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The title of Taiye Selasi’s debut short story is as blunt as it is ironic, proclaiming bold content while quietly mocking Western anthropological theses of old. I first came upon ‘The Sex Lives of African Girls’ in Granta’s The F Word edition, and cynically wondered whether the story would fulfil its titular promise. Too often, I have been deceived by intriguingly offbeat titles that conceal an average story. As is usually the case with such casual literary assumptions, I was wrong. The sustained tension and desperate sadness of this short story, the closed, heavy atmosphere, and the eerily prescient “you” narrator are even more keenly felt in the context of the stark, detached tone of the title.
Before I go any further, though, I’ll admit that I haven’t read much African literature—whether set in Africa or written by African writers. I’m not sure if this means I’m hopelessly unequipped to make any kind of comment on a story about Ghanaian women set in Ghana written by a British-Ghanaian writer, but what I do know is that ‘The Sex Lives of African Girls’ caught me unaware. It is a beautifully sustained and subtly written story that swells with tension before breaking in a tragic series of realisations, gradually making sense of the strange dread I had felt from the beginning.
Eleven-year-old Edem is our protagonist, “rescued” by her uncle three years earlier and brought to live with his well-off family in Accra “for a while”. She longs to see her mother again, but “[n]o one has heard from her since”. Edem is now part of a new household, and initially, there is little to suggest anything other than a typical wealthy Ghanaian family. In between the beginning and the end, on the way from not knowing to knowing, we follow Edem as she moves between people and rooms: eating breakfast with the servants; helping her Auntie prepare for the Christmas party; borrowing books from her cousin, Comfort, who is studying at Oxford. But there are fractures in the smooth prose, which, though faint at first, spread and multiply as if across ice.
While helping with the preparations for the party, Edem stumbles onto this scene:
Uncle was in his chair, facing the window and drapes, gripping the edge of the desk with his fingertips. From your vantage behind him across the room in the doorway you could barely see Ruby between his knees. She was kneeling there neatly, skinny legs folded beneath her, her hands on his knees, heart-shaped face in his lap.
The “you” voice used here and throughout the story links Edem and the reader. I’ve often seen “you” narrators as little less than gimmick, an awkward attention-grabbing device, but this “you” voice is brilliantly devised and controlled, puts me in the shoes of this eleven-year-old girl, who only gradually becomes aware of the disturbing dynamics of her new household’s inhabitants.
In an interview with Granta magazine, author Selasi commented, “This ‘you’ voice appeared in my head from the beginning and guided me through the text, limiting my view of things to her view: I rarely looked where she wasn’t looking”. At the same time, though, I also felt strangely distanced from Edem, as if I were watching her through a pane of glass, unable to make a difference to her story. This is probably the saddest thing about ‘The Sex Lives of African Girls’: there is a horrible sense of inevitability. Suffice to say, the opening lines “Begin, inevitably, with Uncle” is not as innocent or simple as it sounds.
This is dark, sad writing: women are whores, childless mothers or motherless children—submissive members of a patriarchy they reinforce daily. In the story, Selasi makes an interesting reference to Othello. Uncle has arranged an Othello reading group among the house staff, and the “best-looking houseboy” Yaw renames himself Iago. Like the stage directions peppered throughout the text, this Shakespearian reference adds to the sense that the women in this household are playing inescapable roles determined for them by men. Who, then, is Othello, who is Desdemona and who is Iago?
When we are asked about the first thing that comes to mind when we think about Africa, most of us might think: poverty, famine or war; indirectly, ‘The Sex Lives of African Girls’ deals with what could be termed ‘African issues’—but this is not the point of it. When Selasi, in the same interview with Granta, was asked whether this depressing portrayal of women was intentional, she said, “It was only months and months after I’d finished editing—focusing narrowly on rhythm, image, pacing, form—that I noticed how dark the content was, how fundamentally damning the comment.” But, of course, this story is not a reinterpretation of Othello; it is more subtle and nuanced than that, and is not meant as a representation of all African women. In an interview with NPR, Selasi said, “I read recently that the problem with stereotypes isn’t that they are inaccurate, but that they’re incomplete. And this captures perfectly what I think about contemporary African literature. The problem isn’t that it’s inaccurate, it’s that it’s incomplete.”
Don’t let the darkness of this short story put you off. ‘The Sex Lives of African Girls’ is exceptional. Controlled, darkly atmospheric and unexpectedly moving, it made me want to immediately rectify a certain omission in my reading repertoire. Any suggestions?