The crowd in the basement of Manhattan’s indie bookstore McNally Jackson spills up onto the stairs. It’s standing room only, even though I arrived over twenty minutes early. I wiggle between people and step-trip over bags, briefcases, and feet to find a spot with a decent view of the two empty stools at the front of the room.
We’re all here to see Sapphire—author of novels such as The Kid and Push, which became the acclaimed movie Precious—in conversation with Taiye Selasi about her first novel, Ghana Must Go.
At first glance, the novel is a typical story about the bonds of family. What Selasi has achieved, however, is a disturbingly poetic, penetrative exploration of the emotionally scarred members of the Sai clan at the funeral of their fallen patriarch, who abandoned them years before. The story is broken into three sections and weaves the past and present together. Selasi’s prose borders on poetry; the characters are raw, visceral.
When asked to picture an author at a book reading, most people would conjure up a frumpy, fuzzy-haired woman in Mary Janes and a moth-eaten cardigan. Yet when Selasi appears, she does so like a model emerging from the shadows and into the glare of the catwalk. She knows how to showcase her lean, yoga-inspired figure: high heels, leggings, untucked button-down shirt, a scarf draped in a casual-chic manner across her shoulders.
Selasi has an easy-breezy manner, and Sapphire is equally cool, calm, and collected—wearing the mantle of literary success like a second skin. Sapphire has come prepared with a stack of notecards on which are scrawled questions.
How did Selasi come up with the concept for the book? In the shower at a yoga retreat in Sweden: “The characters appeared to me as in a dream, or actually as in the shower.” She had originally planned to expand her short story “The Sex Lives of African Girls”—published in Granta—into a larger work, but Ghana Must Go came to her instead.
Why the title? She does not really know. It was the first title she gave the book when saving it as a Word document, and she never changed it.
Her next project? A novel set in Rome, a love story. She currently lives there. Living in New York, she said, she was full of confidence but not courage. Living in Rome gives her courage and the inspiration she needs to create.
Another audience member asks about her favorite novels. She pauses to think. Then answers definitively: The God of Small Things, A Heart So White, Lolita. She cites Chinua Achebe as one of her great literary influences, though she doesn’t particularly care for Things Fall Apart.
She doesn’t consider herself an African writer, just a writer: “There are only two types of writers—good writers and bad writers.” The size of the McNally Jackson crowd and the praise she received from Sapphire should assure her of what kind she is.
Photo Credit: Nancy Crompton
This article originally appeared on Zola Books.