Review: Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

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Photo: Goodreads

“We believe the one who has the 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.”

Yaa Gyasi’s hugely successful debut novel, Homegoing, is an epic tale of a family tree splintered by the Gold Coast’s booming slave trade; one branch is sold into slavery while the other remains in war torn Ghana. Beautiful half-sisters, Effia and Esi, live in separate villages and are both unaware that the other exists. At fifteen, Effia is made to marry James Collins, an Englishman and slaver, and lives with him in the comfort of the Gold Coast castle. Esi’s fate takes a different turn when she is captured by Ghanaian warriors and sold into slavery; she lives in the dark, soiled, dungeon of Gold Coast castle, unknowingly under the footsteps of her half sister, until she and thousands of other slaves are shipped to the United States. Sweeping 200 years and several generations from 18th century Ghana to the plantations of the American South, the coal mines in Alabama to the Great Migration, to the heroin epidemic in Harlem, and up until today, Homegoing is a massive undertaking that explores relationships, religion, how our inherited history forms identity, and the search for home.

Like Gabriel Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, or more recently, Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Homegoing tells the heart wrenching story of multiple generations of one family, and does exceptionally well in only 300 pages. “How can I tell you the story of your scar without first telling you the story of my dreams? And how do I talk about my dreams without talking about my family?” one character says, setting us up for a plethora of family stories of separation and longing. The book reads like a series of interconnected short stories as chapters switch between Effia and Esi’s descendants, allowing for only a few pages for them to stand out, grab our attention, and tell their story, but Gyasi’s beautiful storytelling and ability to write deeply emotional scenes allows for that short span to be enough. There is a family tree at the beginning of the novel for reference, but it is seldom needed because Gyasi writes so clearly a character needs only to speak for a few lines before you’ve been placed in their shoes and know who their parents and grandparents are. Although the entire story is great, the first half of the book is particularly gripping because Gyasi spends more time establishing each character. As the story continues and the family get further away from Effia and Esi, the chapters shorten – there’s still a connection to the characters, but noticeably less.

Homegoing takes the slave narrative and gives it a much needed revamping by telling as much of the story as possible, focusing more on Africa (it’s involvement in slavery and the effects it had on the people still living there) than books of this sort usually do. Gyasi explores relationships between parents and their children, particularly mothers and daughter, and fathers and sons. There is a pattern of hard, unloving mothers, some through their own bitterness and others through slavery, and Gyasi writes about how this hardness trickles down their daughters. Esi, who used to smile and fill a room with her laughter, is broken down to the point that when her daughter Ness thinks of her, she only draws up the image of “the gray rock of her mother’s heart. She would always associate real love with a hardness of spirit.” This dovetails to the splintering of family in the United States, where Esi’s descendant Willie has raised her son alone, only to find that he’s grown to be as “absent as his own” father. Some of the most enjoyable parts of the book are seeing exactly how one thread leads to another; how one person’s actions affect the family down the line. Homegoing comes full circle with a character inspired by Gyasi’s life – Marjorie. Like Gyasi, Marjorie moves with her family from Ghana to Alabama and instantly realizes that although she has the same black skin as African Americans, she is “othered” because she is a different, far too distant to feel at home in the United States. Here is when we see a culmination of history, the people who made it, and how we are all children of that shared history.

Gyasi reached for the stars with this epic family story and she writes with confidence and clarity most authors only muster up after a few successful novels. Homegoing is a must read that will open eyes to a whole new spectrum of the slave narrative.

Have you read Homegoing? What did you think of it? Are you planning on reading it?

The 5 Stages of Receiving Negative Criticism

A while ago, my creative writing professor said although he liked the first part of a story I had handed in to him, the last two parts seemed gimmicky. After five minutes of white noise and rapid eye blinking I thought, for a man who makes a living choosing the right words you’d think he’d come up with something a little less harsh. But harsh words or not, he was right, although it took me two weeks of grief to understand why.

Getting feedback on your work is essential to produce a good story. We like to think that we can take constructive criticism on the chin (especially when it’s positive), but when we’ve coddled a beloved story for months, edited, and tucked it in bed, it’s hard to deal with negative feedback. Seasoned writer or no, you’re likely to go through these stages when a story you’ve written isn’t received as well as you thought it would be.

Denial

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You don’t like my story? I know you’ve had years of training, write professionally for a living, and have published several novels, but you obviously have no idea what you’re talking about.

Anger

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For every red mark you’ve left on my work, I will kill you.

Bargaining

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Okay, my story is kind of terrible. If I could just write one amazing book I promise to drink you once a day for eternity. That’s how all the good writers do it anyway, right?

Depression

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It’s true, I’m a phony with no talent. I’ll start looking for a real job as soon as I’m through wiping my tears with the pages of my unfinished novel.

Acceptance

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Okay, I wrote a bad (really bad) story, so what? I’m going to take your feedback and those red marks all over my pages, and turn them into something awesome.

Sometimes things are best said in GIFs. I think I’d be more accepting of negative comments if they came in GIF form. 😀 When was the first time you had to deal with negative feedback on your work? How do you deal with the red mark of death?

Craft Quote #7 – Why Perfectionism Killed Your Story

If I waited for perfection, I would never write a word. – Margaret Atwood

The first draft of anything is shit. – Ernest Hemingway

These quotes come at a time when I’m making several revisions to a short story from four or five months ago. Last week I was eager to edit. I got the story out of my desk, edited the first paragraph thirty-odd times, then stuffed the papers back in the drawer deciding my time would be best spent job hunting – I’d worked five months and produced excrement, and worst of all, at one point I’d actually thought it was good. I was suffering from two things all writers go through at one point or another; a disconnect from my work because so much time had passed since the last edit, and feeling stagnated because I was editing my story with the aim of perfecting it.

As writers, we’re all guilty of trying to make our stories perfect because we have a particular message we want to convey, but what is perfection anyway? When does refining become a vice?

Writing is art; personal and an expression of self, so is constantly evolving and is impossible to perfect, so why are so many of us aiming for the impossible? The idea of what makes a flawless story changes as often as our minds do. Constantly judging your writing in pursuit of perfection ends in frustration and chasing your creativity down a hole to writer’s block.

Perfectionism puts a wrench in your writing mojo so, why do we spend so many weeks, months, and years editing and re-editing, in pursuit of it? I think the greatest reason is fear. Writing is incredibly personal, even when you’re not writing about something personal. You write, edit, pour hours into a story and wonder what people will say when they read your work. What will my friends/family think? Will my editor like it? What if no one gets what I’m trying to do? All of these questions rise up and choke the life out of creativity.

Aiming to write a well though-out, clear, soul-filled story is a good thing, but writing for perfection is a hindrance on creativity and productivity, because you’ll be editing with no end in sight.

Some ways I deal with my occasionally overcritical eye are to

  • Try not judging work while in the middle of writing it. Save judgement for later drafts, the first one is just a place to get your ideas onto paper (or screen). Think of creating your story like painting; start with broader strokes and then go back to refine, not perfect.
  • Write first and foremost for you, not any potential readers you think may be out there.
  • Set realistic deadlines to complete work. If you like to keep track of projects in stages; set a deadline to complete your outline, then a first draft, and so on. Having a set time to finish leaves no space for endless edits.

Chasing perfection hurts the creative process, but is something all writers (even the ones you admire and can do no wrong) struggle with. Next time you find you’ve micro-edited a paragraph for the umpteenth time, take a break then come back to the work with a mindset of writing without judgement, and free of the worry that someone is looking over your shoulder.

Do you find yourself struggling for perfection, or leaning on any other vices that stop you from writing? How are some ways you combat the need to aim for perfect writing? How long do you work on a project before deciding enough is enough? Let me know in the comments!

Organizational Tips for Writers; How To Prioritize Like a Boss

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Photo: Josh Ginter

When I realized I had a solid date and plan of action for becoming vegan, but no deadlines or real plan for how I would achieve my writing goals, I took a long look at myself in the mirror, wiped the pizza grease off my mouth and said, Minelli, your priorities are fucked. It’s easy to claim the title as a writer, but what happens next? How do you land that writing job or actually finish that collection of poems you’ve been harping on about for so long? I’m a naturally disorganized person, but when I took my “temporary” hiatus from college it wasn’t long before I found that I could not carry on this way and expect to get anywhere in writing, professional or otherwise.

I’ve had more on my plate writing-wise with trying to post more frequently and taking on a few projects. I’m working with two illustrator friends and my husband (who’s a 3D modeler) to create a small videogame, and I am writing the content and story. I am also finally (finally) editing Melancholia in Molasses for my creative writing class that recommences at the end of the month. It’s been so long since I’ve touched my 5500+ word count story and there’s still so much that needs to be done. Outside of those more elective activities, I have been working on my professional writing; refining my resume, applying for freelance writing jobs, writing proposals and cover letters left right and center. It’s impossible to get through anything without some pre-planning.

Staying organized saves time so you’re more productive and able to stay on top of different projects. Fiction writers have to organize outlines and find writing time outside of their day jobs; while freelance writers have to be on top of their schedules, clients, research, and due dates. Here is a list of organizational tips (and helpful links) to prioritize your writing life like the boss you’re trying to be.

Cleanliness is next to productiveness

Did you know productive writers are God’s favorite children? Clean that desk or dining table (or the bed you use as a table) so you have a de-cluttered space to write and you will be highly favored. Oh, you don’t have a designated place to write? It’s better to be a Starbucks cliche than have no place to write at all.

Your Messy Desk is Hurting Your Writing Career. Here’s How to Declutter

Set a large goal, then establish small steps to achieve it

You can’t become a novelist and freelance writer extraordinaire without a (realistic) plan to get there. Set smaller goals to achieve larger ones so you can measure progress and stay motivated.

Writing a long story? Establish daily word count goals and log how many you complete.

Looking for writing jobs? Establish a weekly goal of how many you will apply to, then send out proposals/resumes daily to break application time into manageable sessions. No one likes spending hours searching jobs and emailing resumes (unless you’re a resume writer, bless your soul if you are).

Goal-Setting For Freelance Writers: A Crash Course

Get all of you work in one place

Organize as much of your work as you can electronically and take advantage of apps like Evernote or Google Drive. These apps are great for planning stories and articles, taking notes, planning your schedule, saving images, and everything is automatically synced to your electronic devices. This means you will never have to wait until you get to your home or office to find out information for a client, or the details of a story you’re writing. I personally prefer Google but know many people like Evernote’s interface and ability to save articles and images with their original links and references.

How To Use Evernote for Fiction Writing

Set a schedule (AND stick with it)

Life does not need to look like a planner and mine often doesn’t, but when you’re a freelance writer it’s good if your life resembles some of the rigidity of pre-scheduled days. I’m hardly a fan of them, but if you expect to get a job writing you might as well start acting as if you’re doing it already (my ideal workplace is cat friendly and pant-free, so that is the work environment I perpetuate at home). For creative writers, use your schedule to plan writing around your work schedule.

Do more creative/time consuming projects first

Unless you have something that needs to be done right away or a meeting that has to be attended, start off with the more creative tasks. Our brains are the most alert in the morning so it’s a good opportunity to tap into those creative juices before they’re all drained from other activities. If you don’t work with creative writing, do the harder and more time consuming tasks first rather than leaving them for last – you have to do it regardless, why let it weigh you down at the end of a long day?

Don’t take on every project

You will be tempted to, but if you do you’ll likely take on too much, get burned out, and leave a terrible impression on any clients you’re working with. How productive is it to start a fourth short story when you’ve barely pieced together the second and haven’t revised the first? I know; you’re a writer, you’re broke and motivated, but that practice is not productive. It’s easy to get excited once you get the ball rolling on a story or when the job interviews start rolling in, but the more you do the less time you can spend doing one thing very well.

Take care of yourself, too

I mentioned acting as if writing is your job (if that’s where you’re trying to take it), but remember it’s not just any job-it’s the job you want. Have you had enough sleep, food, and water? If not you’ll be fatigued and won’t make it past noon without several cups of coffee to help you keep up the work. Remember to take breaks, fifteen minutes to every hour, rather than working like a Hebrew slave for hours in a row. Most of us have day jobs; I work 7am-7pm three days out of the week so do not write (or even think about writing) on those days. I’m off four days in the week and spend three of those days writing from 9-4ish. Work on a write-work-life balance that doesn’t burn your out, hopefully these organizational tips will help along the way.

 

Here’s to productive work and no burn out! Do you have any tips for getting organized? Let me know in the comments!

Review: Outer Dark by Cormac McCarthy

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Photo: Goodreads

Night fell long and cool through the woods about him and spectral quietude set in. As if something were about that crickets and nightbirds held in dread. He went on faster. With full dark he was confused in a swampy forest, floundering through sucking quagmires… in full flight now, the trees beginning to close him in, malign and baleful shapes that reared like enormous androids provoked at the alien insubstantiality of this flesh colliding among them.

Cormac McCarthy’s second novel, Outer Dark was published by Random House in 1968 at the peak of the Southern Gothic literature scene, and is peppered with genre specific tropes McCarthy does so well – grotesque themes, damaged and delusional characters on the outskirts of society, an underlying theme that fate or something just as menacing and inescapable is just out of the field of vision. That lingering maliciousness hovers over Rinthy and Culla Holmes, siblings residing in an isolated cabin in Johnson County, a non distinct town hued in shadow (similar to the main characters in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road).

Rinthy bears her brother’s child, suffering through a long labor because he is unwilling to get a midwife, worried she might reveal their insectuous secret. When Rinthy finally rests, Culla takes the baby and leaves it in the woods, telling his sister the child fell ill and died. Rinthy quickly discovers an empty grave and sets off to find a tinker, suspecting her brother has sold the baby because no one else has passed their home in months. Culla leaves too, supposedly to bring Rinthy home, but his aimlessness seems more like an escape from the persecution of his sins.

On their separate paths, Rinthy and Culla encounter different degrees of hospitality. Rinthy’s innocent nature and sickly physique encourage strangers to welcome her with food and shelter, while Culla is met with suspicion, violence, and denied work. Three mysterious men follow Culla for what seems like no reason at all, until we discover this is a story about inhumanity and prophesy, all culminating in a judgement day-like conclusion.

With Outer Dark being McCarthy’s second novel you may expect amateur writing as he figures out his literary limbs, but he was very ambitious (and successful) in the themes he chose to explore in the novel. McCarthy studies the strange behavior of his characters, their dialect, mental instabilities, and ultimately the harm they do to each other, a point illuminated by the tinker when he says he has “seen the meanness of humans till I dont know why God aint put out the sun and gone away.”  The novel also deals in the themes of blindness, darkness, and religion, the title itself referring to a biblical verse “And cast ye the unprofitable servant into outer darkness: there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Matthew 25:30 (KJV) a foreboding to apocalyptic revelations to come, like the rapture itself.

Lyricism compliments broken dialogue, simple people and surroundings, and as the story progresses McCarthy plays with reader’s anticipations. We’re convinced something terrible will happen, so he draws the situation out one string at a time, slowly teasing it apart, growing more deliberate towards later chapters where Rinthy and Culla’s dovetailing  paths draw closer to a similar dire fate; Holmes dealing with death face on, and Rinthy close on the tinker’s heels.

Even with the bleak themes of Southern Gothic, Outer Dark is a tamer version of McCarthy’s usual work, so is a good choice for starting out if you’ve yet to give him a read. Still, in it’s “tamer” nature, there will be moments when you turn away from the page and it’s unpleasant details, but will finish the book with an idea of reading it again.  Cormac McCarthy is not for the faint of heart or ego. If you’re a writer, read this book knowing that you will question everything you’ve ever written as rubbish, but will learn a great deal. My copy of Outer Dark is full of highlights and marginal notes, like any good book should be.

Book six of ten books of summer.

Have you read Outer Dark? What did you think of it? Have you read any of Cormac McCarthy’s other books? Can you stomach gruesome subjects in writing or is it a put off/distraction for you? What book do you own with the most highlights or notes?

A little note for #20booksofsummer, I’m currently reading my seventh book, Homegoing (which is great and will have a review up next week), and will be tapping out at that. It’s been great reading some books off of my shelf but I seriously miss lit mags and new books! 🙂

Craft Quote #6 – Using Plot as a Device

While scrolling through my wordpress reader I came across Longreads Top 5 Longreads of the Week. Longreads is a blog that regularly posts excellent content for writers and this week they linked to a compilation of articles focused on how to plot a novel, in it is a fun article that provides an encyclopedia of every kind of literary plot (ever) including examples of books that use that specific device effectively and plot devices that used to work before the technological age took over. It offers plenty of useful links and is well worth the read if you’re interested in playing around with any of these plots for your own stories.

Here are a few author’s responses to whether they believe plot should be a center device in novels:

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Photo: Vulture.com

There are commandments that the storytelling community generally agree on; thou shalt write daily, thou shalt not plagiarize, thou shalt not use adverbs in vain, but there are many parts of the writing process that go disputed between it’s disciples. The decision of whether to use plot as a main story driver (rather than characters or the writing itself) depends on the individual, what they are writing, and who they are writing for.

While plot is necessary for certain types of genres like detective mysteries, other genres have more freedom when it comes to letting prose, character and emotion drive the story alongside minimal plot. I agree with Grace Paley (poet and short story writer) in that all stories have a plot that sets us in a time, place, and situation, but plot is best utilized when playing a small role in a story rather than a central part in it. I also agree with Bret Easton Ellis (author of American Psycho) when he says that without plot there still must be a banal entity “to keep it [the story] moving forward”. As a reader I enjoy stories that leave me in expectation, which can come from the right words, descriptions of place, and emotions. An example of a writer who does this very well is Cormac McCarthy. His stories are rarely more than a hero’s (or anti-hero’s) journey pushed to new levels because of descriptive writing that draws in readers. In the end you don’t care too much about what’s happening because you’re in it for everything else.

Do you lean towards plots or prose (or anything else) as a center of a story? Do you know of any authors who write this way that you enjoy or don’t enjoy reading?

A Sleight 21st Century Love Poem: A Short Story

Is this a poem or flash fiction? I don’t even know. I hope you enjoy this fun exercise in bad language and other steamy things. And remember, any writing is good compared to no writing at all, right…? Thanks for stopping by. 🙂


Beneath the gallantry and fuckery,

as fun as she

(and she hopes he)

finds it,

it seems there should have been something else by now.

A slow dig in search of something palpable and wonderful,

electrical and whatever other adjective to describe the build up she feels when he

touches, kisses, works her legs open.

Boundless and burning, but oh is she misty!

So the tune of fuck you, what the fuck are we doing, and are we still fucking other people?

is overridden by the steady skipping track of a whisper to a dancing ear,

fuck me,

until neither have anymore fucks to give. They’re spent and everyone knows it.

And where were we?

The dig, that grueling chore of getting beneath the Earth’s crust, not nearly as attractive in the day time.

The slight unfurled mouth is now a gaping canal that sucks him in but the sun is up again and he wants out of this unholy rebirthing.

The sun is up and the beast run off.

But wait, what happened to the gallantry and fuckery?

What of those steamy windows of his old mustang where the girl’s head appears, disappears, then reappears like some magic trick that would get an illusionist fired?

His best trick is making the audience believe what he tells them,

that there is wonder and electricity and more beneath the fuckery.

But, what a thing it is to find the Earth is hollow.

Physics: A Short Story

The security guard hears the car long before he sees it. It’s low silhouette spits towards the parking lot and is the first to arrive, beating the sun that is barely risen above the hills, an arc of light in the blue-black sky visible then hidden again by fibrous rain clouds. The guard’s box is illuminated as the old two-tone Subaru pulls forward. He gets up and pokes his wide torso out of the warm box, the cold and wet coming in. His hands visor his eyes and motion for the car to go through. He squints to see the driver through the rain, the windshield wipers move too slow to clear the stream of water that casts a shimmer on the driver’s face, the wide set eyes constantly wavering. The woman smiles hard but the rain makes it look like she’s been crying, or maybe she has been crying. Her hand reaches from the car with a cardboard box and the officer takes it and smiles back, says his wife will literally kill him if he has another donut, that’s if his sugar doesn’t do it first, and waves the woman into the empty lot where she parks in a spot furthest from the entrance.

Adannaya turns the engine off and lays her head back, closes her eyes. The temporary black is the closest thing to sleep and the faint drumroll on the roof will do for a lullaby. The urge to cry rises again, from her stomach into her throat, but she takes another hit instead and fills the car with a smoke that makes the world look like it’s been covered with ground glass. She inhales until her lungs are at full capacity, holds even longer, then exhales smooth letting the smoke and everything else go. The car is warm and fragrant and smells like her home, seaside scented candles and peach flavored rolling papers in an overflowing ashtray. Helium-filled balloons bob about the car in a kaleidoscopic fog. She turns and retrieves a bouquet of sunburnt and bell shaped lilies, a stapled brown baggie of her mother’s prescriptions, the balloons nod their encouragements. The walk to the hospital is long and quiet save for slow footfalls across the graveled lot. Adannaya jumps once, but there’s not enough helium or hope to go anywhere.

Craft Quote #5 – Why Do We Write?

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Photo: Goodreads.com

Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.
—George Orwell

George Orwell authored dystopian masterpieces Animal Farm and 1984, which are now required reading in many high-school English classes around the world, and still considered the process of novel writing to be a dire one.

So why did he do it? Why does any writer, famous, infamous, or aspiring, do it? Short stories and novellas are also a struggle to complete (in some aspects, even more so than a novel). Clearly there is some unknown entity that chases most of us writers. I, for one, have no idea why the strong urge to write has followed me through childhood and well into my twenties, even when I stifled art in pursuit of other careers it was only a temporary distraction and attempt at not being my mother’s worst nightmare. I may not understand what initially sparked my desire to write, write, write, but I have some idea of why I am doing it now; I love the empathetic perspective writing requires; there are endless cultures and lifestyles waiting to be explored and recreated; the rhythm and clarity of a well structured sentence is something truly wonderful; I’m a nerd for the emotions words create, and a sympathetic person that I also hate; there’s a story in me that needs to be written.

Why do you write? Do you remember the first time you picked up a book and thought I could do this!? Do you also remember how wrong you were about how easy it would be?