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?

Review: Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi

boysnowbird10booksofsummerdrunkoffrhetoricNobody ever warned me about mirrors, so for many years I was fond of them, and believed them to be trustworthy. I’d hide myself away inside them, setting two mirrors up to face each other so that when I stood between them I was infinitely reflected in either direction. Many, many me’s.

Boy Novak falls under a spell whenever she catches a glimpse of herself in a mirror, glass, a knife, anything that bounces light and casts a reflection back at her. When she marries Arturo Whitman and becomes stepmother to his daughter Snow, “an extraordinary-looking kid. A medieval swan maiden…”, Boy becomes jealous and obsessed with Snow and the idea that evil may be hiding under her amiable exterior. As Boy’s past has proven time and again “people can smile and smile and still be villains”. This dark, unsettling novel is Helen Oyeyemi’s fifth and as a fairly young novelist, she continues to explore familiar themes of fantastical worlds, brimming with narratives on race, jealousy, and the perception of beauty.

Although the back cover of Boy, Snow, Bird advertises that the novel “brilliantly recasts the Snow White fairy tale as a story of family secrets”, outside of family drama and a character’s name very similar to Snow White (Snow Whitman), the blurb is misleading. Go into the book with knowledge that you will not read anything remotely resembling the fairy tale and save yourself frustration that many readers are having with this book. Boy, Snow, Bird is a re-imagining in the broadest sense of the word that plays wonderfully with some motifs in Snow White; this story delivers on magic mirrors, a desire to be the “fairest of them all”, and evil undertones push to the forefront.

Boy’s story starts in 1953 when she runs away from her home and abusive father, Frank Novak, also known as “the rat catcher” due to his profession. Boy escapes on a train to the end of the line and arrives at Flax Hill, Massachusetts “a town of specialists” and a far cry from her former life. Still toting a blanket belonging to her previous lover, she marries Arturo Whitman while unsure of whether she loves him. Arturo and Boy’s relationship is a strange one, birthed from a general loathing for each other, suddenly morphed into an attraction. And when she gives birth to a dark-skinned, clearly “colored” daughter, Bird, the Whitman’s are exposed as light-skinned African Americans passing as white. Rather than send Bird to live with Arturo’s dark skinned sister (keeping the family secret well hidden, as Olivia, Arturo’s mother, hopes) Boy sends Snow away instead. Although Boy’s intentions are “good” as her goal is to protect Bird from comparisons to a much more eurocentrically beautiful Snow, Boy gives into the role of evil stepmother when she chooses to send Snow away because she is too “fair”.

Snow’s beauty is all the more precious to Olivia and Agnes because it’s a trick. When whites look at her, they don’t get whatever fleeting, ugly impressions so many of us get when we see a colored girl.

Split into three parts, the first and last chapter are narrated by Boy and the second is Bird’s, along with some letters between her and Snow revealing they both look into mirrors and sometimes do not see their reflections at all. Oyeyemi’s style is confident in all of it’s fantasy, providing sure footing for readers in an unfamiliar world as the story is lined with some nuggets of real life, such as Emmett Till’s slaying after whistling at a white woman, which the family discuss during a heated conversation over dinner. This helps draw us back to the weight behind the kind of impostor game the Whitman’s are playing. But in spite of stellar writing, Boy, Snow, Bird suffers from shortcomings any story with as many topics of discussion would; there are a hoard of half-baked characters – relatives, friends, friends of friends, that provide a layer of white noise and come in and out of the story. Added to the novel’s surreal style, this muddle of characters, and a lack of sense of character motives and relationships, makes for a disjointed plot that can be a slow read.

When Boy finds out the Whitman’s are actually black and sends Snow away, there are almost no consequences. There are basically no ramifications for anyone in the story, all of which do bad things. Oyeyemi makes an attempt to regain readers with a daring but undesirable twist, seemingly absolving all of the characters of any prior wrongdoing regardless of everything we just read. For some, this may beg the question; why is this story even being told? As this book is built from unreliable narrators and the notion that surface appearances are given way too much value I am hoping, like the mirror, Boy, Snow, Bird is just one of those things that needs a second, closer look to reveal its true meaning.

Book three out of ten book of summer.

Have you read Boy, Snow, Bird? I’m really interested to know what your thoughts are on it, or on this whole fairy tale “re-imagining” business in general. Is it possible to do that well? I am still under the impression that I may have to read this book again to get the full benefit of what Oyeyemi is trying to do, but we all know how that goes…

Hear ‘Melancholia in Molasses’ on Podcast!

jammiestbitsofjamstrangerminellieustacioHappy Tuesday, friends! Last week had two big writing achievements for me. First, I got to hear my short story in a podcast, and although hearing my own recorded voice will always be an awkward experience, it was also a very rewarding one.

The Jammiest Bits of Jam Storytelling podcast is a monthly podcast featuring themed short stories by female writers. This months theme is “sci fi”, and my short Melancholia in Molasses (which was titled Stranger when I sent the piece in for consideration) is the first of three stories. If you’re a person who likes to hear their fantastical stories, eerie music and all, be sure to give it a listen!

Earlier last week, I also got a pleasant surprise as my post, Literary Magazines Every Emerging Writers Should Read was linked on The Review Review, an online community where writers review literary magazines (among other things), in hopes of sifting down hundreds of journals available – making it easier for readers to narrow down different types of literary magazines and find ones they enjoy. The website features plenty of reviews, writing advice, opinion pieces, and publication tips to make your head spin.

This has definitely been a good week.