It is always a shock to see a radio DJ’s face.
I’m not talking radio 1, where the DJs are slebs themselves, rocking up cheerfully on Saturday night entertainment wearing sequins and sheer panels. I’m talking the REAL DJs – radio 2, radio 4 – the Salt of the Earth. Whether you tune in at the same time each day or reach for a trusty podcast, radio listeners have their favourite stations, programmes, presenters. For me, it’s Woman’s Hour. Can’t get enough of the constant, mild level of outrage they sustain.
But the shock – the unbearable shock – of seeing a DJ’s face for the first time! I’m not a person who pictures someone from their voice – but you can always tell when it’s NOT what you expect. The problem, perhaps, is that TV accustomises us to glossy glamour and sharp dressing. We expect – we demand, dammit – a good blow-dry and a sharp wardrobe as much as we insist on them being a down-to-earth voice of the people. So what a shock to encounter, for example, the true mug of broadcasting legend, Radio 2’s Ken Bruce with his smooth, amused Celtic tones (sorry to alienate non-UK readers):
I felt like I’d been talking to a Pierce Brosnan lookalike all evening and had he reached up to his forehead and rolled down a finely formed rubber facemask to reveal an ageing bloke in glasses. Almost affronted. I love him just as much as before – but it shakes you up.
The same thing happens with authors, to a lesser extent as you’re not engaging with them directly but via their story. Luckily, as a paperback reader I’m rarely faced with the author’s mug shot, wrestling in on my direct interaction with plot and characters. No such luck with Taiye Selasi, author of Ghana Must Go. A debut novel, but her face has been e.v.e.r.y.w.h.e.r.e. No doubt drunkenly reeling with the novelty of finding a talented and beautiful novelist, Selasi’s publishers have thoroughly wheeled her out across the press. Yes, she looks like Iman and has flawless cheekbones, almond eyes and glossy, colt-like limbs. But I don’t want to see it. I want no distance between a novel and myself. Being able to picture Selasi, elegantly drumming her nails and sipping espresso while spinning out her tale makes it seem somehow fake – I want to picture a novel emerging from the ether, whole, new but somehow eternal, waiting for its first contact with humanity.
Anyway, with Selasi peering elegantly over my shoulder, I tucked in. Kindle edition, so Selasi wasn’t staring up at me from the dust jacket too. But it’s worthy of a bookshelf investment. The writing is wonderful and vivid. There are many threads I could pull on for discussion, as it’s undoubtedly rich, but for me the novel’s greatest success is its depiction of family. Focussing on each of the family members in turn, Selasi captures the tensions, joys, and belonging of being a family. We see the different perspectives that make up the dysfunctional but beating whole in a way that rings deeply profoundly true. The family has no hero and no villain, but is a beautifully shaded, dense mosaic of people and memory.
For me, the strength was in this subtlety, so the climax of the novel – the uncovering of a horrible hidden experience – seemed in its extremity to rob the family some of its everyman quality that makes it so special. It makes its experience very specific and dramatic and for me, less effective for it.
The other facet of the novel that is fascinating is its perspective on African family and love. I rarely read “African” fiction (which is only one, reductive categorisation of this novel) but its historical perspective on the emotional development of Ghanaians – from learning to love to learning to stay – is beautiful and brave. Selasi faces up to a discrimination voiced by in the book by a marginal, negative character – that Africans have/had a tendency leave their families and swan off alone – and examines what truth there is and isn’t in it, and where it comes from, all without breaking the skin of the story. It’s a difficult issue to look straight in the eye, but Selasi does so with understanding and grace.
She may be more beautiful, more groomed, and considerably more talented than I, but Selasi is a new friend to me. I look forward to meeting her again.