Book Review: “Homegoing” by Yaa Gyasi

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My “Readings in Global Literature” class was not at all what I expected it to be. The literature chosen for class focused mostly on the transatlantic slave trade. There is nothing wrong with this at all, and I learned so much, but when I read the course description I thought we would be reading novels from all around the world. I hoped to read a book from China or India, then maybe some from Russia or the Middle East. Basically anything but American or European, which is what most of the literature courses seem to concentrate on.

This was my only complaint with the course. Otherwise, the professor was phenomenal, and we read several wonderful books. One of my favorites was the novel Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi. The title apparently comes from an old African-American belief that when they died their souls would journey across the ocean, back to their homeland of Africa. The author herself was born in Ghana and raised in Alabama, and says that the character Marjorie has very similar experiences to herself. Which is interesting to know once you get to her chapter and the chapter of Marcus at the end of the book.

In my opinion, Homegoing is epic. I say this because the purpose of the novel is to try and trace the effects of the slave trade across generations, starting back in the 1700’s all the way to present day. Gyasi does this by following the story of two half sisters born in Ghana. One is sold into slavery, one remains in Ghana.

Each chapter is almost like a short story. A portion of a character’s life is relayed, giving key information about the family and about important events regarding slavery during that time period. The next chapter switches to the other branch of the family, so you go from Ghana to the United States and back to Ghana.

In some ways, this could be a bit confusing. Often times you meet a character once then see very little to nothing of them ever again. I did find myself referring back to the family tree at the opening of the book, just so I could gage where I was at generationally, but it helped that any chapter that takes place in the United States is one sister’s decedents, and the others are still living in Ghana. Gyasi also weaves in recurring themes of fire and water, which help to tie the story together.

The scope of the story is just incredible. It’s so ambitious, to try and condense so much history into one novel, but I truly think that the author did an excellent job. I’ve read some reviews that remark on how her characters have “all the things” happen to them just to make reference to important historical events, but personally this did not bother me. I liked that it was there to remind you that these things did happen to real people. It made the story all the more compelling to me in a historical sense.

I found this book absolutely breathtaking. Every chapter, every generation that brought me closer to present day had me more and more wrapped up in the story. I didn’t feel disconnected at all from the geographical or character jumps. I just wanted to see how the author was going to tie it all together. Her prose is pretty straightforward, except for now and again she breaks into a kind of poetry that always made me stop and reread the sentence.

Definitely one of my favorite reads this semester.

A Love Letter to “Beloved”

I recently read Toni Morrison’s “Beloved” for the first time. I expected to be made uncomfortable, because facing the real life horrors of American slavery should make everyone uncomfortable. What I didn’t expect was a tangible reminder of why I love reading and writing as an art form.

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I had previously read about the horrific treatment of black slaves and been sickened by it. I had read before about the desperation of runaways on the underground railroad. I have read about segregation, seen its modern day equivalents, and lamented how long it is taking us to truly love and treat one another as equals. But as far as the past goes, I always kept those things separate. There was slavery in the South and freedom in the North. “Beloved” opened my eyes.

The quote below comes directly from Toni Morrison’s Pulitzer Prize winning masterpiece. The character speaking is Baby Suggs, a freed slave living among other free blacks in the free state of Ohio. In the face of all that “freedom”, she still says this:

“Here,” she said, “in this here place, we flesh; flesh that weeps, laughs; flesh that dances on bare feet in the grass. Love it. Love it hard. Yonder they do not love your flesh. They despise it. They don’t love your eyes; they’d just as soon pick em out. No more do they love the skin on your back. Yonder they flay it. And O my people they do not love your hands. Those they only use, tie, bind, chop off and leave empty. Love your hands! Love them. Raise them up and kiss them. Touch others with them, pat them together, stroke them on your face ‘cause they don’t love that either. You got to love it, you! And no they ain’t in love with your mouth. Yonder, out there, they will see it broken and break it again. What you say out of it they will not heed. What you scream out of it they do not hear. What you put into it to nourish your body they will snatch away and give you leavins instead. No, they don’t love your mouth. You got to love it. This is flesh I’m talking about here. Flesh that needs to be loved. Feet that need to rest and to dance; backs that need support; shoulders that need arms, strong arms I’m telling you. And O my people, out yonder, hear me, they do not love your neck unnoosed and straight. So love your neck; put a hand on it, grace it, stroke it and hold it up. And all your inside parts that they’d just as soon slop for hogs, you got to love them. The dark, dark liver — love it, love it, and the beat and beating heart, love that too. More than eyes or feet. More than lungs that have yet to draw free air. More than your life-holding womb and your life-giving private parts, hear me now, love your heart. For this is the prize.”

I read this passage twice before I had to take a break and absorb the meaning of what I had just read. Most of the book took place in Ohio, and still the blacks were only given low level jobs, denied education, made to wait outside the store until the white customers left and forced to walk on the opposite side of the street when white pedestrians passed. This was their reality. They escaped slavery but the self-righteous-anti-slavery northerners still treated them like lesser beings. Essentially, they left worse for bad. I closed this book with my eyes and heart opened a little wider.

This is why I love to read. This is why I love to write. This art form, like many others, is not just about entertainment, it’s about pulling back the curtain to show truth, making people stop to consider their beliefs or actions, leaving behind people with eyes, minds, and hearts opened a little wider.

Thank you Toni Morrison, and not just for prose that smelled like poetry, but for writing something that made me uncomfortable, that made me think, and, ultimately, changed me forever.

Quote from Toni Morrison’s “Beloved” published by Alfred Knopf Publishing in 1987

© Rachel Svendsen 2015