In his first novel, and in conversation with Binyavanga Wainaina, Kojo Laing talks to a future Ghana by exposing its present, full of the jargons and certainties of one dimensional nation building.
Large, funny, tragic, satirical, generous, bawdy and difficult to digest in one sitting, Search Sweet Country has no easy antecedents. I know no other novel which rewards the reader, the patriot, the dreamer and the thinker so abundantly. It is a landmark work that brings new possibilities to the shape of the modern global novel in the age of social capital.
As a political novel, Search Sweet Country does not simply ‘diagnose illnesses’ – it seeks and finds the complex deeper soul of the continent and helps us see what we have and what deep value we can bring to our future. There are no tribes in Search Sweet Country, only fully realised philosophical human beings from every social background our continent has, who strive to be fully meaningful to themselves and to the world. This is as it should be. This is what we really are. Search Sweet Country is Kojo Laing’s first published novel. It appeared in 1986, when Laing was already an established poet with a growing international reputation. He has since published three further novels, each radically different in style and structure: Woman of the Aeroplanes (1988), in which two villages of women, one in Scotland and one in Ghana, are linked by metaphysical forces; Major Gentl and the Achimota Wars (1992), a prescient sci-fi fantasy set in a 2020 where Europe is lost inside a virtual world; and, most recently, Bishop Roko and the Altar Gangsters (2006).
People have been living, trading, fishing, dreaming, and praying in the city of Accra for at least 500 years. Search Sweet Country is set in Accra in 1975. The modern independent nation state of Ghana, only 18 years old, is in the middle of a military dictatorship. There is a contradiction here, and it is a key to understanding this novel. Laing refuses to give the nation of Ghana, the Ghana of laws and orders, of policemen and courthouses, any more credit than is due. The small networks of characters run rampant over the frail superstructure of the nation state.
This is not a novel about a solid city, where characters act out their individuality through fixed addresses and trains that arrive on time. In this novel’s world, buildings and streets melt into the physical bodies of people, their inner lives; policemen in the service of a military government have tea with the wife of the man they are looking to arrest, yield to an appeal from her soul, and abandon their duty without a shrug. The city of Accra is the main character of the novel. We examine its transport system of dreams, desires, and thoughts. We read about the political economy of romantic love, the avenues and streets of the metaphysical lives of people, and the architecture of bodies.
If this novel performs an urgent act, it is to simply refuse to perform Independence nationalism and provide well-behaved character puppets to examine its function or failure. Laing is far more interested in talking to a possible Ghana in a distant future, built from a complex vibrant present. Search Sweet Country is a careful exposure of the real present capitals of desire, the zones of the spirit, the sudden and subterranean philosophical forces that govern civility and obligation and the true language of Ghanaian money. Here we are privileged to peer into the souls of people and see what really animates the city, the nation, which has served so far as a messy inconvenience to the jargons and certainties of one dimensional ‘nation building’.
Binyavanga Wainaina: The characters in Search Sweet Country – who might be in their hundreds – you introduce first, less through their actions but by a kind of mixture of the highly poetic, metaphysical description of the physical person. But that person is almost like a poem themselves. The ways these characters get introduced into their landscape – I’ve never seen anything like that ever!
Kojo Laing: You’ve got to basically love people. Okay Pol for instance, the name itself is a bit odd, Kojo is Ghanaian yes, ok, and that’s an example of a Ghanaian that is without tribe really. Okay Pol, even though he was a relatively minor character, I was quite excited by him; excited in conceiving him in action. I don’t know why him because there are others who are more interesting. That is a Ghanaian without tribe, a Ghanaian with pretentions to move with people of power and influence but he hasn’t got any of the power and influence. I think that you will agree that that is what the ordinary Ghanaian is like. He likes to move with people of power and influence. I think it’s a fault if you’re conceiving it, it doesn’t matter if it is a fault or not. It would be a value judgment you make too early, before you realise the full character.
BW: This section says, ‘The light came on then off, the darkness bit the bar. It was so sudden. But the food in the ugliness of Madina could lack supernatural electric teeth, cut cut. There were two levels of darkness. The external one above his limp which enabled him to steal from somebody else’s beer and one in his heart, far below his limp which grew out of him but with an intensity of worry over his wasted life.’ There’s a sense that this a very angry book: at once infatuated with Accra and everything about it and at once furious at it; at once wanting it to shake itself out of its lethargy; and at once terrified that once the lethargy goes their Accra will be gone.
KL: I get what you mean and it’s partly true. Do you know Madina? Maybe you weren’t around when there were these power outages. And Madina, I don’t know why it seems to be, because there are so many buildings that seem to be springing up and it was a complete mixture of Zungus and ordinary living areas. Zungus, you know what I mean? And I used to go for a beer and the very… what I am describing now more or less happened. It’s just that I’ve changed a few things to suit my purposes. But if you go for a beer in Madina and the light goes off, you feel… I felt under threat. And that’s, you know, how that whole thing has come up, that particular scene. Madina, jeez, in a way it’s an ugly place to stay. I used to go and have a beer at Madina and watch the different businesses spring up: like a vulcanizer one day, a carpenter another. Actually to be frank, it’s a place I’ve never liked, I never really liked it. But I found it useful for my writing purposes because it seemed to be a microcosm of Ghana, it was. Yes, it was, it was. They struggle so much it’s as if the eyes almost go red. My eyes don’t look at my eyes. And it’s a huge struggle and that’s how the Ghanaian shows his tension.
BW: Because there’s still a sense in which public shame… there’s a public face and public happiness. And it’s when it’s dark that people can act a certain way.
KL: Yes, exactly. You can’t get a useful concept of Ghana without places like Madina. You just can’t. You know Ayi Kwei Armah, this book was in a way a reaction to his. Because I admired him as a writer enormously – even though he didn’t influence me at all, but I admired him just for his use of language. But I felt that he did not understand the complexities of Ghanaians. I just felt he didn’t.
BW: There’s so much of a history of documenting people in a particular way in fiction and so it’s easy to write characters that mimic characters that appear in ‘the classics’ in a certain way. The big man versus who, the what versus what, this idea that individuals in relatively poor African countries have got to be individual sovereign people. But in reality, you’ve got to be so many kinds of person everyday and that gives you a lot of power. Fiction as we traditionally know it has not been able to register how that operates and it doesn’t have a structure for that. The fiction that I usually read is flat about that, it can’t have that complexity and you found a way around making that happen. I haven’t seen that done before.
KL: Shall I lend you my glasses so you can see?
BW: But then I guess the question is also… there’s a thing where there are those who are saying there are things that are not fixed yet. This relentless thing ‘Ghana is not working’. Which is true enough, there’s a certain way you measure these things. It seems as if Ayi Kwei Armah is demanding a kind of equivalence. Something must happen so that we are not in the position we are in. There’s truth in that question. There are people who die badly, in ways that people should not die, in Ghana, in Africa, you know.
KL: First of all one must never forget that I had started it from the perspective of a poet. I used to believe, ‘oh thank goodness I have chosen prose. I am going to have an easier time at last.’ What a silly thing to say. It’s not true. You can’t hide from the initial feeling of creation or creativity, you just can’t. I quite enjoyed writing it. I was just a hundred percent taken up with it. I felt, oh so this is what writing prose is like. I had written prose before but not seriously like this, you see. That’s partly what was happening with the first three novels. And when the first novel was going to be published and it was going to be published abroad, I just said to myself at that time, ‘look at Ghanaians, look at all the hours I spent writing about you and it’s going to end up, it’s going to make it more difficult for Ghanaians to read it.’
BW: Ok, so that was the end. You said Okay Pol, the man you said wanted to be grand, and I think that was the most… I mean it was targeted to the makers of Independence Square. So maybe we talk about that.
KL: What have we done since then, since the flag was made? What have we done? Which direction have we moved since the Black Stars Square was constructed? What real symbols of progress do Ghanaians have really? One or two here, fine. Why can’t we compare ourselves with South Korea for instance? Do they work harder? Yes, they do. That’s what I meant, that intellectual laziness.
BW: Like Independence Square, like the fit in these trousers…
KL: Yes, exactly it. But life is a bit more complicated than that; it’s a bit more complex. Like Professor Sackey was saying, people can sustain their careers yes, but they can’t sustain any other system or process. They just can’t. We’ve done nothing, we’ve always taken, especially the middle classes. We’ve always taken the easy way out. We pile up the money. We build up the status. The chiefs are no better. They wear their amulets, are carried when they walk. Is that part of our culture okay? These things don’t invite originality or hard work. Do they? Ghanaians want authority and status first. Ghanaians have a slow way of doings things so that (sometimes) you might not do it at all. You might act or not act at all. They somehow act as if they are somehow acting. You can’t develop a country like that. I don’t want the restriction of being categorised as writing ‘African Literature’ – don’t you ever feel that it’s a waste, a weight?
BW: It’s a burden I don’t want.
KL: Burden yes, that’s the word. But I don’t want to write Chinese Literature. I can never write something I don’t identify with, something quick to fill a space. I can’t do that. I think that’s a fault. I can’t cheat myself. So, if I find myself dealing with ice and snow, it’s almost as if the book has to be called ‘Black Ice’. I made the joke, I suppose when I was much more religious, that if Christ had been in the cold, a very cold land, it would not have led to his crucifixion. The point is whether place makes fundamental philosophical changes. But the thing is whether I feel it’s authentic. If I don’t feel it’s authentic then I’m cheating myself, aren’t I really?
Binyavanga Wainaina is a journalist, writer and founding editor of Kwani? He is the winner of the Caine Prize for African Writing in 2002. His memoir One day I will Write About This Place was published in 2011.
This issue first appeared in Chimurenga Chronic (April 2013)
Stories from this inaugural issue of the Chronic range from investigations into the business of moving corpses to the rhetoric of land theft and loss; latent tensions between Africa’s most powerful nations to the soft power of the biggest satellite television provider; and the unspoken history of Rushdie’s “word crimes” to the unwritten history of PAGAD.
Jean-Pierre Bekolo, Binyanvanga Wainaina, Dominique Malaquais, Mahmood Mamdani, Andile Mngxitama, Gwen Ansell, Patrice Nganang, Achal Prabhala, Rustum Kostain, Karen Press, Niq Mhlongo, Paula Akugizibwe, Tolu Ogunlesi, Sean Jacobs, Harmony Holiday, Howard French, Billy Kahora are a few of its many contributors from around the world.