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On Taiye Selasi’s “The Sex Lives of African girls”

Taiye Selas, The Sex Lives of African girlsIn an interview on the American radio station NPR, the young British-Ghanaian writer Taiye Selasi discusses contemporary African fiction as well as The Sex Lives of African Girls, her debut short story, published in the literary magazine Granta last spring (issue 115, The F Word). Referring both to the new wave of African authors and the older generation of English-speaking writers — from Chinua Achebe to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie — she points out that, while their books dwell on war, civil strife and hunger, they pay less attention to the life of ordinary Africans. Though such portrayals of Africa are necessary, she stresses, they are incomplete: Selasi, for her part, aims to fill the gap and «excavate humane narrative» «under the rubble of things having fallen apart».
Because the family, and not the nation state, is the ‘organizing unit of African world’, she starts her short story with a family occurrence, a Christmas party, which is a typical African tradition. As the narrative develops, however, it touches on issues that – dealing with Africa - cannot be avoided: oppression, poverty, sexual exploitation. Still, it does so in a fascinating way, from the perspective of a child who is growing up and has to come to terms with the loss of her mother and dark family secrets.

The first impressive thing about The Sex Lives of African Girls is the title. It sounds matter-of-fact and ironic — even sarcastic — at the same time (and echoes the title of some ethological treatise). The narrative is in fact about the sex life not only of its protagonist, the 11-year-old Edem, but of all the women gravitating around a rich Ghanaian household. Except that for these women sex is a story of abuse and humiliation inevitably starting at an early age, with close relatives as initiators. The women around her, notices Edem, do not often smile, and she reads ‘hatred’ in their eyes when she surprises them while having sex.

As we learn in the first sections of the story — narrated in the second person by a “you voice” that accompanies the protagonist all the while — Edem lives with “Uncle” (her mother’s brother) and his family in a villa on the outskirts of Accra. She is fatherless and her mother Dzifa lives far away, somewhere in Nigeria, estranged from her family of origin, who consider her a prostitute. Uncle has rescued Edem from poverty, but the child misses her mother badly and dreams of going back to her. While Dzifa has no education and no money, Uncle he is wealthy and cultivated. He is “enlightened”, too: he has started a “Shakespeare Reading Group” for his houseboys and recites Othello with them in the garden. The housegirl Ruby does not take part in the group, though, nor does Uncle’s beautiful wife Kadijeh, who is assertive but also obedient like a Desdemona. A fourth woman in the household is Comfort, Uncle and Kadijeh’s daughter, who studies in Oxford.

The story takes place through a single day. It is Christmas time and in the evening Uncle and Auntie Kadijeh are throwing a party for the good society of Accra. During the preparations for the party, from morning to dark, Edem experiences a revolution in Uncle’s villa: she witnesses things that she should not see (kisses, sex between house staff and family members) and overhears bits of conversations that unveil long hidden secrets (whose child is her cousin Comfort, Auntie’s or the housegirl’s?). The scenes seen and the words heard also reawaken images, episodes from her own past. At the end of the evening, it is like a jigsaw fitting together: every detail leads Edem to understand what has become of her mother and what things are really like in Uncle’s house.

This realization and her discovery of sex happen simultaneously. Edem is in love with the handsome houseboy Yaw (who has renamed himself after Iago) and is becoming aware of her sexual desires. She senses a world between man and woman from which she is still excluded, an intimacy between adults that she, as a lonely child, envies. However, sex appears to be linked to power and submission, too, and Edem experiences it to her cost when her drunk Uncle kisses her during the party. He is immediately stopped by Auntie Kadijeh, though, utterly upset by her husband’s behaviour. It distresses her that yet another man in the family should abuse his own ‘blood’.
So the story closes: at the end of the eventful day, Edem comes to realize that all the women she knows – her mother and her aunt, the housegirl Ruby and her cousin Comfort - have been abused and deceived in different ways by the men of the family. She finally understands why her mother has left her family and lived in hatred, a feeling that has made of her a dead woman.
Now Edem no longer wants to leave Accra. She feels that her place is with ‘these women’, with Auntie and Ruby who «mustn’t be left to die too», like her mother. It is only here that we learn Edem’s name. Throughout the narrative she is addressed as “you”, “child” or “Ehn”. After rescuing her from Uncle, Auntie calls her Edem. It is as if the young girl has slowly become herself through a painful learning process. She does not feel so lonely anymore.

So dark a story is told in a beautiful, sensuous language, rich and alliterating, with many African words, which add to the musicality of the text. The narrative proceeds in a rhapsodic way: it opens and closes on the same terrible scene, with Edem and Uncle alone in the library, at the end of the party. However, between the opening and closing scene, the “you voice” jumps backwards to tell Edem’s “Sad Story” from the start, and then moves freely between past and present. This structure makes for an engaging reading pace, along with the music of alliteration, the recurring leitmotive and the vivid descriptions of people and places which alternate with short, often bitter, remarks.

Edem is a lonely child who loves books and has a strong imagination and sense of beauty, so she expresses her thoughts and fears in powerful images. When describing what she sees around her or what she remembers, she adds adjective to adjective, conjuring up colours, smells, textures. The women’s dresses at the party — «their bright bubas» — «adorn the large garden like odd brilliant bulbs that bloom only at night». When she thinks of her mother’s hatred, Edem can see it shine through in her pupils as «bright knives in the dark of her irises». As for Auntie, she looks to her like a «bright black haired chimera», though her «fortitude» – she eventually finds out - is nothing but «a lie».
For all their beauty, the latter images suggest violence and danger. A sense of menace is all-present and increased by different devices. The “you voice” technique (so defined by Selasi) draws us into the story keeping suspense high. As we follow Edem’s every movement and thought, we are kept in constant trepidation for the child’s safety. Also, the nine sections of the story resemble scenes from a drama: its villain, Uncle, is introduced in the first scene with a short announcement that sounds like a terrible stage direction: “Enter Uncle”. However, though Edem’s story begins with him, it ends with the girl and Kadijeh holding each other tight.
In a complex and compelling way, The Sex Lives of African Girls weaves different themes together into its beautiful prose. True to Selasi’s intentions, it sheds light not only on the darker realities of contemporary Africa, but also on ‘universal experiences’ such as growing up, coping with loneliness, understanding the people we live with.


More information on Taiye Selasi and her first novel Ghana Must Go, due in 2013, on her website
The transcript of her interview on NPR is here
And another interview on granta.com

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