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Small Worlds made me grateful to my parents

Caleb Azumah Nelson's masterful second novel helped me understand their experiences as first-generation Ghanaian migrants – and the hopes they had of a better life for me in Britain.

Tadhg Kwasi dad and brother

Tadhg Kwasi with his father and brother.

Reading Caleb Azumah Nelson’s Small Worlds was a revelation for me. As the title suggests, the book displays pockets of the Ghanaian migrant community and, arguably by extension, all immigrants in Britain against a backdrop of hardship, racism and failed dreams.

Delving into the relationship between its British-Ghanaian protagonist and his migrant parents as they struggle to connect openly about their experiences in Britain, the novel shows the clash between these two worlds of a Ghanaian homeland and a foreign Britain, a multicultural Peckham and a harsh, white world of hostility. It's beautifully written, it masterfully conveys the black migrant experience in Britain, and reading it forced me to reflect on my own relationship with my Ghanaian migrant parents.

Growing up as an Irish-Ghanaian son in Ireland and in London, I got used to strict, stoic African parents who didn’t understand me. For a lot of the diaspora of my generation, our relationships with our parents were suffocating. Constant tough love, lectures and the infinite weight of expectations strained us and our connection with them.

I always felt lacking because I failed to live up to their absurd, rigid expectations of academic excellence and a sure-shot, stable career. There was no room for messing about and no room for dreaming. A strict routine of school, study and errands left no space for me to grow up. At times I felt like I wasn’t a child brought up with love, but a mere investment, nurtured to pay off.

I built a rebellious and independent spirit, which is no easy feat in a culture which demands discipline and obedience to your elders. We were in constant conflict. I was dead set on chasing my dreams and leaving them in the dust. This didn’t last long. How long can you really hate your parents?

The main problem was the complete lack of openness. My parents lectured more than communicated, so we children took them to be over-anxious and over-serious. Growing up in Britain, while certainly not perfect, teaches you to be carefree and optimistic in your life choices, no matter how silly or ambitious. But this clashed with their experiences of sacrifice.

For people who had to experience crushed dreams, more overt and more violent racism, and unexpected hardship in a country they abandoned family, friends and home for, it makes sense to be strict. But this stoic facade and a lack of openness about their struggles left us confused as to what they were trying to achieve – which, of course, was to provide us with the better life they dreamed of and suffered for themselves.

Small worlds cover

In Small Worlds, Azumah Nelson's protagonist Stephen drops out of university and gets into a heated disagreement with his father which turns into a lengthy rift. I myself had vicious arguments with my parents and a long period of not speaking to them after I abandoned my degree. I related deeply to the disapproving shame and the crushing feeling of not being understood, let alone heard, by the people closest to you.

I’m at fault too, for never noticing their quiet pains, never taking an interest in them beyond the surface. Too wrapped up in immaturity and youthful rebellion, I didn't care to understand why they put so much pressure on me and my siblings, why they were so angry when we didn’t take our studies so seriously.

Small Worlds brings this perspective by masterfully switching point of view to Stephen’s father. We are taken through his experiences as he tenderly reveals his past to his son, finally. We see his optimistic young adult world in Accra and his aspirations of becoming a DJ. We’re as crushed as he is when he experiences strife in 1980s London, a very hostile place for black bodies just looking for a better life. We experience his grief as he sees his dreams and his mental health crumble, but still builds his joyous world with his wife, sons and diaspora community with stability.

Small Worlds led to me to forever being grateful to my parents, especially because the turning point in Stephen and his father being able to open up to each other is the unexpected death of his mediator mother. Her death struck a blow to me like any other death I have experienced in real life. I for one am not waiting for the death of either of my parents for us to patch things up.

So I'm now affording my parents grace for their stoicism and emotional unavailability. I'm striving to be honest with them and to try and understand their dreams and their experiences of seeking a better life. From now, I will encourage them to be open and vulnerable.

by Tadhg Kwasi (he/him)

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