Guys, Twitter is kind of a terrifying, brilliant, and secret place. Sometimes, I sit there wondering if this is the only place most people have a voice, even journalists in today’s political and economical climate. In just the ten days where I transitioned from a full-on teacher Twitter account to one for bookish and Cassie things I’ve watched the following: people harassed for days over one ill-worded (or even just ill-timed) tweet. Authors berated for being pro-Trump. I’ll be honest, in my personal life, I had no clue that Trump would be elected because I had literally not one single person in my circles that would ever vote for that man. Like last female on the planet shiz. However, I’ve been a little horrified.
Here are the things I know:
*People lash out because of their collective memory on injustice that their background (whatever that may be) has faced due to abuse, bigotry and ignorance across time and space.
*While shame and guilt are very real feelings, sometimes that isn’t the way that sways people to see another side. Particularly when you’re going all Game of Thrones walk of shame on them. Getting a posse of others like you to gang up on this Twitter person and tweet abuse and harassment towards them probably only makes them believe further in their own bigotry.
*We do not have enough diversity in books to justify quieting any voice that speaks out for diversity in books.
*Some of the comments on writing diverse books really rub me the wrong way. Things like, “I don’t think white people should write about other races at all, keep your mediocre hands off of that literature.” With the same person tweeting things earlier in the day like, “if your world in your book is full of only white characters then your book is in a bubble that doesn’t exist.” (That last one I definitely agree with, but both of these tweets cannot exist in the same book).
All of this has made me do some serious soul searching.
I pride myself on reading diverse books. A lot of the times because I want to learn, but more importantly because I want to listen. In fact, I listed my favorite authors out for a student the other day and every single one was a woman + Junot Diaz. I also try really hard to not just read bestsellers (or books graciously and eloquently thrown down our throats by the NY Times Best Seller’s List or Kirkus Reviews). I’m not saying this because I have something to prove in my small corner of the internet. On the contrary, it’s because I’m about to review the book Homegoing by 27-year-old Yaa Gyasi from a white female perspective, probably really close to what the world has come to know as white feminist perspective.
I’m owning it because I have to in order to write about diverse literature. In every solid academic research paper, the author must spell out their limitations, and this one is mine. I come from a place of white feminist baggage. That’s what I’m carrying to your table, and what I’ll try to leave behind as I grow in perspective and curiosity.
I’m not going to lie, halfway through this book I tweeted the following:
I feel bad for this tweet. It sucks. No one liked it, and they shouldn’t have. (And I actually think I got the wrong publisher too, to top it off. Sorry, Alfred A. Knopf). At the 48% mark (thanks, Kindle for always making me feel great about my reading speed) I just didn’t get it. I didn’t get the magic of what Gyasi was doing here. Twisting two family trees, coppicing.
Now there were times in the novel when I got lost. When I left it for two days and came back to the middle telling of a new character’s story and I would have to read a few pages to know where we stood in time and place, but taking two families from African diaspora all the way through the millennium is a feat that I’ve never seen before in literature. And for that I will forever be in awe of Gyasi’s breakthrough in an art that doesn’t always adapt easy to change. Maybe this is why so many avid readers had troubles with this book though.
The plot did move very slowly and although we knew the person intimately who came before the character we would read about next, I’m not sure the connection was enough to sustain a reader who needed action. Akua brought the action, so did H and Ness, but characters with gritty stories came at strange moments. A reader on Twitter said he believed the book should have been split into three parts and not two. He never responded to me when I asked where he would have broken the third part, but it did have me curious. If we read this book and immediately have questions about structure, does that mean that Gyasi didn’t perfect her rhythm here?
I’m not sure how I feel. This multigenerational history of the world through the eyes of African American families moved me almost to tears at times, but there were other times when the characters just weren’t real enough for me, and these moments alternated regularly. The raw moments, in Ghana, Willie in Harlem, H imprisoned and sold into mining, and “the Crazy Woman” all made for characters that “lived inside me” as Marjorie learns from her teacher in one of the final chapters. But other characters didn’t come alive until I knew what they bred or brought into the world in later chapters. I almost needed their children to open my heart towards them. That came a little frustrating when I just wanted to continue with one of the family lines, but had to read the alternating. I also had to look at the family tree a lot, which made reading on a Kindle difficult.
(Still, thank you so much for the arc, Alfred A. Knopf).
I do understand that to span 300 years in 300 pages is not an easy task, and there’s very few moments to take a breath, but I still sit here not one hundred percent sold. One of the things I did love was all the beautiful, beautiful language moments.
“That night, lying next to Edward in his room, Yaw listened as his best friend told him that he had explained to the girl that you could not inherit a scar. Now, nearing his fiftieth birthday, Yaw no longer knew if he believed this was true.”
And all of the commentary on society that was subtle but powerful:
“The need to call this thing “good” and this thing “bad,” this thing “white” and this thing “black,” was an impulse that Effie did not understand. In her village, everything was everything. Everything bore the weight of everything else.”
“That I should live to hear my own daughter speak like this. You want to know what weakness is? Weakness is treating someone as though they belong to you. Strength is knowing that everyone belongs to themselves.”
“This is the problem of history. We cannot know that which we were not there to see and hear and experience for ourselves. We must rely upon the words of others.”
“Forgiveness was an act done after the fact, a piece of the bad deed’s future. And, if you point the people’s eye to the future, they might not see what is being done to hurt them in the present.”
And my personal favorite:
“She stopped walking. For all they knew, they were standing on top of what used to be a coal mine, a grave for all the black convicts who had been conscripted to work there. It was one thing to research something, another thing entirely to have lived it. To have felt it. How could he explain to Marjorie that what he wanted to capture with his project was the feeling of time, of having been a part of something that stretched so far back, was so impossibly large, that it was easy to forget that she, and he, and everyone else, existed in it, not apart of it, but inside of it.”
I feel like I’ve been a little hard on this book because it is truly a literary first for me. I recommend it to everyone who needs diverse literature, who wants to support a debut author, and who is interested in structuring writing in new and profound ways for their readers.