Taiye Selasi is the embodiment of “Afropolitan”, a word she coined. Born in London, to a Nigerian mother and Ghanaian father, the 33-year-old writer and photographer grew up in the States and now lives in Rome. Her debut novel, a sprawling, globe-trotting family saga called Ghana Must Go, has received enthused endorsements from Toni Morrison and Salman Rushdie, and she is one of the Waterstones 11 for 2013.
Is it true that the idea for Ghana Must Go came at a yoga retreat in Sweden?
Absolutely. It was 5am and I was in the shower and everyone in the novel was there in an instant. But the retreat didn’t allow electronics, so I had this epiphany, this revelation – here’s the novel, these are the people, this is their story – where’s my laptop? Nothing doing, so my friend and I sort of escaped, took the train to Copenhagen, and that’s where I began the novel.
We like to think that moments of inspiration will come on yoga retreats – is that your experience?
No, the thing that comes most frequently to me on yoga retreats is excruciating pain in my hips. Toni Morrison said that she wrote her first novel because it was the book she wanted to read; I think this novel came to me like that. It was entirely realized, like remembering a book I’d read, except I thought: No, I haven’t read that. So I had to get to work.
That must often happen with debut novels – you pour your whole life into them…
To be honest, all my work comes that way. The big ideas always come in flashes. I don’t really craft stories that much. I genuinely don’t know where these people come from and I’ve often wondered if writing is just a socially acceptable form of madness.
Routine is important for a lot of writers, but you wrote Ghana Must Go in Nigeria, Ghana, India and Rome…
I found there were three things I needed and still need to do the work: silence, light and a sense of space. But I’m very willing to follow my imagination where it wants to go, rather than dragging it around behind me or unleashing it and teaching it to sit and roll over. I still read bits of Ghana Must Go – before bed, I sometimes open to a random page and gaze at it lovingly – and I think to myself: I don’t know even know this. Genuinely, if I, Taiye, knew everything Ghana Must Go knows collectively, I would not suffer heartbreak, I would not suffer any of the petty human woes that I continue to suffer on a regular basis.
So you completed 100 pages of the novel, got a book deal and then there was the little block…
What do we call it? The little block! It was six months long, those were the dark days.
You thought you might never write again?
I did, but every blocked writer does. That’s what makes writer’s block so painful. You think the well has run dry, maybe somewhere in the heavens the tap has been turned off. That’s beyond frightening. That has nothing to do with deadlines, contracts signed or advance money spent, that has to do with the fear of losing your joy, your love. I was heartbroken. But then of course I was really heartbroken. I was heartbroken by the man I was foolishly dating at the time. Then I was able to finish the book!
What do you do now when you’re stuck?
I live in Rome and five minutes from my flat is a church where you can walk in and see this beautiful Caravaggio. Just the way this man uses dark paint: dark to create dark to create dark, the layering of the darkness in his work. I just race home: I want to create!
Interview by the guardian