tv Talk to Al Jazeera Al Jazeera March 13, 2015 3:30pm-4:01pm EDT
you babies. go to fish! >> al jazeera big pine key florida. >> there is plenty more over on our website. use the address to click on aljazeera.com for all your news and sport. [ ♪ music ♪ ] this week on "talk to al jazeera." author, globe trotter and commentator on race and culture, taiye selasi. >> there is a sense that certain people have to explain their presence. to say that racism is not that race isn't felt. >> the london born, twin daughter of african parents raises the question where are you from?
waiting to hear a country", that person is not accessing information that i think is essential to who i am or to who we are as people. >> there's another part of that which i know as an asian american, wh i'm asked that question "where are you from?" sometimes i take it to many you are not american. >> it's like a code for why are you here? if someone asks in the state where are you from, it's like you say. it may mean tell me a little bit about your background, or i'd like to know something about who you are as an individual. it may also mean are you here - same in germany, italy and
england. there is a sense that certain people have to explain their presence. and for other people they are entitled to that presence. that question, i think, innocent as it often is in the hearts and the mouths of the questioner, i think it has become code for a lot of conversations that are difficult to have. asking you that question is a complicated answer, because... >> forget the answer. >> you were born in london, raised in the united states, your father is from ghana. he left when you and your twin sister... . >> yes, were young. >>..about a year old. pick up from there. >> he went to saudi arabia, where he lived for most of my life. mum, from nigeria, was born in england and had us in england and brought us to the states and is now in ghana. my sister and i, for all of
that, grew up with a firm sense of identity. mine. >> identity was being a twin. >> it was being her twin, yes. her twin. we joked that there were two people in the world to sync with your strange assents, which is mostly american and loss other things in it - she and i. you go no the world, and the world tends to speak of itself in terms of categories, with this vocabulary. that was difficult for us, we were raised by a single mum who is proudly and ferociously yoruba. for her, it's her ethno linguistic cultural identity is more important. my mum is yoruba, we ate food from yoruba, and we did this in chestnut hill, massachusetts,
suburbs. >> when you grew up in boston, a white suburb, chestnut hill. >> especially when it snows. >> when was it apparent to you first? >> that's interesting. i think when i heard people refer to us as black people. >> you didn't think of yourself as a black person. >> it's an invention. one has to learn to think of oneself that way. i have brown skip, i spend as much time as i can in the sun to get browner. to call me black, what does this mean? this refs to a category, it refers to a race that we know is a social construct, constructed to support sociopolitical and sociopolitical hierarchy, they are not power categories, not culture or biological. >> did you feel oppressed by racial stereotypes existent
around you? >> i felt - well, yes. and that's the thing i should say, to say that racism invented is not real - i may not consider myself a black person. i may find other categories more salient. that will not stop someone who has incredibly simplistic and derogatory views of black people from treating me poorly, alas. you can't be racism, i don't believe in it. >> how you see yourself is not you. >> not at all. time and again we were discriminated against on account of our skip colour in boston massachusetts, time and again. no one in our family was blind to that reality. at the same time, when my sister and i got to high school, we spent time with brown skinned people who were not all from west africa. african american people who were
very unconvinced by our cultural identity. and who would say "you don't act black", or "you don't talk black, you talk white." you felt you weren't fully effected by the blacks in america, the african-americans. >> it was clear that we didn't belong fully to a white american demographic or a black american demographic so there wasn't a third option available. we were very much in between. >> when you think about the racial stereotypes, going back to your upbringing in boston, did you feel the need to emphasise to people "hey, look, my parents are surgeons." to separate yourself, perhaps, from unfair racial stereotypes. >> it's a tricky space to negotiate, i think. there were times when the assumptions of other people were
just - they just became noxious. it happens now in subtle ways. i remember i was at a table, across from someone, and someone said "who is that?" pointing to me. this was an italian, someone said "that's the author", and the person he spoke to said "no, the black woman", and the other person repeated "no, that is the author." and it's the subtle moments where something about the way i looked made it impossible for that man to believe that i could be the author of the hour. mum had the same thing. she is a doctor, as you know, and my father and sister as well, in the family business. they'll walk into the consult room and the patient will say "this must be the nurse, it can't be the doctor." >> is it an american problem, a world problem that people cannot accept the truth of what people of african originsers capable of doing, of what they are doing? >> it's not an american problem. though i think that it takes on a slightly different - the
united states has this particular and particularly grews some history -- grew some history with regards to people of african dissent. the slave trade is a hor scror of unique -- horror of unique proportions and brutality and leaves a legacy of what we are watching. i came to united states to hear the rules in ferg where are and staten -- ferguson, and staten island. it's heartbreaking to think that my friend in west africa and western europe are asking. but let's get this straight. there are just unarmed people killed on the streets of the united states, and left for dead. and no one is charged for this, and to say correct, that is what is happening. that is in every way a continuation of a history of country. >> what is your relationship to ghana? 15.
>> besides the fact that that's where your mum lives, does it like. >> we went back and forward between england and the states and nigeria, more often when we were young. when our father came into our life, we went every year to ghana. when we first went i thought we'd feel this open armed embrace, like a welcome home prod gal whatever, but it wasn't like that. there was no - there was no instantaneous sense of belonging. in fact, i felt the same combination of belonging and unbelonging in ghana as i did in england and the states. for a time that was heart-breaking. it occurred to me that there was no place, there's no one place in the world that i can say why this place is mine", and i started thinking of myself as a deter tollialized brown person.
it was when i got to graduate school and i thought about that experience of being a deterritorialized person, knowing yourself home in many places, but not wholly at home in any. it occurred to me this is not just my experience, there are, people. >> i think there may be a lot of people. i think it's part of the modern experience. did that lead you to write this "history is real, cultures are real, but countries are invented." was it the feeling of not having a geographical home? >> no. that's not what led me to write that. what led me to write that was going to grad school studying international studies, and how we came to here in the first place. i was curious about what the countries were. it was clear to me from an early age that there were something
off about the concept. or something i wasn't told, because my mum is - we call her nigerian, and father ghanan. when my mother was born nigeria didn't exist and neither did ghana. how can your salient identity be younger than you? >> so this was in my own personal history, there were calls to question. i carry u.s. and u.k. passports. i do so because i was important in england at a time when that was enough to get a british passport, at a time when the post-colonial moment was still leading to a different approach to immigration than european countries are taking. i came to the united states at a time when it was enough to live and be a law-abiding citizen to get a green card and convert it into citizenship.
i have the u.s. passports. they have not existed for the last 15 years, and i'm aware that there's something so arbitrary about that, that my nationality, which is is meant to be important, is an accident of history. some would say the construct of nation actually helps to litigate those conflicts. >> how so? >> well, i mean in the sense of the united states, you have a shared national identity. you have a country that was formed from people that came from all over. >> do you think michael brown's family would say that? >> do you think that eric garner's family would say that? out. >> i wouldn't dare to speak on behalf of the grieving, but i can certainly say
that as i have written, i don't speak on men from american violence. you never hear american on american crime, american on american violence, why. we don't expect that identity to operate in a way. that would preclude that violence that leads to the injustices seen now. >> you are saying that african-americans to a certain degree feel left out. >> i'm not talking about a feeling, i'm speaking about a reality. it doesn't matter how you feel. if you are shot and killed your feelings don't matter. you are very right from a citizens, they've been champ pd upon. the countries in which you live say that's okay. you don't have to feel any way about that. as far as i'm concerned, it's self-evident. i'm clear as a brown skinned woman, a proud west african,
i'm stephanie sy, you're watching "talk to al jazeera". my guest, author taiye selasi you coined a term in your essay "bye-bye babar", afropolitan. can you explain what it means? >> this is what i wrote when i left grad school and when i was thinking about deterritorialized brown people. after writing an article, i was thinking of that context. it occurs to me that what i'm describing is something one finds all over the world. i describe it has being in an anteroom, a waiting room. there's a door - i could be american. there's a door i could be british. there's i could be nigeria. i could be ghanan. no one in those places looks at
me and says "yes, she is ghanan", there's no doubt in anyone's mind here. >> what is an afropolitan, what are the characteristics. >> in 2005, 10 years ago, all i was describing was the experience. i didn't mean to suggest everyone that shares the experience is not the same or can be defined by seven criteria, i was fascinated by the experience, by what it is to come into your 20, into your 30, into your self without there being one place in the world to be displaced. to be someone who knows yourself though your relationships through what - though your passions, through what means most to you, also through your heart breaks, through the discrimination, racism, through the misunderstandings and so forth, but who does not fundamentally tie the sense of self to just one place. that is what i was describing. >> do you regret that this
afropolitan arose out of what essentially was a brain drain out of parts of africa? >> the question would be what would i be regretting. do i regret that my parents were both born incredibly intel gent and poor in soon to be countries, the governments of which made it impossible for them to pursue their dreams in the places that they love. of course i do. that is heart-breaking. i can't imagine what it would be like to be born in ghana, to love ghana in the way that i do. to love the smells, the food, my family members, but to feel on a fundamental level that i was not going to be able to become who i wanted to be if i were to stay. my mum, as many do, created a world in boston, massachusetts,
full of nigerian people. >> coining a term like afropolitan, and gaining control of your identity, was that empowering or part of an exercise or empowerment? >> looking back on it, i think perhaps it was. i'm loath to say i coined the term, i know i heard it and applied it, like all good writers. that was powerful enough. what i was doing, enough with people telling me what i'm not, people saying you're not really american, not really black, not british. enough with the notes. i am this. >> and one of the things you are according to a prestigious list, is a great writer. your debut novel "ghana must go" earnt you a spot on a list of best young british novelist, talk about your inspiration behind that story. >> that's the hardest thing to talk about, the hardest question
you have asked. >> why is that? >> i quote - often i quote leonard cohen, the songwriter and also the poet. someone asked him where his best songs come from, and he said if i knew i'd go there more often. i feel that way completely about everything i write. this novel and everything aside. i don't know really know where it comes from. i don't know - i just don't know. what i capn say is from the time i was four years old i knew i wanted to be a writer. it's the only thing i loved this much, this long. i said to myself when you turn 30, you need to know how you can do it. i saved up enough money to live for a year, and paid off student loans.
year. >> the main character and birth father were surgeons in ghana, abandoned their wives and children. was this book cathartic in any way, a way to address your own feelings about your biological dad leaving when you were young? >> i think that - yes. the answer is yes, but perhaps not in the way i would have imagined. which is to say that writing this novel - i so completely inhabited the lives and the minds of all the characters, but, of course, the parents as well. i came to love them deeply. they are flawed in mother and father, and it makes them pretty spectacular mistakes. i mean, with horrifying and heart-breaking consequences for their children. but living in them, as i did, i
came to understand how it was possible for them to make the mistakes even though they loved their children. when you are a child judging your parents, you think, and the whole psychobabble industry leads you to think okay, but you did that because you didn't love me enough. if you loved me more, you could have never done that, it wouldn't have been possible. it's proof positive of your insufficient love for me that you made this decision, end of story. i guess everyone is supposed to cry, argue and rug and you move on. it turns out i found writing the book, that i had enormous empathy for the parents, and i had equal empathy for mine. it occurred to me my mother and father were doing damn well the best they could for all the mistakes they made. >> this is "talk to al jazeera", coming up, what is the most
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>> i lived that character. >> go one on one with america's movers and shakers. >> we will be able to see change. >> gripping... inspiring... entertaining. "talk to al jazeera". only on al jazeera america. this is "talk to al jazeera". i'm stephanie sy. speaking this week with taiye selasi, author. i'm trying to figure out through this conversation what drives you, what makes you tick. all of it, or a lot of it, tell me if i'm wrong, seems a reaction to things that have you. >> i am a free spirit. i was born that way.
i'm first and foremost a storyteller. i love human being, i'm obsessed with travel, as we were talking about earlier. i moved around mostly because i want to see the world, taste different cities. i was born into a physical reality that means that the world didn't treat me as - the world didn't receive me with as much open possess as i would have wanted it to. in order to be who i wanted to be, to be a storyteller, appear into human being and know them as human first, and black, white, african, asian, european, i have to elbow out the space. i think my animating project is to create the space within which i can know the world and know myself in the world as human. first and foremost.
>> in some ways is that the most modern definition of identity, the pure research center found that millions of americans changed their racial for ethnic identity from one sentence to the next. >> really. >> yes. over 10 years - so are more people realising what you realise, maybe a decade ago, two decades ago? >> maybe. some people really resisted. people have been she's talking mystical goosy kumbaya nonsense. >> world citizen. >> what is this world on about, we are not going to hold hands and sway and sing. it's not going to happen. i'm not so naive. i know that many of the people in my family, many of the people i love, people from which i believe myself to come, have been given, for too long, too little room. just too little space to be, to
breathe, to create, to express, and i will do everything in my power to - to create that space, to clear that space, and to defend it. >> taiye selasi, thank you for talking to al jazeera. >> thank you. >> ours is an urban planet. the number of people living in towns now exceeds those outside. when this milestone was reached in 2009, few people noticed.