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.

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: ending things, fever dream, white tears, vegetarian

I’m getting more into weird fiction. I love strange, mind-bending stories that have the power to shock me and make me think about them hours (days, weeks) after finishing. I still have quite a lot of wonder to me and an overactive imagination, so OMG twists in books usually manage to surprise me! In 2016 and 2017 I read these four unusual, dark books:

I put Iain Reid’s I’m Thinking of Ending Things on hold before I saw mixed reviews, so I didn’t have high expectations when it finally came through for me from the library. But wow, what a mind fuck! A young couple visit the man’s parents at their rural farmhouse for dinner one night, and the girlfriend is internally ruminating on their relationship and how she might end it soon. Things get progressively creepier and more odd during dinner. On the way home, they are stalled by a snowstorm and end up at a local high school to wait it out… no spoilers! Reid does an effective job creating a menacing atmosphere, and building tension that releases only at the very end. I thought it was a great, short psychological horror! [Read ebook in December 2016.]

Samanta Schweblin’s Fever Dream was getting tons of raves this year, but unfortunately for me it didn’t quite live up to the hype… but I think maybe it was me—I had a hard time following exactly what was happening, especially towards the end, listening on audiobook. A woman wakes up in a hospital bed with a young boy beside her, and he urges her to recount how she ended up there, what happened to her daughter, and a day she spent with his mother. The boy pushes her to stay focused on what’s important as she searches her memory. “Fever Dream” is a perfect title; it’s surreal and unsettling with a palpable sense of dread and I really, really wish I had been able to get into it. I think maybe in 2018 I’ll try it on paper or ebook. [Listened to audiobook in February 2017.]

Two young men meet in college and bond over their shared love of music and records in Hari Kunzru’s White Tears. One of them explores New York City recording sounds, and one day encounters a blues song being sung by a man playing chess in the park. He and his friend “authenticate” the song, making it sound vintage, give the “artist” a fake name, and list it on record collecting websites. A veteran collector meets up with them and insists the song and singer are real, and at this point the story takes a dark turn sending the boys on a disorienting and disturbing journey to discover the truth. It has some mixed reviews—people either love or hate the new direction in the second half—but I thought it was a good, thought-provoking book on a number of issues including race, privilege, and cultural appropriation and exploitation. Plus a little bit of supernatural mystery/thriller thrown in. [Listened to audiobook in April 2017.]

I read this interesting, short book over the course of one day. Han Kang’s The Vegetarian is eerie, sad, provocative, and Kafkaesque. Yeong-hye and her husband live a normal, uneventful life. But one day she starts having dark, violent, gory thoughts and nightmares and decides to stop eating meat. After this decision, Yeong-hye’s sanity starts a descent into madness, where she wants to become one with plant life and transition into being a tree. The story is told from three perspectives: Yeong-hye’s husband, sister, and brother-in-law. We never actually have an inside glimpse into Yeong-hye’s interior thoughts. The blurb says it’s an allegory for modern-day South Korea… but I admit I can’t speak to that accuracy as I’m not familiar with the country’s social and cultural state at the moment. However, my interpretation of Yeong-hye’s decision to take control of her body on her own terms and the negative, sometimes hostile reactions to her decision from men (and women) in her life smack of the infuriating social construct of beauty standards and the archaic “woman’s place” in patriarchal society. I guess there were issues with the translation from Korean, and I’m not quite sure how to feel about that because it was an impactful and interesting story for me in English anyway. [Read in September 2016.]