• Saturday, October 01st, 2016

Taiye Selasi was born in London in 1979 and raised in the USA. Her Nigerian mother, currently living in Ghana, was born in England but raised in Nigeria. Her Ghanian father was born in the British colony of Gold Coast, grew-up in Ghana and now lives in Saudi Arabia.

She was brought up in Brookline, Massachusetts, the elder of twin daughters in a family of physicians: her mother is a paediatrician, her father a surgeon and her twin sister a physiatrist. Tayie obtained her BA degree in American Studies with great honour from Yale University and received an MPhil in International Relations from Oxford University.

To date Taiye Selasi has written four short stories and one novel: “Ghana Must Go” in 2013, which was a big success, has been translated to several languages and made into a film. The novel title refers to the Nigerian phrase directed at the Ghanaian refugees coming in numbers during the 1980s political turmoil in their country. In 1969 a similar situation occurred but in reverse. Due to economic depression, Ghana expelled the Nigerians working on its territory.

Taiye Selasi lives in Rome. She is a writer and a photographer.

The story of Ghana Must Go is divided into three parts: “Gone”, “Going” and “Go”. It begins with the death of the fifty-seven-year old protagonist, Kweku Sai, in his garden in Accra, Ghana, as a result of a heart attack. His second wife, the undemanding, placid Ama, is sleeping nearby unaware that her husband is dying.

Before taking his last breath and while stretched on the grass, flashbacks of Kweku’s early life surge like waves. He is full of remorse for having been a failure as a surgeon, a husband and a father and to have gone back to his native Ghana, abandoning his wife and four children in the USA several years earlier and hiding the fact from them about a wrongful and outrageously unjust dismissal from Boston hospital.

Kweku feels the loss of his pride after losing his job, despite being a skilled surgeon, as a result of betrayal by his superiors and other doctors who privately agreed that it would have been impossible to save the old lady anyway. He realises that outstanding skill doesn’t transcend race. For that reason he is used as a scapegoat in order to please and appease the hospital’s wealthy white benefactors who demanded that someone take the blame and face the consequences of “the failed surgical intervention” which led to the death of the old frail lady during her heart operation.

Kweku, the family patriarch, abandons his Nigerian wife, Folasadé Savage, to fend for herself, unaware of the implications of his irrational decision on the family. He is leaving his broken-hearted wife who once had a promising career as a law student and had to give up her studies and sell flowers in order to support her husband’s career and raise their four children: Olu, the eldest son, the twins, Taiwo and Kehinde, and the last born, Sadie.

The mother is distraught, unable to cope on her own and due to Kweku’s betrayal, the whole family is dispersed across continents with each member trying to find himself and his own path.

Olu becomes an orthopaedic surgeon and marries Ling, the Chinese-American specialised in gynaecology and obstetrics, in Las Vegas. The good-looking twins, Taiwo and Kehinde, who, when children, were mentally and emotionally scarred for life by their maternal uncle in Lagos, are struggling with their past trauma. The suicidal Kehinde becomes a successful artist. The aloof Taiwo is studying Law and is the editor of the Law Review at Colombia University. And the bulimic, discomfited Sadie, the youngest of the four and her mother’s favourite, is a student at Yale University.

The flashbacks and present events, which are viewed through a different angle according to each of the six main characters, move constantly throughout the story and are set between the USA, England and Africa. The reader follows each character and discovers the truth revealed in layers. Although the author meanders aimlessly in part one, “Gone”, the two other parts: “Going” and “Go” are more focused, delivering the main theme of the novel, being the trials and tribulations of the Sai family.

Kweku’s death reunites the fragmented family after so many years of separation. His wife and four children are all gathered under the same roof in their mother’s home in Ghana for the funeral. So many years have past and now comes the time of reckoning to heal and clear the unspoken feelings, thoughts and hopes.

Ghana Must Go is a touching story depicting how emotional, irrational decisions in a patriarchal family can affect the whole family’s life. It is also about the shame that follows failure which subsequently leads to forlornness.

The author deals with several themes in her novel: the immigration problem, the patriarchal society structure, the intermarriage issue which affects children who often spend their life searching for identity and feeling stateless, especially by being uprooted. The author also depicts the strong blood ties, racism, loneliness, the intricacies in family relationships and how childhood experience affects adult life, as well as strongly illustrating the complexity of the human psyche.

• Saturday, June 18th, 2016

Dai Sijie was born in the Fujian province of China in 1954. Both his parents were professors of medical sciences at West China University. Dai Sijie went to primary school followed by college. At the beginning of the Chinese cultural revolution, orchestrated in May 1966 by the seventy-three- year-old Mao Zedong, Seijie’s parents were labelled as “bourgeois”, therefore enemies of the people and were put in prison.

Being the son of a “bourgeois”, the seventeen-year-old Seijie, was sent to a village in the mountains of Sichuan province for re-education from 1971 to 1974. In 1974 he worked as an employee in a school and in 1976 studied History Of Art at Beijing university while simultaneously studying French. He left China for France in 1984, having won a national competition allowing students to travel abroad. After his time was over, he didn’t return to China and has remained in France ever since, working as a film maker and subsequently becoming a writer.

Balzac And The Little Chinese Seamstress is Dai Sijie’s first novel and a big instant success. It was written in French, like his two other novels, and was published in France in 2000. It won many prizes and has been translated into several languages. Sijie re-adapted his novel to become a film which he directed and was released in 2002.

The story of Balzac And The Little Chinese Seamstress is influenced by what the author himself lived and experienced in his late teens like his two fictional characters: the narrator and his close friend, Luo, who both come from families of doctors. The two protagonists, like Sijie, had an academic education, went to primary school and to college and therefore had bourgeois upbringings and consequently qualified, according to the new Chinese regime, to be sent to a remote mountain village camp to be re-educated from 1971 to 1976.

Mao Zedong’s policy was to send millions of intellectuals to the countryside for re-education in the form of physical labour meted out to them by peasants. Mao’s intention was to purge the representatives of the capitalist urban bourgeoisie as well as the revisionists who had infiltrated the Party, both regarded as enemies of the people. He even closed schools and universities for several years, accusing them of being places of counter-revolutionary education.

Mao Zedong, the Chinese Communist Party Chairman, was the actual architect of the Great Cultural Revolution which started in 1966 and ended in 1976, the year of his demise. Although born a son of a wealthy farmer, Mao Zedong was the founding member of the communist party of China and became the “Great Helmsman Of The Revolution”.

The Great Cultural Revolution period is one of the most sombre and traumatic in Chinese contemporary history. It was enforced after Mao Zedong’s failure with his economic and social campaign named “the great leap forward”, which was an ambitious country-wide modernization policy that lasted from 1959 to 1961 and resulted in terrible famine.

The narrator and his friend, Luo, find their new life and repetitive tasks given to them by the peasants to be very harsh. Thanks to their captivating art of story telling they manage to escape a few days of hard labour in the mines. The two youths are sent by their superior to the next village where films are occasionally shown. Their assignment is that, upon their return, they must narrate the story of the film to the villagers who are illiterate people leading a simple life in this remote mountainous area near Tibet, called: “Phoenix Of The Sky”.

The narrator and his best friend Luo’s story-telling improve greatly and their horizon widens when they discover a hoard of forbidden “reactionary” western classic novels translated into Chinese. These include books by Balzac, Dickens, Dumas, Hugo and Flaubert, among others, concealed in a suitcase by an educated young man their own age called Four-Eyes, the son of a poet, sent for re-education in the village next to theirs. After pleading with Four-Eyes, they manage to borrow one of his novels, Balzac’s, Ursule Mirouët. They both spend the whole night reading it and finish it by dawn. The two young men are so overwhelmed by Balzac’s story that they strongly desire to possess Four-Eyes novels and they end up stealing them.

From now on Luo, the narrator and their beautiful, illiterate, young seamstress’s lives will radically change as a result of their literary discovery which overturns their existence and opens up a new, magical world for them. They feel the emergence of a literary vocation. There is no longer a barrier between fiction and reality for them. The little seamstress becomes Luo’s lover-cum-student and he becomes her Pygmalion. He introduces her to the world of literature not realising that the effect will be devastating for him and the narrator, who both loved her so dearly and looked after her like a “little princess”.

After listening to all the stories written by famous classic writers narrated to her by the two young men, Luo tells the narrator that the little seamstress’s new obsession is to resemble city girls, she cuts her hair and make herself a bra, copying a drawing she had found in Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. Luo even notices that she is copying their accent.

Learning from Balzac “that a woman’s beauty is a treasure beyond price”, the little seamstress makes a surprising choice. She decides to leave her rural life and everything else behind for the big city life in order to conquer her destiny, like Balzac’s character, Eugène de Rastignac in “La comèdie humaine”. Her decision leads to the surreal and eerie final scene of the book-burning by the narrator and Luo out of spite and rancour. These books they loved so much have to be sacrificed, reduced to cinders, now that they have the nasty effect of emancipating the little seamstress and making her quit after discovering her self-worth.

Balzac And The Little Chinese Seamstress is a book about books, an ode to literature and especially a tribute to Balzac, as well as to the art of story telling and how the talented story tellers possess the know-how to captivate their audience. Dai Sijie is a good narrator and at the same time his characters are talented story tellers.

It is a novel about literary novels and their power of enchantment. It is about the emergence of literary vocation and how books can be a good education for life. The story illustrates the mysterious strength of fiction as a liberator of the mind and how reading can change people’s lifestyle and enrich it. A novel with outstanding themes that mixes serious subjects with humorous ones with great skill.

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