podcast review

S***hole Country Questions Who Likes to Be in America?

Illustration: Sindiso Nyoni/Radiotopia

Like many fraught stories, S***hole Country turns on a question of real estate. Afia Kaakyire, the 30-ish Ghanaian American from the Bay Area who narrates the series, finds herself in Accra with a grand offer from her parents: an apartment of her own, free of charge, in a residential complex that her parents — themselves returned to Ghana after a hardscrabble life in the United States — have developed.

It’s a tempting proposition. Back in California, Kaakyire lives the precarious (though relatively privileged) existence of a creative worker constantly on the verge of being laid off. In the new home being offered to her, she sees a possibility for greater stability and, perhaps, a pathway toward self-realization. Ghana is growing. The country’s economy is on the upswing. Maybe she could be part of that. And what is she part of now, anyway? Kaakyire wonders about her place in the American narrative and whether she genuinely belongs in the Black American struggle. “I wasn’t a real protester,” she narrates, reflecting on her participation in a 2016 demonstration against police brutality sparked by the killings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. “I was a child playing with things she didn’t understand.” In Ghana, she feels, lies the chance to claim a place and a history that could be specifically hers. “A chance for me to be a player on the stage?” Kaakyire says. “To be somebody? To be seen? Who wouldn’t want that?”

Published under the Radiotopia Presents banner, S***hole Country is an eight-part podcast series in the form of an audio memoir. It’s a recollection of Kaakyire’s time on a monthlong trip as she works through a huge life decision, and it’s a political document that wrestles with larger ideas about the hierarchy we use to describe nations. Those efforts begin with the title, which borrows from former president Trump’s infamous description of places, primarily in Latin America and on the African continent, whose immigrants he considers undesirable.

S***hole Country stands in defiance of that insult and pushes back against the more technocratic, though no less dubious, categorization of countries like Ghana as “developing,” a framework that gives rise to all manner of white-savior complexes. Throughout the series, Kaakyire juxtaposes sketches of Ghana’s contemporary bustle with scenes that chip away at the idea of the United States as a “developed” nation. In one instance, she draws on an early memory of her family’s hard-earned middle-class pilgrimage to Disney World, which involved the customary visit to the It’s a Small World ride: “What really stayed with me, as our boat meandered around a tiny Thailand, and a tiny Italy, and a tiny Mexico, was the peeling paint. The layers of dust. The cracks in the dream.” The reality, she metaphorizes, of making it in America.

That framing may feel like a satisfying reversal, but S***hole Country isn’t so straightforward. It’s no paean to the virtues of returning to one’s homeland. We learn in the first episode that “Afia Kaakyire” isn’t our narrator’s real name, that she’s using the pseudonym so she and her family can speak freely on tape. And the last stretch of S***hole Country reveals a more vital reason: Kaakyire is queer, and should she take her parents up on their offer, she would be moving to a place whose LGBTQ population remains under heavy duress — a place where, as of this writing, an extreme anti-LGBTQ bill is making its way through Parliament. The series, then, is both an audio memoir and a window into a yet-to-be-resolved conundrum.

S***hole Country is easily worth your attention for its weighty tangle of ideas alone, but the whole thing wouldn’t work as well if it weren’t so funny and lusciously composed. Kaakyire’s writing is wry, punchy, and rich with telescopic detail. She’s particularly good at building scenes in shorthand — describing a tasteful compound that’s “all airy patios and well-appointed verandas” or a jazz band incongruously playing the Backstreet Boys in the Accra airport — that snap you into her headspace, an effect bolstered by the atmospheric bounce of her sound design. She composed the series with the veteran producer Mark Pagán, and I can’t think of another piece of media that so vividly captures the delicious, longing feeling of slinking into the warm cocoon of your parents’ world after a long time away, even if you know it’s only a matter of days before you start feeling deeply conflicted about this version of home again.

If S***hole Country’s challenge to the conventional notion of “development” is provocative, its larger accomplishment is in its focus on the messy humanity of someone who experiences the burden of those ideas. On Kaakyire’s shoulders lies the weight of two worlds not quite reconciled. Her view is shaped by the progressive politics of American youth; her speech flows with references to American pop culture. “I’m standing in the apartment my parents want to give me,” she tells us. “And I feel white. Like Blair Waldorf–in–Gossip Girl levels of white.” That line captures the tension that drives S***hole Country. The apartment in Ghana would be an opportunity. It would also be an escape. But where would it end up taking her?

S***hole Country Asks Who Likes to Be in America?