Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

homegoing-yaa-gyasiAstonishing, a work of art, an interwoven tapestry of stories that weave across the generations to create something so beautiful, so heartfelt, the thing that connects them is so strong, even when it isn’t known by its characters, somehow Yaa Gyasi conveys that to the reader, so that by the end when something quite magical happens, there is a feeling of grieving for all that has passed and of relief that something new has been found.

I love, love, loved this novel and I am in awe of its structure and storytelling, the authenticity of the stories, the three-dimensional characters, the inheritance and reinvention of trauma, and the rounding of all those stories into the healing return. I never saw that ending coming and the build up of sadness from the stories of the last few characters made the last story all the more moving, I couldn’t stop the tears rolling down my face.

How to give it justice in a review, it is so much more than story, we are so much more than our own personal experience and the place(s) we have lived.

Just as Han Kang, the South Korean author of the novel Human Acts wrote in consideration of two fundamental questions about humanity, Yaa Gyasi tells us in an article for the New York Times (referenced below) that she too began to write with a vague but important question that she put at the top of her blank screen: What does it mean to be black in America?

She further explains her inspiration in an article for the Observer (also below)

I began Homegoing in 2009 after a trip to Ghana’s Cape Coast Castle [where slaves were incarcerated]. The tour guide told us that British soldiers who lived and worked in the castle often married local women – something I didn’t know. I wanted to juxtapose two women – a soldier’s wife with a slave. I thought the novel would be traditionally structured, set in the present, with flashbacks to the 18th century. But the longer I worked, the more interested I became in being able to watch time as it moved, watch slavery and colonialism and their effects – I wanted to see the through-line.

Homegoing begins with the image of a partial family tree, with two strands and the novel will follow just one family member down each strand, the first two characters who begin these family lines are the daughters of Maame, Effia and Esi.

Effia, whom the villagers said was a baby born of the fire, believed she would marry the village chief, but would be married to a British slave trader and live upstairs in the Cape Coast Castle.

‘The night Effia Otcher was born into the musky heat of Fanteland, a fire raged through the woods just outside her father’s compound. It moved quickly, tearing a path for days. It lived off the air; it slept in caves and hid in trees; it burned, up and through, unconcerned with what wreckage it left behind, until it reached an Asante village. There, it disappeared, becoming one with the night.’

Effia’s father, Cobbe would lose his crop of yams that night, a precious crop known to sustain families far and wide and with it, through his mind would flit a premonition that would reverberate through subsequent generations:

He knew then that the memory of the fire that burned, then fled, would haunt him, his children, and his children’s children for as long as the line continued.’

Cape Coast Castle (a slave trading castle), Ghana

Cape Coast Castle (a slave trading castle), Ghana

Esi, whose father was a Big Man, in expressing her empathy for their house girl, would precipitate events that lead her to be captured and chained in the dungeons beneath that same castle, awaiting the slave trading ships that would transport them to their slave masters in America.

‘They took them out into the light. The scent of ocean water hit her nose. The taste of salt clung to her throat. The soldiers marched them down to an open door that led to sand and water, and they all began to walk out on to it.’

In these first two chapters of Effia and Esi, the recurring twin symbols of fire and water are introduced, something that each generation subconsciously carries with them and passes on, they will reappear through fears, dreams, experiences, a kind of deep primal scar they don’t even know requires healing, its origins so far back, so removed from anything that can be easily articulated.

Fire (yang) is like the curse of the slave trade, raging through the lives of each generation, even when they appear to have escaped it, as with Kojo’s story, a baby passed to the arms of a woman who helped slaves escape, whose parents are captured, but he will live freely, only to have one member of the family cruelly snatched, perpetuating the cycle yet again, orphaning another child, who must start over and scrape together a life from nothing.

‘They didn’t now about Jo’s fear of people in uniform, didn’t know what it was like to lie silent and barely breathing under the floorboards of a Quaker house, listening to the sound of a catcher’s boot heel stomp above you. Jo had worked so hard so his children wouldn’t have to inherit his fear, but now he wished they had just the tiniest morsel of it.’

Water (yin) to me is the endless expanse, the rootlessness, floating on the surface, feet never able to get a grip, efforts floundering. This symbol is carried throughout Essi’s family line, a cast of characters whose wheels are turning, who work hard, but suffer one setback after another.

The novel is structured around one chapter for each character, alternately between the twin sides of the family, the narrative perspective changing to focus on the new generation, through whom we learn something of what happened to the character in the previous generation, who’ve we left two chapters ago. Importantly, because Yaa Gyasi decides not to write in the present with flashbacks, but writes from the perspective of each character in their present, the novel never falters, it doesn’t suffer from the idling effect of flashbacks, it keeps up the pace by putting the reader at the centre of the drama in every chapter. We must live all of it.

The irony of the structure is that we read an entire family history and see how the events of the past affect the future, how patterns repeat, how fears are carried forward, how strong feelings are connected to roots and origins, we see it, while they experience the loss, the frustration, the inability to comprehend that it is not just the actions of one life that affect that life’s outcome.

This book is like a legacy, a long legacy that revolves between the sadness of loss and the human struggle to move forward, to survive, to do better, to improve. And also a legacy of the feeling of not belonging that is carried within those who have been uprooted, who no longer belong to one place or another, who if they are lucky might find someone to whom they can ignite or perhaps even extinguish that yearning ‘to belong’.

‘We can’t go back to something we ain’t never been to in the first place. It ain’t ours anymore. This is.’ She swept her hand in front of her, as though she were trying to catch all of Harlem in it, all of New York, all of America.’

And in writing this novel, Yaa Gyasi perhaps achieves something of what her final character Marcus is unable to articulate to Marjorie as to why his research feels futile, spurning his grandmother’s suggestion that he perhaps had the gift of visions, trying to find answers in a more tangible way, through research and study.

“What is the point Marcus?”
She stopped walking. For all they knew, they were standing on top of what used to be a coal mine for all the black convicts who had been conscripted to work there. It was one thing to research something, another thing entirely to have lived it. To have felt it. How could he explain to Marjorie that what he wanted to capture with his project was the feeling of time, of having been a part of something that stretched so far back, was so impossibly large, that it was easy to forget that she, and he, and everyone else, existed in it – not apart from it, but inside it.

Yes, she achieves it through literature, through fiction. And this is literature at its most powerful and best.

This novel is going to win awards in 2017, undoubtedly.

*****

Yaa Gyasi was born in Ghana in 1989 and raised in the US, moving around in early childhood but living in Huntsville, Alabama from the age of 10. She is the daughter of a francophone African literature professor and a nurse and completed her MFA at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, University of Iowa. She wrote this, her debut novel at the age of 26.

Further Reading

New York Times, Sunday Review – Opinion, June 18, 2016 – I’m Ghanaian-American. Am I Black?

Review, The Observer, January 8, 2017 – Yaa Gyasi: ‘Slavery is on people’s minds. It affects us still’

 

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Homegoing via BookDepository

The Expedition to the Baobab Tree

Baobab Tree CoverI came across this book by chance, first published as Die kremetartekspedisie in its original Afrikaans in 1981, it was translated into English by Nobel Prize winner J.M. Coetzee, initially in 1983 and again in 2014.

I had never heard of Wilma Stockenström, but after a little digging, I find:

“For the past four decades Wilma Johanna Stockenström has been enriching Afrikaans literature with her satirical, obstinate and compassionate voice. Along with Elisabeth Eybers, Sheila Cussons, Ina Rousseau and Antjie Krog, she remains one of the most important women writers in Afrikaans.” © Johann de Lange

After recently reading Sue Monk Kidd’s The Invention of Wings, a story narrated by a female slave, I was interested to read this more literary novel, set in the harsh interior of South Africa.

It is a quiet, compelling, stream of consciousness narrative of a slave woman who finds refuge in the hollow of a baobab tree, attempting to survive following the death of her third master, finding herself abandoned in an often hostile wilderness.

“I was sold off a second time on the square near the sea where even then the raggedy castor-oil trees were standing. Was sold secondhand. I was a damaged plaything, my bundle of baby and myself bid for separately and disposed of separately. Simply playthings. Useful, certainly. My owner thought he had wasted his money.”

The Baobab Tree

The Baobab Tree

Embracing this newfound freedom of her body, mind and time, she thinks back over the years, reflecting on what her existence thus far has meant, the role of her three masters, moments shared with a friend, the loss of her children and the inclinations of man, something she has witnessed both in captivity and in this solitary freedom, where she finds a kind of disturbed though preferable peace.

“I know the interior of my tree as a blind man knows his home, I know its flat surfaces and grooves and swellings and edges, its smell, its darknesses, its great crack of light as I never knew the huts and rooms where I was ordered to sleep, as I can only know something that is mine and mine only, my dwelling place into which no one ever penetrates. I can say: this is mine. I can say: this is I. These are my footprints. These are the ashes of my fireplace. These are my grinding stones. These are my beads. My sherds.”

She is viewed by a tribe of small people who make a pilgrimage to the tree and recognise her as some kind of deity. It is their generosity and ritual of giving alms that aids her survival.

She notices everything, she appreciates her surroundings and tunes into small changes and disturbances in it. She becomes it.

Haunting, lyrical, this work is unlike any other narrative of the life of a slave woman I have ever encountered.

 

Note: This book was an Advance Reader Copy (ARC) kindly provided by the publisher via NetGalley.

The Invention of Wings

Although Sue Monk Kidd will be a name familiar to many, it was only a few years ago that her book The Secret Life of Bees was recommended to me by a dear and special friend who always went out of his way to visit and spend a few days with us when making his 10 yearly pilgrimage to Rome. We always had wonderful discussions about books, about life, the situation in Palestine, our mutual family connections and much more. So when I saw that the author had published another novel, I wanted to read it, to remember that stories continue to be told and memories passed on, even when those who told them and recommended them are no longer with us. He would have loved this story I am sure.

Invention of WingsThe Invention of Wings is a work of historical fiction, inspired when the author came across their names at an exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum. The discovery of two sisters Sarah and Angelina Grimké, abolitionists whose story was little known outside academic circles was all the more poignant for Sue Monk Kidd, when she learned they came from Charleston, South Carolina, the town she was living in at the time.

The story is a work of fiction, but the work of Sarah Grimké and her sister was real and her writing and achievements are receiving the recognition they deserve, representing as they did, an era when even a life of privilege did not give women the right to express a public opinion and especially one that challenged the status of individuals in a society.

In her novel, Sue Monk Kidd tells a story of two girls growing up in an urban slave-holding family in Charleston, South Carolina. Sarah is the daughter of a wealthy, aristocratic family and Hetty, or Handful as she is referred to, is gifted to her on her 11th birthday, an event that Sarah actively attempts to reject and does so in writing. She is refused her request, just as she is also denied and mocked for her desire to pursue a professional career, her punishment to be banned from her father’s library and from reading books.

For many years she accepts her fate, although as retribution and in response to a promise made to Charlotte (Handful’s mother), she teaches Handful to read, not only a forbidden act, but against the law. Certain events eventually shake off her complacency and after one particular episode, despite the risk of rejection and ostracism by her family and community she becomes wedded to her new vocation and dares not only to voice her outrage but with the support of her sister begins to take a more active and dangerous role in standing against slavery and advocating equal rights for women.

WingsThe slave Hetty also possesses a rebellious streak, more dangerous in someone of her stature, where any small infraction can result in violent and damaging consequences, as she will discover. Denied an education, she and her mother Charlotte become talented seamstresses, Charlotte narrating her life story through the quilted squares she creates in her own time, each one representing a significant event in her life, images that speak the words she could not read or write, a reminder of who they are, where they have been, stories continually passed from mother to daughter. It was a way to subvert the system and to preserve her story.

In a sense both Sarah and Hetty are enslaved and Hetty articulates it in a scene that haunts Sarah long after.

“I’m twenty-seven-years old, Handful, and this is my life now.” She looked around the room, up at the chandelier, and back at me. “This is my life. Right here for the rest of my days.” Her voice broke as she covered her mouth with her hand.

She was trapped same as me, but she was trapped by her mind, by the minds of people around her, not by the law. At the African church, Mr Vesey used to say, Be careful, you can get enslaved twice, once in your body and once in your mind.

I tried to tell her that. I said, “My body might be a slave, but not my mind. For you, it’s the other way round.”

Wings are a metaphor for freedom from oppression but they also represent the ability to soar, not only to be able to choose what we want to do and how to live a life, but to do it to the best of one’s ability, to step beyond the expectations of family, community, society.

Sarah Grimké (1792-1873)

Sarah Grimké (1792-1873)

I thought this book was excellent and I like it all the more for having understood subsequently how it came about. The female characters are particularly vivid, especially Handful and her mother Charlotte and though Sarah took time to come to terms with her own vocation and to shed the trappings of her upbringing, she is an incredibly courageous character given society had rather dismissed her given her disappointment in not being able to pursue a career or attracting the right kind of husband.

When asked about writing from the perspective of an enslaved character, Sue Monk Kidd mentioned that while writing this book she read an interview with Alice Walker in which she says “She was all over my heart, so why shouldn’t she be in literature”, exactly how she felt about Handful.

I also wondered about the author’s reasons for embracing such a story, her own connections to America’s history in the South and in the links below is a Reader’s Guide in which she speaks of her own upbringing in the South in the fifties and sixties, where she was witness to many terrible racial injustices and divides, which has had the effect of drawing her towards writing about them.

“I’ve been drawn to write about racial themes because they are part of me, and also because they matter deeply to me. I can’t help but feel a social responsibility about it as a writer. Racism is the great wound and sin of the South and indeed, the great wound and original sin of America. Two hundred and forty-six years of slavery was an American holocaust, and its legacy is racism. I don’t think we’ve fully healed the wound or eradicated the sin. For all the great strides we’ve made, that legacy still lingers.” Sue Monk Kidd

Additional Links

A Readers Guide – Q & A with Sue Monk Kidd

Interview with Oprah – Sue Monk Kidd chats with Oprah and takes Reader’s Questions

Note: This book was provided by the publisher Viking, an imprint of the Penguin Group.

TransAtlantic Journeys, Real and Imagined

Colum McCann’s latest novel did well to live up to my raised expectations and has now become a symbol of a path on the journey of this blog itself. I was always keen to read McCann’s next novel, after the hype of Let the Great World Spin, which I enjoyed although I wouldn’t class it as one of my all-time favourites. TransatlanticHowever, TransAtlantic became a “must read” after I received a hardback copy in the post, in recognition of one of my reviews being profiled on The Guardian’s online book pages, where I occasionally post extracts of reviews and comment under the pseudonym RedBirdFlies. The review that was acknowledged, was Zadie Smith’s NW and you can read what the Guardian had to say about it here.

So thank you to The Guardian Books team for sending me a copy of TransAtlantic, a welcome surprise and wonderful to know that a few of these “word by words” have flown the page and landed elsewhere to an appreciative audience.

Vickers Vimy with Alcock and Brown aboard departs-Newfoundland 14 June 1919

Vickers Vimy with Alcock and Brown aboard departs Newfoundland 14 June 1919

TransAtlantic is a hybrid novel (is that an oxymoron?), in which McCann takes real historical figures, all of whom made a transatlantic journey which subsequently had a bearing on the story of Ireland and re-imagines a part of their story, interspersing the narrative with fictional characters.

He starts with Alcock and Brown in 1919, who ditched their bomb carriers, modifying the Vickers Vimy by taking war out of flight and adding more fuel than had ever been strapped to an aircraft in their attempt to cross the Atlantic non-stop.

The names sounded familiar, but I didn’t know as I began to read who they were, so looked them up and was startled to see Alcock’s date of birth and then death, the same year in which he makes this attempt – are they going to make it I asked? And is it cheating to look up a historical figure in the midst of reading a novel? Brown dies many years later, so I settle back into reading, content they are going to make it. Until I read that Alcock couldn’t swim.

Their preparation and journey are captured by a journalist Emily Ehrlich and her photographer daughter Lottie, who reappear in later chapters, two women whose family have made the crossing many times, the first family member to do so Lily, inspired by meeting Frederick Douglass, who we meet in the second chapter. In a chance encounter with Brown, Lottie asks if he will carry a letter written by her mother to an address in Cork. A letter that survives this entire novel.

Frederick Douglass 1847 by Samuel J Miller (wikipedia)

Frederick Douglass 1847 by Samuel J Miller (wikipedia)

Frederick Douglass visits Ireland while in the throw of becoming a free man, he is spreading the word against slavery, a young abolitionist, a charismatic presence, in awe of how he is received, as an equal, yet disturbed by what he sees outside the warm, accepting rooms of his well-off hosts, the onset of famine in Ireland, people living in more dire conditions, than what he has left, though they are free. It is a humbling experience, as it is for anyone meeting those worse off than they, no matter how tragic one’s own circumstance.

“He thought he knew now what had brought him here – the chance to explore what it felt like to be free and captive at the same time. It was not something even the most aggrieved Irishman could understand. To be in bondage to everything, even the idea of one’s peace.”

A young maid, Lily Duggan is inspired by his presence to abandon her employ and take a ship to America, where she meets mixed fortune, her descendants equally inspired to search for new shores, leading them back full circle to that island of her birth Ireland. It is through the women characters that the threads of narrative are interwoven and connections are made across the years, witness to, or affected by the consequences of those significant events that the men of those first three chapters represent.

These characters might represent us, the population, those that stay in a country generation after generation, some harbouring seeds of revenge, and those who leave, immigrate, seeking utopia, hoping that there does exist, a place where men and women of any race, class, religion or persuasion have an equal chance at bettering their lives.

And as McCann himself says in the interview with Jeffrey Brown:

“Women, as we know, get the short shrift in history.

It’s been largely written and dictated by men, or at least men believe that we own it, and women have really been in those quieter moments at the edge of history. But, really, they’re the ones who are turning the cogs and the wheels and allowing things like the peace process to happen.”

There is something alluring in the novelist who takes on a historical figure and imagines their past, it can bring the past to life in a more animated way; in the present when the media delves into the personal life of an important political or scientific or literary figure, it is deemed an invasion of their privacy, the cult of the celebrity. When a novelist looks back and intertwines the narrative of their accomplishment and the context of their life, their loves, and their thoughts beyond the significant reason that they have become known, it makes them whole and they become characters that we might even relate to.

Entrance to Titanic Museum, Northern Ireland

Past in the Present
Entrance to Titanic Museum, Northern Ireland

“I am partial, still, to the recklessness of the imagination. The tunnels of our loves connect, coming to daylight at the oddest moments, and then plunge us into the dark again. We return to the lives of those who have gone before us, a perplexing Möbius strip until we come home, eventually, to ourselves.”

Whist many authors safely inhabit the lives of historical figures from a distance, many years or centuries after their death, dwelling in the safety of already published and authenticated research, McCann goes one step further by taking as his third character the US Senator, George Mitchell, effectively channeling his thoughts during the day that he journeys to Northern Ireland to broker the Good Friday Peace Agreement. Clearly, this was no mean feat, as the interview comments quoted attest, but he succeeds in creating the man behind the politician, without it seeming like an invasion of his privacy.

McCann’s prose style often reduces to the minimum, he sometimes dispenses with conventions of grammar, reducing his phrases to only the words that describe or evoke the scene or emotion and it is compelling reading. He doesn’t strip beauty from language; if anything he accentuates it by removing the accessories.

I don’t wish to make comparisons, but the only other writer whose prose has that kind of addictive effect on my reading is Cormac McCarthy. They don’t strum their words in the same way, but if they were musicians, they’d both be on my playlist. They possess talent worth dwelling within.

“It is one of their beauties, the Irish, the way they crush and expand the language all at once. How they mangle it and revere it. How they colour even their silences.”

Strangford Lough, Northern Ireland

Strangford Lough, Northern Ireland