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  • Last year, I went on my first book tour.

  • In 13 months, I flew to 14 countries

  • and gave some hundred talks.

  • Every talk in every country

  • began with an introduction,

  • and every introduction began, alas, with a lie:

  • "Taiye Selasi comes from Ghana and Nigeria,"

  • or "Taiye Selasi comes from England and the States."

  • Whenever I heard this opening sentence,

  • no matter the country that concluded it --

  • England, America, Ghana, Nigeria --

  • I thought, "But that's not true."

  • Yes, I was born in England and grew up in the United States.

  • My mom, born in England, and raised in Nigeria,

  • currently lives in Ghana.

  • My father was born in Gold Coast, a British colony,

  • raised in Ghana,

  • and has lived for over 30 years in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

  • For this reason, my introducers also called me "multinational."

  • "But Nike is multinational," I thought,

  • "I'm a human being."

  • Then, one fine day, mid-tour,

  • I went to Louisiana, a museum in Denmark

  • where I shared the stage with the writer Colum McCann.

  • We were discussing the role of locality in writing,

  • when suddenly it hit me.

  • I'm not multinational.

  • I'm not a national at all.

  • How could I come from a nation?

  • How can a human being come from a concept?

  • It's a question that had been bothering me for going on two decades.

  • From newspapers, textbooks, conversations,

  • I had learned to speak of countries

  • as if they were eternal, singular, naturally occurring things,

  • but I wondered:

  • to say that I came from a country

  • suggested that the country was an absolute,

  • some fixed point in place in time,

  • a constant thing, but was it?

  • In my lifetime, countries had disappeared -- Czechoslovakia;

  • appeared -- Timor-Leste; failed -- Somalia.

  • My parents came from countries that didn't exist when they were born.

  • To me, a country -- this thing that could be born, die, expand, contract --

  • hardly seemed the basis for understanding a human being.

  • And so it came as a huge relief to discover the sovereign state.

  • What we call countries are actually

  • various expressions of sovereign statehood,

  • an idea that came into fashion only 400 years ago.

  • When I learned this, beginning my masters degree in international relations,

  • I felt a sort of surge of relief.

  • It was as I had suspected.

  • History was real, cultures were real,

  • but countries were invented.

  • For the next 10 years, I sought to re- or un-define myself,

  • my world, my work, my experience,

  • beyond the logic of the state.

  • In 2005, I wrote an essay, "What is an Afropolitan,"

  • sketching out an identity that privileged culture over country.

  • It was thrilling how many people could relate to my experience,

  • and instructional how many others didn't buy my sense of self.

  • "How can Selasi claim to come from Ghana," one such critic asked,

  • "when she's never known the indignities

  • of traveling abroad on a Ghanian passport?"

  • Now, if I'm honest,

  • I knew just what she meant.

  • I've got a friend named Layla who was born and raised in Ghana.

  • Her parents are third-generation Ghanians of Lebanese descent.

  • Layla, who speaks fluent Twi, knows Accra like the back of her hand,

  • but when we first met years ago, I thought, "She's not from Ghana."

  • In my mind, she came from Lebanon,

  • despite the patent fact that all her formative experience

  • took place in suburban Accra.

  • I, like my critics,

  • was imagining some Ghana where all Ghanaians had brown skin

  • or none held U.K. passports.

  • I'd fallen into the limiting trap

  • that the language of coming from countries sets --

  • the privileging of a fiction, the singular country,

  • over reality: human experience.

  • Speaking with Colum McCann that day, the penny finally dropped.

  • "All experience is local," he said.

  • "All identity is experience," I thought.

  • "I'm not a national," I proclaimed onstage.

  • "I'm a local. I'm multi-local."

  • See, "Taiye Selasi comes from the United States," isn't the truth.

  • I have no relationship with the United States,

  • all 50 of them, not really.

  • My relationship is with Brookline, the town where I grew up;

  • with New York City, where I started work;

  • with Lawrenceville, where I spend Thanksgiving.

  • What makes America home for me is not my passport or accent,

  • but these very particular experiences

  • and the places they occur.

  • Despite my pride in Ewe culture,

  • the Black Stars, and my love of Ghanaian food,

  • I've never had a relationship with the Republic of Ghana, writ large.

  • My relationship is with Accra, where my mother lives,

  • where I go each year,

  • with the little garden in Dzorwulu where my father and I talk for hours.

  • These are the places that shape my experience.

  • My experience is where I'm from.

  • What if we asked, instead of "Where are you from?" --

  • "Where are you a local?"

  • This would tell us so much more about who and how similar we are.

  • Tell me you're from France, and I see what, a set of clichés?

  • Adichie's dangerous single story, the myth of the nation of France?

  • Tell me you're a local of Fez and Paris,

  • better yet, Goutte d'Or, and I see a set of experiences.

  • Our experience is where we're from.

  • So, where are you a local?

  • I propose a three-step test.

  • I call these the three "R’s": rituals, relationships, restrictions.

  • First, think of your daily rituals, whatever they may be:

  • making your coffee, driving to work,

  • harvesting your crops, saying your prayers.

  • What kind of rituals are these?

  • Where do they occur?

  • In what city or cities in the world do shopkeepers know your face?

  • As a child, I carried out fairly standard suburban rituals in Boston,

  • with adjustments made for the rituals my mother brought from London and Lagos.

  • We took off our shoes in the house,

  • we were unfailingly polite with our elders,

  • we ate slow-cooked, spicy food.

  • In snowy North America, ours were rituals of the global South.

  • The first time I went to Delhi or to southern parts of Italy,

  • I was shocked by how at home I felt.

  • The rituals were familiar.

  • "R" number one, rituals.

  • Now, think of your relationships, of the people who shape your days.

  • To whom do you speak at least once a week,

  • be it face to face or on FaceTime?

  • Be reasonable in your assessment;

  • I'm not talking about your Facebook friends.

  • I'm speaking of the people who shape your weekly emotional experience.

  • My mother in Accra, my twin sister in Boston,

  • my best friends in New York:

  • these relationships are home for me.

  • "R" number two, relationships.

  • We're local where we carry out our rituals and relationships,

  • but how we experience our locality

  • depends in part on our restrictions.

  • By restrictions, I mean, where are you able to live?

  • What passport do you hold?

  • Are you restricted by, say, racism, from feeling fully at home where you live?

  • By civil war, dysfunctional governance, economic inflation,

  • from living in the locality where you had your rituals as a child?

  • This is the least sexy of the R's,

  • less lyric than rituals and relationships,

  • but the question takes us past "Where are you now?"

  • to "Why aren't you there, and why?"

  • Rituals, relationships, restrictions.

  • Take a piece of paper

  • and put those three words on top of three columns,

  • then try to fill those columns as honestly as you can.

  • A very different picture of your life in local context,

  • of your identity as a set of experiences,

  • may emerge.

  • So let's try it.

  • I have a friend named Olu.

  • He's 35 years old.

  • His parents, born in Nigeria, came to Germany on scholarships.

  • Olu was born in Nuremberg and lived there until age 10.

  • When his family moved to Lagos, he studied in London,

  • then came to Berlin.

  • He loves going to Nigeria --

  • the weather, the food, the friends --

  • but hates the political corruption there.

  • Where is Olu from?

  • I have another friend named Udo.

  • He's also 35 years old.

  • Udo was born inrdoba, in northwest Argentina,

  • where his grandparents migrated from Germany, what is now Poland,

  • after the war.

  • Udo studied in Buenos Aires, and nine years ago came to Berlin.

  • He loves going to Argentina -- the weather, the food, the friends --

  • but hates the economic corruption there.

  • Where is Udo from?

  • With his blonde hair and blue eyes, Udo could pass for German,

  • but holds an Argentinian passport, so needs a visa to live in Berlin.

  • That Udo is from Argentina has largely to do with history.

  • That he's a local of Buenos Aires and Berlin,

  • that has to do with life.

  • Olu, who looks Nigerian, needs a visa to visit Nigeria.

  • He speaks Yoruba with an English accent,

  • and English with a German one.

  • To claim that he's "not really Nigerian," though,

  • denies his experience in Lagos,

  • the rituals he practiced growing up,

  • his relationship with family and friends.

  • Meanwhile, though Lagos is undoubtedly one of his homes,

  • Olu always feels restricted there,

  • not least by the fact that he's gay.

  • Both he and Udo are restricted by the political conditions

  • of their parents' countries,

  • from living where some of their most meaningful rituals

  • and relationships occur.

  • To say Olu is from Nigeria and Udo is from Argentina

  • distracts from their common experience.

  • Their rituals, their relationships, and their restrictions are the same.

  • Of course, when we ask, "Where are you from?"

  • we're using a kind of shorthand.

  • It's quicker to say "Nigeria" than "Lagos and Berlin,"

  • and as with Google Maps, we can always zoom in closer,

  • from country to city to neighborhood.

  • But that's not quite the point.

  • The difference between "Where are you from?"

  • and "Where are you a local?"

  • isn't the specificity of the answer;

  • it's the intention of the question.

  • Replacing the language of nationality with the language of locality asks us

  • to shift our focus to where real life occurs.

  • Even that most glorious expression of countryhood, the World Cup,

  • gives us national teams comprised mostly of multilocal players.

  • As a unit of measurement for human experience,

  • the country doesn't quite work.

  • That's why Olu says, "I'm German, but my parents come from Nigeria."

  • The "but" in that sentence belies the inflexibility of the units,

  • one fixed and fictional entity bumping up against another.

  • "I'm a local of Lagos and Berlin," suggests overlapping experiences,

  • layers that merge together, that can't be denied or removed.

  • You can take away my passport,

  • but you can't take away my experience.

  • That I carry within me.

  • Where I'm from comes wherever I go.

  • To be clear, I'm not suggesting that we do away with countries.

  • There's much to be said for national history,

  • more for the sovereign state.

  • Culture exists in community, and community exists in context.

  • Geography, tradition, collective memory: these things are important.

  • What I'm questioning is primacy.

  • All of those introductions on tour began with reference to nation,

  • as if knowing what country I came from would tell my audience who I was.

  • What are we really seeking, though, when we ask where someone comes from?

  • And what are we really seeing when we hear an answer?

  • Here's one possibility:

  • basically, countries represent power.

  • "Where are you from?" Mexico. Poland. Bangladesh. Less power.

  • America. Germany. Japan. More power.

  • China. Russia. Ambiguous.

  • (Laughter)

  • It's possible that without realizing it, we're playing a power game,

  • especially in the context of multi-ethnic countries.

  • As any recent immigrant knows,

  • the question "Where are you from?" or "Where are you really from?"

  • is often code for "Why are you here?"

  • Then we have the scholar William Deresiewicz's writing

  • of elite American colleges.

  • "Students think that their environment is diverse

  • if one comes from Missouri and another from Pakistan --

  • never mind that all of their parents are doctors or bankers."

  • I'm with him.

  • To call one student American, another Pakistani,

  • then triumphantly claim student body diversity

  • ignores the fact that these students are locals of the same milieu.