African Writer Helps Put Her Community On Media Map

While stories typically associated with African literature may not top summer reading lists, a generation of African writers is trying to change that perception. To learn more, host Michel Martin speaks with Taiye Selasi, whose short story "The Sex Lives of African Girls" is featured in the spring issue of Granta: The Magazine of New Writing.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host: I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up in my weekly Can I Just Tell You? commentary, there's something else about Congressman Anthony Weiner that you might want to know.

But, first, we'd like to travel back to the continent where we began the program: Africa. And when you hear the phrase African literature, what comes to mind? Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, J.M. Coetzee. Which subjects? War, hunger, perhaps the plight of child soldiers and sex workers. That's not exactly standard poolside summer reading.

But there's a new generation of writers trying to broaden what we know of African literature and they are expanding our vision of Africans living amidst and sometime in spite of political and economic turmoil.

Taiye Selasi is one such writer. Her mother is Nigerian. Her father hails from Ghana. And she marked her literary debut in the spring issue of Granta: The Magazine of New Writing, with a short story titled "The Sex Lives of African Girls." We caught up with Ms. Selasi just a few weeks ago, just before she was prepared to head to Ghana. And I congratulated her on the publication of her first of what we hope will be many stories.

TAIYE SELASI: Thank you so very much, Michel.

MARTIN: Would you agree that there has been, I think perhaps a new wave of writing about Africa that has, in fact, claimed the attention of the international literary community? But many of those - the things that they are writing about are deeply, deeply sad and tragic. Do you share my assessment? I'm thinking Uwem Akpan. I'm thinking of his book. I'm thinking of...

SELASI: "Say You're One of Them."

MARTIN: "Say You're One of Them." I'm thinking of Chimamanda Adichie, which is...

SELASI: "Half of a Yellow Sun."

MARTIN: "Half of a Yellow Sun." Do you - these are things that are based on things that are true and have happened.

SELASI: But it's a bit heavy.

MARTIN: Yeah, it's heavy. Yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SELASI: I know where you're going with that. I mean, it's wonderful to see mainstream publishers in the West, if you will, embracing these African writers. But it's true that if you look at "Say You're One of Them," "Half of the Yellow Sun," "Beneath the Lion's Gaze," or my cousin's "Beasts of No Nation." These are very dark portraits of countries dissolving into various forms of dysfunction. Civil war, the unraveling of the state, hunger, poverty, oppression, you name it.

And while I think that these portrayals are necessary, I feel so strongly that there is so much more to say and to be said about Africa that isn't quite coming to the fore. I read recently that the problem with stereotypes isn't that they are inaccurate, but that they're incomplete. And this captures perfectly what I think about contemporary African literature. The problem isn't that it's inaccurate, it's that it's incomplete.

MARTIN: What do you think of the fact that one of the popular work, "Out of Africa" is actually where it's based in Africa, which is not heavy - well, it has its serious elements, of course. But it's joyous, it's full of life and laughter and love, is "The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency." And the American, you know, singer/songwriter Jill Scott starred in the HBO series based on the novels. But it's written by a Scotsman.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SELASI: Maybe I'm bias because my great grandmother is Scottish. But, no, I think all writers should and can write about all things. I know that there are probably many African writers who would disagree with me or writers in general, but it doesn't bother me at all that this wonderful series came out of that particular imagination because, again, I think it resonates with beauty and with truth. And I, for one, think those are the only standards to which a writer of any color, any gender need hold him or herself.

MARTIN: Talk to me about "The Sex Lives of African Girls" piece that was published in Granta. How did that come about?

SELASI: I began it in 2007. Actually, having discovered that my own body of work, small though it was - and remains - was missing any representation of contemporary Ghana, the country in which my mother lives, from which my father comes and where I go every year. And so I wanted somehow to correct that, to fill in that gap, to just write something about Ghana. But when I sat down to do that, I felt funnily enough, this sort of weight immediately descend upon my shoulders.

And I think part of this must be how I was educated. The high school literary canon usually includes one piece of African literature, if the high school student is lucky, and in my case it was "Things Fall Apart." And I always say that sort of seems to characterize my own personal experience as a reader and a writer with African literature, "Things Fall Apart." But when I sat down to actually write a piece of fiction myself I thought, okay, "Things Fall Apart," we get it. I should try to do something different. And so I thought let me start with a scene that I know really, really well, and that is the Christmas party.

Every Christmas, all around Ghana, there are tons of these parties and they are full of everything that exists in human life in Ghana and worldwide. And so that's where I started and the story sort of took itself where it wanted to go - the second person narrator leading me certainly as I was writing through a single day in the households in which she lives. And it does, finally enough, it does touch on a lot of dark heavy realities the very things that I say contemporary African literature maybe dwells too much in. But I'd like to think that it does so in a way that makes the narrator and the experience immediately accessible both to African and non-African readers alike.

MARTIN: I am interested in this question of the, your sense of the responsibility of the artist, if there is one. You know, on the one hand there are some truly horrific things going on on the continent right now, and there aren't many people who feel that that doesn't get enough of the world's attention. On the other hand, as we've just talked about, there are so many people who say, you know, Africa is a continent of 53 countries, people doing all kinds of things, you know, living like everywhere else in the world, normal lives and we don't hear enough about that.

SELASI: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: So I'm just interested in how you are navigating that as an artist.

SELASI: Well, it's interesting. I agree that most of the horrors that are perpetrated in Africa often by African governments themselves don't get enough attention in the West. But the question I think is what type of attention are you looking for? Literature, unique amongst other forms of attention, I think has the ability to shed light on what is human and what is universal about experiences wherever they take root. And to that extent, I think that literature about Africa, literature set in Africa, whether it be written by Africans or not, has this amazing opportunity to show the world and Africans ourselves, you know, first and foremost we're human beings. The central organizing unit of our world is the family, not the nation state.

And the thing that frustrates me the most when I think about the countries from which I come, Nigeria and Ghana, is the sense that the lives of millions of women and children and young men should somehow be held hostage to the ego-maniacal ambitions of a few middle-aged men. I think this idea is obscene and I think it needs to be discussed. I think it must be discussed. And I think literature that ignores this truth isn't telling the truth. That hasn't been said.

To leave out the other stories or to let them sort of lie under the rubble of things having fallen apart is incomplete. And so as a writer I think I'm always sort of seeking to excavate human narrative from underneath all of that and hold it up to the light of universal experience. And to say as the highbrow social magazine Us Weekly says: Africans, they're just like us. We're living the lives that everyone in the world is living. And when that happens and only when that happens, I think does it start to seem obscene. Does it start to seem absurd? Does it start to make you crazy to think that teenagers using Facebook, dating, breaking up, mothers wanting the best for their children, fathers finding work, losing work, pursuing dreams. The whole panoply of human experience, to think that that is being pressed down, limited and curtailed by these really limited and in many ways outdated political squabbles, that becomes absurd.

Only when we can see that human beings being limited, being fundamentally limited by that are exactly the same as human beings everywhere else.

MARTIN: Speaking of somebody who's herself dug very deep into the well of humanity and exploring all that that means, I understand that you have a Toni Morrison story.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SELASI: I do. When I was finishing at Oxford I wrote a short play. Not amongst my finest works.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SELASI: But it was produced brilliantly by a woman named Dr. Avery Willis, who happens to be Professor Morrison's niece. And so when the play had just wrapped she asked me did I want to come to a reception for her aunt who was receiving an honorary degree. I said, as one says, of course.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SELASI: And I showed up to discover that the reception was actually an intimate dinner at which nobody seemed to want to take seat next to Professor Morrison. It ended up that I had no place else to sit, so sat there and she asked me...

MARTIN: See, this might be why I'm in journalism because I'd of made a beeline right there.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Okay. I mean. And I would've waited for them to dislodge me. But proceed. Go ahead.

SELASI: But I mean now I spend most of my time with characters. Then even worse, I was writing a thesis, so I spent all my times with books. I didn't know the first thing about how to strike up casual conversation. And so I find myself next to my lifelong literary hero. And she asked me, so what do you do? And I said, I want to be a writer. And she said something along the lines of you can't want to be a writer. Either you are or you aren't. So I said yes I am a writer.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SELASI: And at the end of the conversation I mentioned that I was returning to the States, moving to New York, intending to give it a go to sort of become a professional artist of some kind or another. She said oh, that's fantastic. I'm down the street in Princeton. Why don't you look me up when we get back? Obviously I did not look up her Toni Morrison when I got back to the States. But her son called me some weeks later and said, you know, my mom asked if you'd like to come over to the house. She would like to help you.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SELASI: I said I was really that obvious that I need help? He said yes I think it is. But she also said don't bring any writing because she doesn't want you to be scared. So I did. I went to her house and we sat and we spoke and I tried to explain why having only loved writing and only written in high school and grade school, why I got to college and suddenly couldn't do it anymore.

Anyway, a year goes by and I went back to her house. Actually this time it was her son's house, but it was Christmas time and she was there. And she said, you know, Taiye, for a year now every time I've seen you I've expected you to have a peach cobbler in one hand, because I promised that I'd bring my dad's cobbler to her, and a manuscript in the other. The least you could do is bring the cobbler.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SELASI: Really, where is the manuscript? And finally she said listen, I'm going to give you a year. If you don't have something for me by then I don't know what to say. And on New Year's Eve of the next year I was in Ethiopia, I emailed "The Sex Lives of African Girls" to Professor Morrison.

MARTIN: Wow. Well, if I...

SELASI: I was scared.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: If I give you another deadline, what might happen?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: All right then. This time next year...

SELASI: I'm willing. Well, this time next year, what would you like?

MARTIN: Not that I'm Toni Morrison...

SELASI: Who is? Who is?

MARTIN: But definitely a peach cobbler and...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: ...a finished manuscript. Well we are very fortunate and happy to meet you at really kind of at the beginning of this journey. What's next?

SELASI: Well, I'm actually going to Ghana to finish my first novel. It's called "Ghana Must Go." And it tells the story of a West African family sort of spread out across the States, England and West Africa. And that is due out the winter of 2013.

MARTIN: Okay. It's a date.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SELASI: I'll see you there.

MARTIN: I'll see you there. Taiye Selasi is a writer. Her short story "The Sex Lives of African Girls" is featured in the F Word issue of Granta: The Magazine of New Writing, and she was with us from New York.

Taiye, thank you so much for joining us

SELASI: My pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

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