Taiye Selasi

Taiye Selasi is the author of “Ghana Must Go: A Novel” and several other novels and short stories. She spoke about her inspirations and techniques used in her stories at the Symposium for African Writers in the Student Union on Tuesday afternoon.
Photo Credit: Mike McGraw | Daily Texan Staff

African author Taiye Selasi spoke at the Symposium for African Writers at the Student Union on Tuesday.

Four other authors sat in the front row to see Selasi, as she spoke about her inspirations, writing techniques and recent exploration of African literature.

Selasi, author of “Ghana Must Go: A Novel” and several other novels, said her writing reflects that she never quite understood her own life and her family’s position in the world.

“Our class position was always in question, growing up the way that I did,” Selasi said. “My racial identity, my cultural identity, everything was always in question.”

Selasi said that, while class position remained a constant question in her everyday life, the hospital where her parents worked as doctors showed a different picture.

“The one thing that was clear to me, even as a young person, when I went to the hospital, was that all people were equal,” Selasi said. “Strangely, the hospital — the illness, it occurs to me now — became this space in which color and class did not exist.”

Selasi said her stories rarely move in an organized, linear method because it is not natural.

“I think that I had a sort of constitutional impatience with purely linear narrative,” Selasi said. “I think ‘Driver’ is the only thing I’ve ever written, including my journal entries, that just goes from point A to point Z. My mind doesn’t work that way, I am not convinced that anyone’s mind works that way.”

English lecturer Aaron Bady said Selasi’s writing brings a different perspective to African culture.

“An important part of what she’s doing is writing about middle-class Africa, writing about Africans outside of the narratives through which Africanness is traditionally construed in the media, but in a way that is not triumphant — it’s just very human,” Bady said.

English professor emeritus Bernth Lindfors said ever since Chinua Achebe — the first African author to visit UT — spoke in 1969, students have developed new perspectives and garnered greater interest in African literature. 

“It was important for our students to address him about the literature he had written,” Lindfors said. “He had published four fast-breaking novels by that time and was a well-known figure who contributed enormously to the awareness of students not only about Nigerian politics — what was going on in Nigeria at the time — but also an insight into what African writers were doing to address some of the problems in their own society.”

Starting Tuesday, the Department of English will bring five writers of contemporary African literature to the Union as part of its Symposium for African Writers.

Aaron Bady, English lecturer and postdoctoral fellow, said the event is expected to provide an introduction to writers who represent contemporary African literature and for them to read and discuss each other’s work. According to Bady, the symposium — sponsored by the Ethnic and Third World Literatures specialization, the Department of English, the UT Africa Program and the Michener Center for Writers — will include talks from Taiye Selasi, Maaza Mengiste, Sofia Samatar, Nnedi Okorafor and Laila Lalami.

“The symposium was created on a desire to bring some of the most exciting African writers that are writing right now,” Bady said. “We want for them to have a conversation about what it means to be a writer in the 20th century — and particularly for this group of people that are very global.”

Bady said each of the writers will bring a different subject to the event. He said Okorafor and Samatar are science-fiction and fantasy writers who will speak about the concept of Afrofuturism, which is fantasy with an awareness or an interest in Africa. He also said the goal was for those two writers to have a conversation with another more conventional literary writer, specifically Selasi, who is known for her Afropolitan writing, which emphasizes ordinary experiences in Africa.

The other two writers, Lalami and Mengiste, are historical-fiction writers who will discuss unknown or unpopular historical stories that took place in Africa, according to Bady.

“I think this is a great introduction to some really amazing writers whose work doesn’t necessarily get around,” Bady said. “In a lot of ways, these five writers represent where African literature is going.”

Selasi will open the symposium, then it will continue through Wednesday with talks from the other authors. The symposium will conclude with a panel of all five writers conversing with each other. 

“This is a chance to put a conversation between these writers and to see what they have to say to each other,” Bady said. “I’m very excited to see what they have to say to each other and how that conversation will look like because it is a conversation that doesn’t happen often.”

An earlier version of this article misstated the hosting department. The English department will host the symposium.