book club: homegoing

Anthony and my latest read for Best Friends International Book Club was Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi. Bonus: Homegoing was also on my 2018 TBR Pile Challenge list. Edited from the book jacket:

Two half sisters, Effia and Esi, are born into different villages in eighteenth-century Ghana. Effia is married off to an Englishman and lives in comfort in the palatial rooms of Cape Coast Castle. Unbeknownst to Effia, her sister, Esi, is imprisoned beneath her in the castle’s dungeons, sold with thousands of others into the Gold Coast’s booming slave trade, and shipped off to America, where her children and grandchildren will be raised in slavery. One thread of Homegoing follows Effia’s descendants through centuries of warfare in Ghana, as the Fante and Asante nations wrestle with the slave trade and British colonization. The other thread follows Esi and her children into America. From the plantations of the South to the Civil War and the Great Migration, from the coal mines of Pratt City, Alabama, to the jazz clubs and dope houses of twentieth-century Harlem, right up through the present day, Homegoing makes history visceral, and captures, with singular and stunning immediacy, how the memory of captivity came to be inscribed in the soul of a nation.

WHY why why didn’t I read this right when I bought it, right when it came out? This is a BEAUTIFUL book. I was really fascinated by the subject matter so that’s why I originally picked it up, but I usually struggle with narratives that are set too far in the past. But Gyasi’s research for her debut novel is so extensive and her writing is so vivid that I became completely immersed within the first few pages. She managed to give three-dimensional life and personality to every character despite our only spending one chapter with each of them. Each chapter felt like its own short story but woven together created a rich, captivating tapestry.

I really enjoyed learning about Africa’s parallel timeline over the last 250 years to America’s (even if through a fictional novel). America’s past (and lots of its present…) is horrific and shameful regarding its treatment of its black citizens. But  Homegoing doesn’t play the “grass is greener” game. There’s turmoil in Africa’s past, too—wars, corruption, complicity in slavery (kidnapping and selling fellow Africans to British slave traders), cultural and social upheaval due to colonization and missionaries, ostracizing members of your own community, etc. No place, no country, no group of people on Earth is perfect. There are upsetting scenes throughout and Gyasi doesn’t sugarcoat, but does have a sensitive touch handling difficult material.

Anthony pointed out some excellent quotes that illustrate how wonderfully Gyasi connects everything in the book: the countries, the family’s separate generations, and real history. As I’ve grown as a life-long learner, I’ve definitely noticed this looking back on my grade school education (which I do feel was excellent, but there’s so, so much missing from textbooks and curriculum, between factual events and different perspectives):

“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.” (Yaw, to his students; 226–27)

I’m continuously sickened by the audacious privilege white people have enjoyed for centuries, in their feeling of entitlement to control everything and benefit, but are absolved from responsibility for any of the “bad stuff” resulting from their actions. These two quotes stood out to us:

“White men get a choice. They get to choose they job, choose they house. They get to make black babies, then disappear into thin air, like they wasn’t never there to begin with, like these black women they slept with or raped done laid on top of themselves and got pregnant. White men get to choose for black men too. Used to sell ’em; not they just send ’em to prison like they did my daddy, so that they can’t be with they kids. … Alls I can think is this ain’t the way it’s s’posed to be.” (Willie, to Sonny; 262)

Originally, he’d wanted to focus his work on the convict leasing system that had stolen years off of his great-grandpa H’s life, but the deeper into the research he got, the bigger the project got. How could he talk about Great-Grandpa H’s story without also talking about his grandma Willie and the millions of other black people who had migrated north, fleeing Jim Crow? (Marcus; 289)

This last quote from page 289 continues, connecting the Great Migration to Harlem of the 1960s, to the “war on drugs” of the 1980s, to the Prison Industrial Complex… basically what you could learn all about in more detail in The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander (another excellent BFIBC pick). It’s just a very succinct look at how the racial disparity and discrimination in the U.S. didn’t just “happen.” The system has been purposefully designed and re-shaped along the way to continue to operate in this function, but behind a more palatable facade.

In addition to the snapshots of very real history placed in the context of this one family’s parallel journeys, the family itself is compelling. There is a family tree at the start of the book, which beyond being helpful to the reader, it also struck me how unfair it is that I get to see this family tree stretch back to the matriarch, Esi and Effia’s mother, but the current generation, at least Marcus, the twenty-first-century American, will never be able to trace his lineage back to her, no matter how much research he does. His family has been broken and separated far too many times to get the full, clear picture. And I was so heartbroken by this knowledge, and even more saddened and outraged knowing for a fact that this travesty happened to countless families in America during slavery. I can’t imagine the feeling of simply not knowing, of finding that at a certain point in the past, the path of your lineage just… vanishes. What does that do to your sense of identity? Reading Homegoing, both the America and Africa parts, I was reminded of articles of recent studies I’ve seen floating around online about how we carry trauma of our ancestors, close and distant, with us—it is psychologically transmitted across generations.

I loved this epic family saga, and I loved reading it with Anthony for our book club. Ok if I have one tiny complaint it’s that the ending is a little tidy but whatever, I still cried. Homegoing is one of the most affecting and thought-provoking pieces of historical fiction I’ve read in a long time. I can’t encourage readers enough to pick up this book.

We also discussed They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us (I’ve read it, Anthony was almost finished) and both LOVED it, and decided on our next BFIBC pick: The House of Impossible Beauties by Joseph Cassara. We’re on a fiction bender for book club lately!

Homegoing is my third of twelve books read for the 2018 TBR Pile Challenge.

Read in March 2018.

an american marriage

I had to see what was up with An American Marriage by Tayari Jones, the very hyped latest pick for Oprah’s book club. Heavily edited from Goodreads:

Newlyweds Celestial and Roy are the embodiment of both the American Dream and the New South. He is a young executive and she is an artist on the brink of an exciting career. But as they settle into the routine of their life together, they are ripped apart by circumstances neither could have imagined. Roy is arrested and sentenced to twelve years for a crime Celestial knows he didn’t commit. Though fiercely independent, Celestial finds herself bereft and unmoored. As their time apart passes, Celestial is unable to hold on to the love that has been her center. After five years, Roy’s conviction is suddenly overturned, and he returns to Atlanta ready to resume their life together.

There’s a lot to unpack in this story, which is fictional but undoubtedly all too real for many families. It’s a love story at its core, but through the lens of a tragically common situation black Americans face today. I’m not surprised Oprah (and probably many others) picked this for book club—it makes for excellent discussion. How can black Americans achieve the American dream when they have to be twice as good and work twice as hard for it, when their achievements don’t protect them at all from persecution and discrimination? What about loyalty, or conditional vs. unconditional love? How do partners handle life-altering, stressful, major life events in their marriage? Does absence truly make the heart grow fonder? And more, like dealing with the stigma families deal with when one of their own is or has been incarcerated, nature vs. nurture, fathers and sons, etc.

I’m happy I listened on audio. The actors, Sean Crisden and Eisa Davis, did a fantastic job performing these characters and giving them depth, especially during the epistolary first half of the novel. Their delivery and emotion gave Roy and Celestial life; I felt almost like I was experiencing a play in person rather than listening to a book. That’s also a testament to Jones’s wonderful storytelling. My one tiny complaint is that the ending was just a touch too tidy for me, but it (along with the rest of the story) was completely believable.

An American Marriage lived up to the hype for me. Life isn’t strictly black and white, people are complex and flawed and both good and bad. It’s a powerful story about love, being human, being black in America, familial relationships, friendships, and reacting/recovering after the universe unexpectedly slaps you in the face and upends your life.

Listened to audiobook in March 2018.

sq21: singapore queers in the 21st century

I recently took advantage of a sale at local indie shop Books Actually here in Singapore, and one of the books I picked up was SQ21: Singapore Queers in the 21st Century by Ng Yi-Sheng, edited by Jason Wee. I was interested in learning about LGBTQ culture in Singapore. Unedited from the book’s back cover:

First published in 2006, this groundbreaking collection of coming out stories was the first affirming non-fiction volume accompanied by real names and faces. Written in light, clear prose, SQ21 shows an unabashed straightforward honesty and finds inspiration in the lives of these ordinary Singaporeans. Though a bestseller that won acclaim as The Straits Times nonfiction book of that year, SQ21 remained out-of-print for nearly a decade. This new reprint comes updated with fresh material – a new interview by Ng Yi-Sheng, and a new foreword by the editor Jason Wee.

I want to get my main criticism out of the way. I couldn’t help notice several typos and inconsistencies throughout the book. The blurb has some examples: “non-fiction” and “nonfiction,” missing commas, hyphens instead of em-dashes, and (maybe just my preference but) I wouldn’t have hyphenated “out of print” since it’s following the noun it modifies. Some missing prepositions, some repeated words. Maybe I’m being way too picky, and I realize this is supposed to be conversational, in the subjects’ voices, but when you notice enough easily correctable grammatical errors it bugs, especially in a new, republished edition. Some of the footnotes were redundant as well.

Anyway! That gripe aside, which has nothing to do with the content, I did enjoy the stories in this book. They made me feel both sad and hopeful. I was sad about how deeply ingrained some misconceptions and stereotypes of homosexuality and bisexuality existed within the subjects themselves. I had to keep reminding myself that this is only from about a decade ago, and while there has been some progress for acceptance in Singapore, it still seems like it has a long way to go. And some things confound me a bit, like the Pink Dot festival—foreigners are not allowed to attend, participate, or even watch from a distance. It oddly goes against the core messaging of gay pride festivals: inclusivity and acceptance. From what I’ve gleaned living here for a couple years, Singapore is patriarchal, conservative, and oppressive in a general, subtle sense—things appear “perfect” on the surface, but no place is perfect. There’s no country on Earth that doesn’t have shameful, dark parts of its past (and present). We are a deeply flawed species.

But I am left more with a hopeful feeling, especially reading about the gay men accepted by their fellow military servicemen, the majority of parents either understanding or coming around, and that there has been a growing number of LGBTQ groups and organizations in Singapore. Religion is a big part of many of these stories… I’m sure there are entire books devoted solely to the oppressive, hostile attitude of religions against LGBTQ people. It’s infuriating, to be honest.

There’s also insight into LGBTQ Singaporeans in the context of race, age, nationality, societal expectations, and more. I appreciated that the afterward bemoans the lack of workplace stories and accounts from the older LGBTQ generation (hopefully for the next edition!). Maybe the next edition could include some gender identity representation, that would be awesome. In one chapter, the storyteller mentions a fellow student whose “parents were a woman and an FTM,” which is footnoted as “FTM: female-to-male transsexual; a person who was born in a woman’s body but lives as a man” and I wondered if that could have gone into more depth. The term “transgender” isn’t mentioned.

I really admire the people profiled in SQ21—their courage in relaying their personal experiences with coming out, whether difficult or smooth, is inspiring. This is an important piece of Singapore’s history and social progress.

Read in March 2018.

the summer that melted everything

Another pick for my 2018 TBR Pile Challenge! I’ve had  The Summer that Melted Everything by Tiffany McDaniel on my shelf since it came out—even traveled to Singapore with me in the move. From the book jacket:

Fielding Bliss has never forgotten the summer of 1984: The year a heat wave scorched Breathed, Ohio. The year he became friends with the devil. Sal seems to appear out of nowhere—a bruised and tattered thirteen-year-old boy claiming to be the devil himself answering an invitation. Fielding Bliss, the son of a local prosecutor, brings Sal home, where the Bliss family welcomes him, assuming he’s a runaway from a nearby farm town. When word spreads that the devil has come to Breathed, not everyone is happy to welcome his self-proclaimed fallen angel. Murmurs follow him and tensions rise, along with the temperature, as an unbearable heat wave rolls into town right along with him. As strange accidents start to occur, some in the town, riled by the feverish heat, start to believe that Sal is exactly who he claims to be. While members of the Bliss family wrestle with their own personal demons, a fanatic drives the town to the brink of a catastrophe that will change this sleepy Ohio backwater forever.

I was initially drawn to this book by the title and cover. And the title sort of aptly describes how I feel in the perpetual Singapore heat—the never-ending summer that’s melting me. I was pretty excited seeing a mention of Wisconsin on page 7 (“But did you know that in Wisconsin, there is a lake, a wondrous lake, called Devil?”), and I love Devil’s Lake! It is beautiful and clean with wonderful hiking trails and camping. So, I figured this will be right up my alley. Even though it wasn’t quite what I was expecting, I did enjoy this debut novel. This is a Southern Gothic novel and it is dark, definitely not a feel-good, summery story, despite the title and cover art.

When I say it wasn’t what I was expecting, I mean that I thought there was a supernatural element to the book, that Sal really was the Devil. But he wasn’t. But actually no wait, was he? See, I’m still thinking about it after finishing. That’s always a good sign. More magical realism then, but the story was entirely real. I thought McDaniel did a great job of giving individual personalities and life to her characters, especially the Bliss family and Sal. I was captivated throughout, wondering what was going to happen by the end (because it’s pretty clear something major will happen).

I do have this in hardback, but I ended up listening to the audiobook on a whim since it was available. I really enjoy Mark Bramhall’s narration, but for this one it was a little too Southern for me—yes, ultimately this is a Southern Gothic story, but it was set in Ohio. I’m not sure why the accents were rendered as so deeply “South,” like an Alabaman or Georgian dialect. It’s very folksy and distracted me a bit.

I said this wasn’t what I expected, but it ended up being more. McDaniel incorporates social issues that were (and are still) super relevant—racism, homophobia—which gave Summer a depth I didn’t see coming. And classic, good-vs-evil kind of parables. Even though the premise of the actual devil accepting an invitation may seem out there, the rest of the story was sadly and upsettingly believable. While the plot is dark and unsettling, it’s also a novel about acceptance and love. I’m glad I finally got to it!

The Summer that Melted Everything is my second of twelve books read for the 2018 TBR Pile Challenge.

Listened to audiobook in March 2018.

reading recap: february 2018

I’m pretty sure I’m out of that slump and funk now, by the end of February. I had a great month of reading, much better than January. Almost all of these were audiobooks. Since I knew the end of my membership to my library back home in Kansas City was ending in February, I wanted to capitalize on using it as much as possible. I was pretty pleased to get some highly anticipated new releases, as well as discovering some new gems I hadn’t heard of before.

My favorites were easily Dark MoneyOtis Redding, and Broad Strokes, with Shark Drunk close behind. I’m happy I stuck with writing up posts after finishing books here throughout the month too!

Other bookish stuff… I started The Left Hand of Darkness for my Best Friends International Book Club and quickly DNF’d. It’s just not for me. I have trouble getting into high sci-fi fantasy in general, and I could barely follow the story. I didn’t know who was who or what was happening most of the time. Anthony, my book club buddy, DNF’d too, saying, “So many words I don’t know how to say, let alone keep track of. And the narrative voice doesn’t resonate with me; I can’t understand where I am in almost any given sentence.” Some people have the right kind of mind for elaborate, made-up words and worlds, some don’t. Our first-ever BFIBCDNF! I also bought two new Singaporean small-press books, SQ21: Singapore Queers in the 21st Century and The Infinite Library.

Right now I’m reading Homegoing (for BFIBC and the TBR Pile Challenge), The Summer That Melted Everything (TBR Pile Challenge), and SQ21.

Otherwise, I’ve been spending time drawing and trying to get out of the apartment more. I went to see the Museé d’Orsay impressionism exhibit at the National Gallery of Singapore last week, which was fantastic, saw the amazing  Black Panther movie, and also bought a new bass!! It’s a Fender American Elite Jazz Bass. I’m in love.

monthly recap image

mini-reviews: you should have left and the strange bird

I’m definitely out of my reading slump! These two novellas came through my library holds on audio at the same time, and they’re short enough that I was able to listen to both in one day while drawing.

You Should Have Left by Daniel Kehlmann is a taut, unsettling psychological horror novella. Kehlmann handles classic haunted house, ghost story, and existential madness tropes well—a creeping dread is palpable here. Easily read in one sitting, too—the audiobook is just about two hours long. A couple and their 4-year-old daughter stay at an AirBnB in the mountains for vacation, but they’re also there so the husband (our narrator) can work on his screenplay. You spend the entire book in his head, as strange things start to happen (they easily get lost in the house, optical illusions and issues with depth perception abound, doors appear in places there wasn’t a door before, phrases mysteriously appear in his notes, etc., and then the nightmares start), all the while something is up with his marriage. People online have compared it to House of Leaves and The Shining, and I’d agree, although this is much, much shorter! [Listened to audiobook in February 2018.]

Jeff VanderMeer is an author I like to follow. I enjoyed his Area X trilogy (so excited for the movie adaptation of Annihilation!) and loved Borne last summer. I saw The Strange Bird on my library browse and borrowed it right away. This adds a chapter to Borne, from the perspective of another of the Company’s hybrid creatures, the Strange Bird. She is part bird, part human, part… other stuff(?). The biotech lab where she was created, the Company, has devolved into chaos and she, as well as other experiments, have escaped. The sky and land are full of creatures and technology and debris making this near-future world a very dangerous place to be, where humans are now struggling to survive. I do think you need to read Borne first, as that book does all the world-building and set up for The Strange Bird. I kind of wish I had read it on paper or ebook instead of listening to the audio, though—the narrator read in a tortured tone that could be a bit much for me at times. There isn’t quite the level of mystery and tension I felt while reading this one as I did with Borne, but it’s a great expansion of this imaginative setting. [Listened to audiobook in February 2018.]