What Can We Steal From Taiye Selasi’s “The Sex Lives of African Girls”?

Title of Work and its Form:  “The Sex Lives of African Girls,” short story
Author: Taiye Selasi (on Twitter @taiyeselasi)
Date of Work: 2011
Where the Work Can Be Found:  The story debuted in the Summer 2011 issue of Granta.  It was subsequently selected for Best American Short Stories 2012 by Heidi Pitlor and Tom Perrotta.

Bonuses: Ms. Selasi is on quite a roll!  Here is the Montreal Quarterly review of her first novel, Ghana Must GoHere is what The Rumpus thought of the book.  Here is an essay Ms. Selasi wrote about contextualizing her heritage.  Here is what Karen Carlson thought of the story.  (She really liked it!)

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Narrative Pace

Discussion:
In this second person story, you are an eleven-year-old girl who is living with her extended family.  Edem longs for her mother, but is surrounded by a colorful cast of relatives and servants.  The story is split into nine sections, through the course of which we learn a great deal about the role that women of all ages play in Ghanian society.  Edem is a fascinating age; young enough to be surprised when she walks in on her uncle…receiving…pleasure, but old enough to feel a stirring for Iago, a good-looking houseboy who changed his name out of love for Shakespeare.  (I wonder why he chose Iago.)  The story begins and ends as the citizens of Accra celebrate.  By contrast, “you” are the subject of attempted abuse, unpleasantness that is thankfully interrupted by Auntie.  The experience inspires a sad epiphany that will likely color the rest of “your” life.

It’s no surprise that Ms. Selasi’s debut novel has garnered extreme praise from reviewers; her writing is crying out for a vast canvas and her characters are deep and complicated.  “The Sex Lives of African Girls” is most certainly a short story, and a very good one, but its structure is fairly different from those of the other stories in this edition of Best American.  Through the course of nine numbered sections, Ms. Selasi tells Edem’s story and introduces her extended family and gets into a big discussion about gender roles in places like Ghana.

Ms. Selasi is using the second person to reduce emotional distance between Edem and the reader, which could have made it harder for her to address the culture at large.  After all, a third person narrator would have had the freedom to say anything it wanted, regardless of time or location or character focus.  Ms. Selasi began and ended the story at a big party, which eliminated some concerns.  The reader grows to understand eleven-year-old Edem’s surroundings because they are all laid out in front of Edem, too.  The non-Ghanian reader gets a taste of the culture as they meet people like Comfort and (of course) Uncle.  I was reminded in some way of the wedding scene at the beginning of The Godfather.  Are Italian, American or Ghanian parties really substantially different?  Nah; people are the same all over.  Ms. Selasi’s structure allows us to experience the little differences between cultures.

The story teaches the reader how to understand it.  Ghanian culture may be a little bit obscure for some readers, so Ms. Selasi begins with a basic primer.  Thinking about eleven-year-olds as anything but little baby children is certainly not normal for most people, so Ms. Selasi gives Edem a dress that is too long, resulting in a wardrobe malfunction.  The hierarchy in Edem’s family (and in their servants) is unfamiliar, so Ms. Selasi employs flashbacks to teach us.  Once we get the lay of the land in Edem’s life, we can properly empathize.  (And boy, do we empathize!)

The narrative begins somewhat slowly as Ms. Selasi builds her world.  Once that has been accomplished, she speeds up the events a little.  There’s an honest-to-goodness action sequence in section VII that is a lot of fun to read.  Edem runs through the homestead, making brief mention of everything that is happening along the way.  “Sex Lives” isn’t a story about characters in isolation, but ones who populate a much larger world.  The sequence allows you to see servants preparing for a party, “your” crush kissing your cousin and a muscular naked man before “you” change into new clothes.  (The sequence even relates to the theme!)   The first half of the story is a little bit slower before it speeds to a conclusion.  Ms. Selasi creates suspense and tension by varying the pace.

What Should We Steal?

  • Teach your reader how to understand your work.  The reader is willing to believe anything you tell them, so long as they are properly prepared.
  • Speed up the pace of your narrative once the background has been established.  Think of exposition like a set of training wheels; once the reader can stay upright in the world you’ve constructed, go ahead and vary the pace of your story.

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