Literary City: Taiye Selasi’s Rome
One hundred pages into her career as a novelist, Taiye Sleasi had signed a two-book contract and could count Nobel winner Toni Morrison as a fan. Perhaps it’s understandable then, that the next hundred or so pages that completed her debut took much longer to write, with an agonizing six-month block and two different emigrations in between. Now living in Rome (via Paris) the part Ghanaian, part Nigerian, British-born, American-educated author of the widely admired Ghana Must Go, is writing the second book set in the city she now lives.
Here the 33-year-old speaks about how she ended up in Rome, the significance of beauty in her work, and why, in a place which displays such rich cultural history on almost every corner, she spends a lot of time on her own in an empty bar.
Could you describe the area of the Rome you live in?
I live in Trastevere, which is just opposite the centro storico and is one of the most atmospheric and quintessentially Roman parts of the city. It’s incredible. It sort of like, I don’t know how to describe it, I remember once talking about it and saying it was like the Brooklyn of Rome but that’s not quite right. It really has its own particular charm.
On the whole it’s the more creative part of the city, right?
Yes, completely. It’s got a sort of enchanting mix of Romani, who have been in Trastevere for generations, on the one hand and next to that you’ve got a number of foreign exchange students who are making a tremendous amount of noise, and then you have a number of painters and writers and sculptures and designers living in these really old flats. It’s sort of quite wonderful.
What was it that attracted you to Rome in the first place?
It’s actually that I couldn’t find an apartment in Paris. I needed to leave New York because I found it too distracting and I needed to finish my novel. So I thought I would go to Paris; that I would live there for four months, but I couldn’t find anything and it was by chance that a friend of a friend offered me something in Rome. So, you know…
Oh, I see. What’s the timeline with that? I know you had around six months of writer’s block, or ‘the dark period’ as I think you described it…
Yeah, those were dark days.
So did you move to Rome towards the end of that, and were you then able to finish your first novel there?
Yeah, that’s exactly what happened. I found that living in Rome, learning a new language renewed, in some way, my love of writing which I think is fundamental. I’ve been writing since I was about four-years-old, and in that time of the writer’s block I had become really afraid. Moving to Rome restored to me my love of storytelling and art and language and beauty and a lot of that was to do with living in such a warm, social, beautiful culture. I actually wrote my first article in Italian, for Vanity Fair, describing why Rome is the perfect city to write in.
So it sounds like you can embrace that Rome is this cultural, historical giant. Perhaps for some people it might sit as a weight on their shoulders, but for you it’s something you embrace. It inspires you.
Well, absolutely, because if you go to any church or any museum—Francine Prose wrote this wonderful piece in The New York Times about these three museums that people don’t even know are there half the time, in which you find the most spectacular pieces of art. She’s right, you can go to the famous monuments of Rome, you can go to the Pantheon or the Coliseum and you can simply be overwhelmed by the sheer force, I mean, the sheer and utter physical beauty that has gone into the conception and the execution of these things. But you can also go to a chiesa and find these works of art and there can be frescoes on the ceiling and tiles on the floor that suggest to you that imbedded and embodied in this way beauty is important, and that in what you do—in my case writing fiction and stories and poems and taking photographs—that this is not sort of a frivolous, indulgent or immaterial pastime that one does alongside the more serious things that grown-up life has to offer. There’s something about being surrounded by such beauty that encourages you in your pursuit of beautiful things.
Perhaps you just answered this to some extent, but what do you do in the city when you’re not writing?
Oh. I eat. I drink. I walk. Really, I think that’s most of my life in Rome. When I’m not writing? I’ve got a beautiful terrace, I should say, in Trastevere. I have two levels so I do a lot of terrace gardening. Usually I’m pruning my orange trees or trying to get my tomatoes to grow straight. Or, I’ll go to the mercato in San Marco and buy the vegetables for the day, then I’ll come home, make lunch, eat on the terrace, write a bit more. Then usually I meet friends for dinner and we talk about…everything. We consume a fair amount and then I’ll walk home. It’s a very simple, human, fellowship-focussed life. I love it.
Is there anywhere, outside of your apartment, that you go to write?
Yeah, although it’s kind of funny. A friend of mine owns a really sweet bar called Etablì, which is just behind Piazza Navona and it opens in the evening and she very sweetly lets me go there while it’s closed. So when I’m at home and I want to keep working but I don’t want to be in my place, I often go to Etablì. The other place I go to write is the courtyard of Hotel de Russie. Again they don’t have a huge post-lunch crowd and between lunchtime and aperitivo the courtyard is also largely empty, so I’ll often take the chance and work there.
Do you feel, with all this around you, that you have to remove yourself from the place entirely? Do you need a distance between the place you live and the place you work?
It’s interesting. On the one hand, I always dream of “total removal,” escaping to some beachfront hut in the tropics, writing in solitude, with nothing but fruits, vegetables, and WiFi to sustain me. But I’m not built that way. In truth, I can write wherever I find three things: silence, light, love. That is to say, I’m no good at writing under hermetic conditions, cut off from the world. I need to feel connected to people (my friends, my family, my husband); to know that at a moment’s notice, I can touch them, laugh with them, share a meal. So the trick is to leave just enough distance between my creative life and my emotional one that the journey out is never too daunting, the journey back never too long.
Perhaps you saw Jhumpa Lahiri’s interview in The New York Times recently in which she completely dismissed this idea of ‘immigrant fiction’. As someone who has been put in that category, it would be interesting to hear your own views on that.
I couldn’t agree with her more. I was actually with Jhumpa and Mohsin Hamid in Mantova a few weeks back, discussing this very topic over pumpkin ravioli. I’d just given the opening speech at the international literature festival in Berlin; my talk was called “African Literature Doesn’t Exist,” but could have included the footnote: ‘Immigrant Literature Doesn’t Either.’ One need only consider the emptiness of a term like “North American literature”—or “native fiction,” as Jhumpa so brilliantly put it—to understand the backwardness of the taxonomy.
Are you planning on writing anything set there?
My second novel is set in Rome…
What are your favourite works of literature that are set in Rome?
I am co-writing a screenplay with Chiara Barzini, the granddaughter of Luigi Barzini. His sparkling text The Italians is one of my favorite books, full stop. I adore Tom Rachman’s The Imperfectionists and, despite his later fascist leanings, Gabriele D’Annunzio’s Il piacere.
Finally, can you recommend any contemporary writers coming out of the city?
So many! Francesca Marciano, who lives around the corner from me in Piazza di San Cosimato, writes mostly in English and is publishing a fabulous collection of short stories, The Other Language, next spring. I had the pleasure of hearing one—a short, pithy gem called “The Italian System”—at a reading in Trastevere last month. Pure genius. Luisa Brancaccio, who lives on the first floor of my building, writes short stories in Italian only, alas, but they’re brilliant. Chiara Barzini is a master of the short short form; her collection Sister Stop Breathing was published in English last year. And Francesco Pacifico shouldn’t be missed. The Story of my Purity, the first of his books to be published in English, is a darkly satirical, quintessentially Roman (or Catholic) delight. They are must-reads for anyone who loves glittering, intelligent prose.