Taiye Selasi‘s debut work of fiction, “The Sex Lives of African Girls,” appears in the Spring 2011 issue of Granta. It is a disturbing tale of sexual subjugation–in the sense of both gender and act–told in a chilling second-person narrative. Selasi calls this her “you voice,” and here it is an 11-year-old girl. Approaching novella length (it runs some 33 pages), the story takes place the day of a party in an affluent home in Accra on the southern coast of Ghana. Edem, the 11-year-old, lives with her aunt and uncle, the latter having rescued her three years earlier from a life with her prostitute mother in neighboring Nigeria.
Selasi’s prose is exacting, and is as beautiful as it is heart-wrenching. Those expecting hope and happiness may be disappointed here. Through Edem’s eyes we meet three generations of African women, all trapped to one degree or another in roles of submission. Submission leads to violation, which leads to family secrets that perpetuate, even institutionalize, this submission. We learn of these roles gradually through the eyes of this 11-year-old; the voice is a brilliant choice in this respect. Edem is a child and is treated as such, but we learn that the adult women of the story have their own similar challenges. In one scene Edem walks in on her uncle and the maid Ruby in his study.
Uncle was in his chair, facing the window and the 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 sound she made reminded you of cloth sloshing in buckets, as rhythmic and functional, almost mindless, and wet. Uncle whimpered bizarrely, like the dogs before beatings. For whatever reason, you stood there transfixed by the books.
Opening line: “Begin, inevitably, with Uncle.”