by Taiye Selasi
How would you, 10 years after you wrote the essay, respond to its main ideas and to such criticism? How would you evaluate your essay – both in terms of the positive and negative reception and in respect to how you may feel that your ideas about Afropolitanism have changed or matured since then? Do you feel that the need to complicate Africa is different today than it was in 2005?
In 2005, I wrote an essay describing a particular experience. No less and no more. No less in that I believed then and believe now that much of the power of writing—fiction or non—resides in the transformative power of description. To hear one’s experience described in words can fundamentally change the way one sees oneself: where one once felt entirely alone she now feels utterly human. As F Scott Fitzgerald has it: “That is part of the beauty of all literature. You discover that your longings are universal longings, that you’re not lonely and isolated from anyone. You belong.” In a very basic sense “Bye-Bye, Babar” said to a great many people (myself foremost), “You are not isolated.” To those for whom the description rings true the essay says, “You belong.”
It says no less than this—and no more.
A description of a particular experience, by definition, does not apply to all people in all places. “Bye-Bye, Babar” seeks to describe one mode of being and does so ably to my mind. That there are those—among the 1.3 billion Africans living on the continent, 169 million living off—who do not share this experience should neither surprise nor alarm us. “Bye-Bye, Babar” is no more than a consideration of a singular reality that has done no less than create space for those who call it their own.
To create space. This is why I write anything at all and why I wrote “Bye-Bye, Babar.” In 2005 the experience I was describing had yet to join what we might call the fascinations of mainstream media. There were no Facebook pages dedicated to this demographic, no colorful Instagram images celebrating its cool, no symposia organized to debate its definition, no concerts bearing its name. Ten years on we are all well aware of the existence of the demographic (social media does, among other things, facilitate the formation of visible communities). The idea of a soi-disant Afropolitan in Brixton or Brooklyn feeling “lonely and isolated” seems happily laughable now. Writing in 2005, I sought above all to create space—to clear space—for her to consider herself as belonging.
Ten eventful years on I evaluate the essay only on the terms on which I wrote it. I was not (and am not) interested in categorizing human beings nor their creative output—less in reifying the grotesque social and economic inequalities that continue to distinguish 21st century life on the continent. That said, I am equally uninterested in controlling where and how those thousand words exist in the world. Binyavanga Wainaina, one of the essay’s harshest critics, on 10th August 2016 posted on Facebook: “I need to apologize [for] denigrating the term Afropolitan. I should have looked deeper.” I found this public apology to be full of integrity (as is Binya himself) but quite unnecessary. I’m thrilled to think that the essay’s critics are willing to revisit it, to understand its aims within the context of its limitations. But to denigrate my writing is by no means to ddenigrate me.
Like all writers I am obliged to let my writing live a life of its own—to enter discourses for which I did not intend it, to suffer interpretations I never imagined. What I ask of my work is simply that, in telling truth, it creates space.
Does “Bye-Bye, Babar” tell a truth? Create a space? It does.
No more and no less.
Reprinted from Eva Rask Knudsen and Ulla Rahbek, In Search of the Afropolitan: Encounters, Conversations and Contemporary Diasporic African Literature (London: Rowman & Littlefield, 2016).
About the Author:
Taiye Selasi is an author and photographer. Born in London and raised in Boston, she holds a BA in American Studies from Yale and an MPhil in International Relations from Oxford. In 2005 she published the seminal essay “Bye-Bye, Babar (Or: What is an Afropolitan?),” sparking a movement among young transnational Africans. In 2013 Selasi’s debut novel, the New York Times bestseller Ghana Must Go, was selected as one of the 10 best books of 2013 by The Wall Street Journal and The Economist. The same year Selasi was named to Granta‘s once-in-a-decade list of Best Young British Novelists. Her 2015 TED talk, “Don’t Ask Where I’m From; Ask Where I’m a Local,” has reached over a million viewers, redefining the way a global society conceives of personal identity.