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Interview: Taiye Selasi

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Taiye Selasi made her fiction debut in The F Word, with ‘The Sex Lives of African Girls’. It has already gained attention in reviews: The Times called it a ‘standout piece of fiction’; Time Out wrote that the ‘prose glitters with beautiful, splintered poetry’. The acclaim is just another stamp of approval for Selasi, who has been championed by Toni Morrison and Salman Rushdie and whose first novel, Ghana Must Go is one of next year’s most eagerly anticipated books. Selasi answered a few questions for Granta’s Yuka Igarashi about her life as a writer so far and about how she came to write this remarkable story.

YI: Your story takes places in a rich household in Accra. Even though many of the characters are leading comfortable lives, a sense of menace runs beneath the surface. I was scared for all the women, especially the young narrator. Did you mean to paint the sex lives of African girls as dangerous and doomed?

TS: It’s hard to say what I meant, but that’s certainly what I’ve done. To be honest, I was rather surprised to discover that I’d painted such a devastating portrait. It was only months and months after I’d finished editing – focusing narrowly on rhythm, image, pacing, form – that I noticed how dark the content was, how fundamentally damning the comment.

This piece is told from the perspective of a girl who is just starting to grasp the sexual dynamics at play among the adults around her. It’s interesting that you chose to inhabit her limited point of view. Was it hard to get this narrator’s voice right – to figure out what she does and doesn’t understand?

I suspect the second person helped a great deal. This ‘you’ voice appeared in my head from the beginning and guided me through the text, limiting my view of things to her view: I rarely looked where she wasn’t looking. In the first draft I’d included a passage alluding to the nature of Uncle’s work in Ghana’s oil extraction industry – but omitted it when it became clear that the narrator wouldn’t (couldn’t possibly) understand such politics. I’d slipped for a moment into an ‘I’ voice, an ‘I’ mind, and it showed.

During our launch events, you mentioned some of the incredible mentors you’ve had. Who are your models as a writer?

Oh, so many. I adore Penelope Lively, Alessandro Baricco, Roberto Bolaño, Toni Morrison, Arundhati Roy. But they’re less my models than my heroes; most of my mentors haven’t been novelists, at all: my high school creative writing teacher James Connolly, my stepfather Wilburn Williams, my dear friend the painter Francesco Clemente, my aunt and arts educator Renee C. Neblett.

I remember you saying that Toni Morrison told you that you must not think of your audience while you’re writing. Still, I was curious about who you see as your audience. Do you want to be read by Ghanaians? By women?

As one writer so beautifully put it, ‘For though to be read is not the motive which impels the author to write, once he has written his desire is to be read, and in order to achieve that, he must do his best to make what he writes readable.’ Like beggars, first-time novelists can't be choosers. We just aim to be readable. ■

To read ‘The Sex Lives of African Girls’, buy the issue here. Or subscribe to our podcast to hear a recording of our launch event with Taiye Selasi, Rachel Cusk and Sigrid Rausing. You can see Taiye reading from her story here.

photo by Nancy Crompton.

Also on The F Word Online:

'Accidents': a new poem by Sadaf Halai, and for one week only, read another of her exclusive poems free from the print edition.

Oranges are the only fruit: Ellah Allfrey looks at the literary prize where there are no boys allowed.

Old World female empowerment: Brazilian soap opera and Turkish folklore with Sevil Delin and her grandmother.

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