Author, Afropolitan Taiye Selasi Speaks With WomenWerk on Identity, Self-Love and Inspiration
Internationally-renown author Taiye Selasi has boldly affirmed the mission and vision of the WomenWerk Forum and Gala launched in March 2014. As a result, the WomenWerk Team saw it fitting to invite this leading Afropolitan for a converstaion to lauch the WomenWerk Blog!
In her conversation with WomenWerk, Selasi tells all with the flare that undeniably belongs to a proud international woman. From her critically acclaimed novel Ghana Must Go and controversial short stories, WomenWerk is proud to offer insight to Selasi’s fresh perspective and unique style. In this interview, she offers keen insight and wisdom for women of all ages. From work to play, relationships to reclaiming her personal course, this launch post is sizzling with relevant and recent information for all.
WomenWerk: What are you most proud of as a woman and why? Taiye Selasi: In 2009, I read a Harper's interview with the designer Diane von Furstenberg. Near the end, she says, "I'm lucky, because early on I realized that I should be my best friend. That's the lesson that I would like to give everybody." It would take me another four years to learn this lesson, but I have. As a woman, I am most proud of learning to be, of becoming my best friend. So often we are compelled to direct our kindness to other people—our families, our parents, our partners, our friends—without extending it, unequivocally, to ourselves. For many years, I judged myself on the basis of my accomplishments, believing my self-worth to be tied in some way to external affirmations of talent. Only recently have I come to know myself as truly, intrinsically worthy of love: God's, others', my own. This knowledge has changed my life. WomenWerk: What project(s) are you working on right now? Taiye Selasi: Too many! I've just finished shooting a literary competition show here in Italy (think "Master Chef" for writers) and am developing two film projects in Italian. After a year on the road, touring "Ghana Must Go," I'm finally retiring the Rimowa and beginning the adventure of novel number two. I'm almost always working on a story; short fiction keeps my creative muscles loose, if you will. And I never go anywhere without a camera. One day, I'd love to put together an exhibit of travel photography. If only I had more time...
WomenWerk: What advice would you tell your younger self? Taiye Selasi: I would tell my younger self to make more mistakes. Growing up in a quintessentially rigorous immigrant household, I didn't allow myself much room for error. My mother demanded perfect grades, perfect manners, perfect performances—and I came to demand the same of myself. If I could have a quiet word with that hard-striving, big-dreaming girl, I would tell her to fail as often as she succeeded. Not to fear getting it wrong. Not to fear vulnerability, exposure. WomenWerk: You work on different continents and in different cultural contexts. What tips do you have for women who want to be a globetrotter like you? Taiye Selasi: [I’ve learned that it’s important to] Pack light, pay attention, laugh always, expect wonders.
WomenWerk: The word Afropolitan is sometimes criticized as elitist and exclusionary. Can you clarify what you meant when you coined the phrase Afropolitan? What are your thoughts on this controversy and the debate the popularity of the word has taken on? Taiye Selasi: Nearly ten years ago, I wrote an essay describing a particular experience. I was interested in how that experience might be said to yield a particular identity, a whole greater than the sum of its African and cosmopolitan parts. I was delighted in the years that followed to find that so many others shared this experience, but have no interest in creating labels, much less in starting movements. I'm a writer, not a sociologist. I describe what I see. The true joy for me lies in description, which makes possible recognition on the part of the reader. Naturally, there are as many readers who don't recognize their experience in my description as those who do. This is wonderful. This is humanity: ever complex, ever diverse. Ultimately, all the words that we use to access the tangled wilds of personal identity—"hipster," "internationalist," "pan-African," say—include some and exclude others. The very exercise is one of demarcation, disaggregation from a whole. With "Bye-Bye, Babar," I observed a certain experience, described it, applied the word "Afropolitan" to it. I still observe that experience, and still delight in so doing.
WomenWerk: You've described the conception of your first novel, ‘Ghana Must Go’ as “a sudden epiphany in which the characters and ideas came rushing to your mind during a yoga retreat.” In writing or thinking of your second novel, have you found the process to be similar? How do you find new inspiration to improve your craft?
Taiye Selasi: I feel incredibly blessed in that the ideas—the plots, the characters, the scenes—are always there. The difficult bit is never choosing the story, but crafting its telling. What is the voice? What is the pace? Who is the narrator? What is the tone? Empathetic? Ironic? Confessional? Detached? These questions keep me up at night. With the second novel, as with the first, the plot just sort of announced itself. The melody is clear. Now comes the hard work: picking the meter, the key.
WomenWerk: Following your passion can often a daunting task. You’ve had an interesting journey to following your passion as an author- looking back, what were the key conversations or events that affirmed to you that pursuing writing was something you had to do? What was the final impetus to start writing full-time instead of continuing the DPhil program?
Taiye Selasi: When I got to Oxford, I immediately befriended the author and activist Wes Moore. He was one year ahead of me in the M.Phil. program in International Relations, and became a surrogate brother. Years later, when Wes quit his job in investment banking to write his memoir, "The Other Wes Moore," I was still on the fence: working in television to repay my loans while yearning to write full-time. One afternoon—I'll never forget it—Wes said this to me: "If you were an investor, would you invest in yourself? In your passion for writing, I mean?" I'd never thought about it in those terms: investing my time, my savings, my faith in my work. I quit my job within the week and found an agent within the year. I didn't tell my family at first, as I needed neither their encouragement nor their permission. I was finally ready to bet on myself, come what may. I think every happy woman has reached this point in one space or another. Having first understood what she has to invest—her time, her talents, her means, her love—she makes a conscious decision about where to invest, and takes the risk. WomenWerk: Who are two females you admire and what have you learned from their work?
Taiye Selasi: I'm perennially in awe of Heather McGhee, the recently-elected president of the think tank DEMOS. At 33, Heather is the youngest ever president of a major American think tank. With a BA from Yale and a JD from Berkley, she's as bright as they come—but what I've learned from watching her ascent is how to craft one's career in accordance with one's values. Heather truly believes in what she does, and it's instructional watching her do it; whenever she's on MSNBC, I just sit back and watch in wonder. Reading and listening to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has the same effect. She is so clear, so wise, so intelligent (and at the same time, so funny!), it's a pleasure to experience her mind at work. I was still at Oxford when she published "Purple Hibiscus," and felt such a rush of joy reading it. She inspires me to push myself to new heights, creatively, intellectually. All artists should have such an example.