October 13, 2016

Reading : Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

I've been planning for awhile to write about Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi this week, and coincidentally I was really lucky to see her read from it as part of a Litquake event on Tuesday. Litquake is a week-long literary festival featuring readings, book trivia events, poetry paired with wine tastings, and a litcrawl where 400 authors read aloud in bars, pubs, streets and random landmarks throughout San Francisco.  On Tuesday evening, The Octopus Literary Salon in Oakland hosted Yaa Gyasi.  She read from the first chapter, and answered questions from a crowd of adoring fans.

 Yaa Gyasi was born in Ghana and immigrated to America when she was very young, and grew up like many first generation children: connected to and distant from her homeland.  She was inspired to write this story when she visited Ghana as a nineteen year old, and took a tour of the Cape Coast Castle.  This was one of many slave castles where African slaves were housed before being shipped to other countries to be sold.  She learned that some of the European slaveowners married local African women, and was struck by the idea that some women could be married by the foreigners while others would be sold as slaves.

And so her story begins with two half-sisters, Effia and Esi: the former who marries a British slaveowner and lives high in the Castle, and the latter who is sold as a slave and lives in its dungeons.  Their stories are told, then the stories of their children, then the stories of their children's children, and so on.  Each chapter narrates the story of another character, following the subsequent generations of these two half-sisters.  The book continually moves through nine generations of families, moving forward in time, rarely returning to the story of any of the previous characters.

Each character confronts new challenges of his or her time and place. There are slave men and women; then there are slave runaways; then there are first generation free men; then there are the beginnings of black Americans whose years-long freedom doesn't protect them from segregation and hate; then there are black Americans who can now attend Ivy League institutions without fully understanding their path to these high castles.  Gyasi has an extraordinary way of filling each person with expansive life in the space of twenty to thirty pages, and connecting the characters not just by lineage but by the common threads of their common experience.

One of my favorite characters and stories is H, because he is a transition between what we are somewhat familiar with as a society now and what we have already forgotten.  H is a man who has been stripped of his full name, because his mother Anna, who had been born a free woman, was stolen and sold.  She named each of children in order of the alphabet: Agnes, Beulah, Cato, Daly, Eurias, Felicity, Gracie.  While pregnant with H, he's called only by his initial with the expectation that his name will come with his birth.  Then while Anna  is still pregnant with H, she's stolen to be sold as a slave and never able to complete his name.

H is born at a time such that when he grows up, he doesn't remember the Civil War.  But the degradation of his identity and humanity continue--first with the truncation of his name, and then with the path laid down for him, a path in the control of everyone but him and whose insensible crulety is seen as rational by those controlling him.  He's arrested for alleging looking at a white woman with desire, and because he can't pay the $10 fine for his crime, he is forced into paying it off with years of laboring in coal mines where laborers are whipped to death if they do not meet their daily quota.

It's an extraordinarily accurate and logical way of tracing the course of slavery and its effects over centuries and continents.  And it tells history from the perspective of those who never got to control the course of the world: "We believe the one who has power.  He is the one who gets to write the story. So when you study history, you must always ask yourself, Whose story am I missing? Whose voice was suppressed so that this voice could come forth? Once you have figured that out, you must find that story too. From there, you begin to get a clearer, yet still imperfect, picture."

It's these type of stories that have always drawn me more instinctually to fiction than history when it comes to books, because invidual characters give the most context of the world around them.

One minor downside to this is that Yaa Gyasi's clear intention of showcasing history through these characters make a few of them feel more like vessels for a theme than palpable people.  For me this was more the case with the end of the book and the characters closest to us in time, like Carson who represents the disproportionate percentage of black Americans inflicted with and persecuted for drug abuse. Sometimes the very clear purpose of having this type of structure for the book takes away from its organic flow, and gives less of a sense of the characters as existing outside of someone's creative hand.

At the same time, this structure provides a strong framework for understanding the timeless and ongoing impact of racial injustice; the system of the narrative that Gyasi has created mirrors the system that we as a society have created.  Gyasi's most powerful achievement is moving forward in time while always keeping the past close, which is so important in our current mindset of on-to-the-next-thing: "And if you point the people's eye to the future, they might not see what is being done to hurt them in the present."

Gyasi spoke during her reading about how "close and small everything is," when we zoom out and realize how much that seems far has touched our own experience.  In a world so defined by our individual occupation in society, where we've evolved to think less of our roots and more of what can be visibly seen, Gyasi revives the desire to be connected to the less concrete, and the truth that we are connected regardless of how we feel about it:

"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 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 of it."

And like with most books that I really love, it's language over everything else that lingers.  I loved the description of people as natural things:

"Effia started to think of him as a rain cloud: sallow and wet and shapeless."

"Marjorie must have been birthed from a cocoa nut, split open and wide."

"He was tall, with skin like the pit of an avocado."

On a personal level, for an immigrant or child of an immigrant, we've all felt this sentiment: "That the fact that he had been born, that he wasn't in a jail cell somewhere, was not by dint of his pulling himself up by his bootstraps, not by hard work or belief in the American Dream, but by mere chance."

To read stories like these is to honor that chance, to respect all those who didn't and don't have it, and to work towards making chance every person's reality.

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