“I Only Want a Little Authenticity!”
A lost classic of African literature—chaotic, dreamlike, and funny—finally gets its due.
“I only want a little authenticity!” shouts Osofo, a Christian priest yet also a practitioner of traditional healing. And it is the authentic identity—“being true to who you already are or would be if it weren’t for distorting influences,” as Laing’s countryman Kwame Anthony Appiah, once wrote—for which both characters and sweet country search.
Author Kojo Laing.
Courtesy of the author.
Identity is rooted not just in the traditional practices that cannot be sustained in the modern world, nor in rootless modern practices, but in continuously navigating the narrow space between. Laing’s characters are most terrified of stasis and complacency: “The body of the Ghanian was too heavy, too crowded, and too comfortable: it carried all the symbols, it carried the universe so easily; and in this way, it felt so much less responsibility, so much less adventure for all the external world beyond itself.” Those we might consider this book’s heroes seek constant motion and change as opposed to those, like the notorious Dr. Boadi, who seek material comfort. There is no issue in this book, no issue in the Ghana of the time period Search Sweet Country chronicles that is not pulled into Laing’s vortex of language about the search for an authentic identity. Religion, sex, politics, gender roles, even love are all caught in Laing’s lyrical constructions and turned about for us to examine, appreciate, and also at times loathe.
Reading Search Sweet Country is like reading a dream, and indeed at times it feels like the magical landscapes of writers like the Nigerian Ben Okri or the Mozambican Mia Couto. Each page delivers an intense blast of vivid imagery, a world in which landscapes come to life when inanimate objects receive human characterizations: “Pillars of houses marched to meet and welcome him: There were smiles of baked mud, there were smiles of cement plaster, there were thatched teeth smiling from above, for others came with curiosity from their buildings …” Its political commentary is fascinatingly rooted in the body; fears of impotence and solicitations to the ever-present Ghanaian woman’s buttocks present a people searching for meaning between their own powerlessness and immense (pro)creative potential.
If the characters in this novel are continuously searching, are enamored of change, then too is the book characterized by a disorienting state of flux, sometimes so much so that it seems to lack a cohesive center. Characters appear and disappear. Storylines begin. We are not sure where they end or if they end at all. And at times meaning is lost in a linguistic effusiveness, a poet’s ornamentation, that overshadows the novel’s various happenings. Were Laing not so brilliant in his manipulation of the English language, this might be a greater problem, but thankfully he is a master stylist, and Search Sweet Country delivers an absorbing, if demanding, world for both its characters and the reader.
The McSweeney’s rerelease is itself a physically beautiful book, and it comes at a time when an increased focus on writers from Africa ought to bring Laing more of the recognition that his work briefly received in 1986. The timing of the release also comes as Ghana—and indeed most of the continent—searches for yet another new identity—post-Africa as pity party, prepotential economic explosion (or exploitation, depending on where you stand). Politically Ghana is far from the revolving dictatorships of the 1970s, but it faces new challenges: Managing newly discovered oil wealth and translating the dividends of democracy into development for all of its citizens.
Twenty-six years after its first publication, Search Sweet Country feels fiercely relevant to all individuals and societies grappling with who they are in relation to the wider world. A character’s admonishment that “We are letting our great chance slip in this country. Our war-cry should be to be … historical and to be smart!” is hardly specific to an “African” formulation of identity. Americans and Europeans in particular who seem determined to face a changing world with a desire for more stasis would do well to experience a novel so anti-stasis in content and form.
Because it is so hard to locate, Search Sweet Country is a work that confounds the notion that all things African are somehow too peculiar to apply to the wider world. For sure this is a book about the political upheavals in 1970s Ghana—indeed across the continent at the time—but it is also a book about how any country and its people should approach a fundamentally unstable world. As one character proclaims: “There’s been so much change already in my life that I want more and more! Change everything except the roots that do the changing! And in change we must look both backwards and forwards …” The rerelease of Search Sweet Country takes us in both directions, back to our roots and forward to an unexpected future.
Search Sweet Country by Kojo Laing. McSweeney’s Books.
Uzodinma Iweala is the author of the novel Beasts of No Nation. His nonfiction book Our Kind of People: A Continent’s Challenge, A Country’s Hope, about HIV/AIDS in Nigeria, will be released July 10.