, Massachusetts, of all places, that was full of Nigerian people. 

Was being able to coin a term like "Afropolitan" and sort of gain control of your own identity, was that empowering? Was that in part an exercise in empowerment?

Looking back on it, Stephanie, I think perhaps it was. I'm always loath to say that I coined the term, because I know that I heard it somewhere, and then I applied it, like all good writers. But that was powerful enough, because what I was doing, as you suggest, is I was saying, "Enough with people telling me what I'm not. Enough with people saying, 'You're not really American. You're not really black. You're not really British. You're not really Nigerian. You're not really Ghanaian.' Enough with the nots. I am this." 

And one of the things you are, according to a prestigious list, is a great writer. Your debut novel, "Ghana Must Go," earned you a spot on a list of best young British novelists. Talk about your inspiration behind that story.

Well, that's the hardest thing to talk about, Stephanie. It's the hardest question you've asked.

Why is that?

I often quote Leonard Cohen, whom I love, the songwriter but also the poet. Someone asked him once where his best songs come from, and he said, "If I knew, I would go there more often." And I feel that way completely about everything I write, this novel and everything else besides.

I don't really know where it comes from. I just don't know. But what I can say is that from the time that I was 4 years old, I knew I wanted to be a writer. It's the only thing I've ever loved this much, this long. I said to myself, "OK, by the time you turn 30, you have to know once and for all whether or not you can make it as a writer, and this is how you will do it." I saved up enough money so that I could live without working for one year and also pay off some student loans. But you know, just the idea was I would just quit my job and do nothing but write for one year. 

It has a lot of biographical moments, both the main character and your birth father were surgeons in Ghana. Both abandoned their wives and children. Was this book cathartic in any way? Was it a way to address your own feelings about your biological dad leaving when you were young?

I think that yes, the answer is yes. But perhaps not in the way I would have imagined, which is to say that writing this novel, I so completely inhabited the lives and the minds of all the characters but, of course, the parents as well that I came to love them deeply. And of course they're flawed, and both mother and father in this novel make some pretty spectacular mistakes. I mean, with horrifying and heartbreaking consequences for their children. But living in them, as I did, I came to understand how it was possible for them to make those mistakes, even though they loved their children desperately. And when you are a child, sort of judging your parents, you sort of think, and, you know, the whole kind of psychobabble industry leads you to think, "OK, but you did that because you didn't love me enough. And if you had loved me more, you could have never done that. It wouldn't have been possible. It is proof positive of your insufficient love for me that you made this decision, end of story."

And then I guess everyone's supposed to cry and argue and hug and move on. But it turns out, I found writing this book, that I just had enormous empathy for these parents. And because I had enormous empathy for these parents, I suddenly had equal empathy for mine. And it occurred to me that my mother and my father, for all the mistakes that they made, were doing damn well the best they could, even if it wasn't enough, as sort of judged by me. 

I'm trying to figure out through this whole conversation what drives you, what makes you tick. And a lot of it, tell me if I'm wrong, seems a reaction to things that have tried to box you and pigeonhole you?

I am a free spirit. I was born that way. I am first and foremost a storyteller. I love human beings. I love and am a bit obsessed with travel. I've moved around, mostly because I just want to see the world. I want to taste different cities. But I was born into a physical reality that means that the world didn't treat me, the world didn't receive me with as much openness as I would have wanted it to. And so, yes, in order to be who I believe myself to be, in order to be a storyteller, in order to peer into human beings and to know them as human first and then black, white, African, Asian, European second, I've had to kind of elbow out this space. And I think my animating project is just to create this space within which I can know the world and know myself in the world as human first and foremost.

In some ways, is that sort of the most modern definition of identity? You know, the Pew Research Center found recently that millions of Americans change their racial or ethnic identity from one census to the next. So are more people realizing what you realized maybe a decade ago, two decades ago?

Maybe. And some people really resist this. People have been like, "She's just talking this, like, mystical, loosey-goosey, 'Kumbaya' nonsense." Do you know what I mean? Like, "What is this woman on about?" Like, "We're not really going to hold hands and sway and sing. It's just not going to happen." And I'm not so naive. I'm not so naive. But I do know that many of the people in my family, many of the people that I love most in the world, the people from which I believe myself to come, have been given for too long too little room. Just too little space to be, to breathe, to create, to express, and I will do everything in my power to create that space, to clear that space and to defend it.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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