When Discussing Diverse Books: Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

twitter1Guys, 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.

shame-gif-1465520937*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.

homegoing_custom-09de3d52d3ab0cf5400e68fb358d53da9c78afe6-s400-c85I 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.

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If I ever sound like this, CALL ME OUT. 

See the following for a clearer definition of white feminism: Tilda Swinton’s emails, Amy Schumer and Lena Dunham, Taylor Swift and her adult cheer squad, and all of the Huffington Post tags.

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:

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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.

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I’m obsessed with the UK cover. 

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?

5e0190c717c99df3c8a4b610e72b19c1I’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.

9 thoughts on “When Discussing Diverse Books: Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

  1. Chiqui @ YA Lit Reads says:

    Oh, I do remember reading something similar to this book in terms of the whole following-an-entire-generation, I believe it’s 100 years of solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. There’s a whole lot more magical realism in it though and this sounds like more historical? Anyway I loved that book so this one intrigued me. I feel you about the “where is this going” though, sometimes I kind of got that way with 100 years of solitude as well haha!

    Great review, and thank you for being honest with where you’re coming from as a reviewer. I feel that it’s been difficult to say anything on twitter without fear of getting attacked, too, and there are so many different opinions that people end up arguing with each other LOL.

    This resonates with me a lot: “We do not have enough diversity in books to justify quieting any voice that speaks out for diversity in books.” I agree 100% especially since I’m also POC and rarely see myself in mainstream books, so thanks for saying it! And thanks for the lovely review.

    • Cassie says:

      Oh, dear, this comment was so awesome to read. Can I tell you that I’ve avoided 100 Years of Solitude? I’m not sure why … I think I kind of fear the denseness of it. You make me want to read it though. I DEFINITELY want to talk to you more about diversity in books (and in general). I try to read as many “diverse books” as I can. (I kind of hate that phrase). But I usually love them SO MUCH more than reading books about someone just like me. That’s probably true for everyone? You should write the book you want to see like Toni Morrison said!

  2. Udeme says:

    I loved this book and it was my favorite read of the year. I’m actually working on a post right now about all the books I read in ’16. I give book reviewers credit, I find it so hard to summarize my thoughts on particular reads! I’ve read opinions similar to yours on Goodreads. I didn’t have trouble following the story but I jumped to the family tree at times to make sure that I remembered the familial connections and how that impacted the stories. I know many felt that it was a disjointed read at times but I didn’t feel that. Even so, the disjointedness that people talk about is kind of symbolic to me given the historical background of the story. I’m Nigerian-American so this read resonated with me a lot. I think my favorite takeaway is the reminder that despite a history that we didn’t ask for, those in the African diaspora are still so connected.

    • Cassie says:

      Thank you so much for this comment, Udeme. It’s great to hear from a Nigerian-American. I have a student who I recommended this one too just for that reason. I definitely agree with you about the connection between those in the African diaspora. I loved this book actually even though my review talks more about the negative. I was moved to tears at times. I think it’s the genuine newness of reading a book like this one. It was expansive and I need more time to rap my mind around it. It is definitely a read that lingers. I will look for your top reads post soon :)

  3. Claire 'Word by Word' says:

    Oh dear. You should not have read this book on a kindle. It requires slow reading, it requires referring back to the family tree before every chapter and it requires the reader to analyse a little what Gyasi was attempting to do.

    I didn’t read about what she was trying to do before reading the novel, but I was very fortunate to have been rejected by NetGalley and been given it as a birthday present by my Aunt , who totally gets my reading inclinations and boy was she spot on with this one. I realised as I read, that she’d decided to follow just one member of the family in each line, that there was a kind of yin/yang thing going on with the fire and water metaphor, that she was trying to convey history, the legacy of slavery, the impact of the white European/British colonialism/domination, the trauma of loss, being cut from family, orphaned through these interlinked stories, I mean WOW!

    So we set that aside and just read, I don’t ever recall even thinking about whether there was a plot or not, I read the book over about 5 days or so and it was always engaging. Why was that I wondered, when I’d just finished The Good People by Hannah Kent which was a bit of a drag at times – nd that was because she went off piste, leaving behind the plot for a bit. BUt the difference is that Kent used flashbacks, she stalled momentum by doing that and lost a few readers, Gyasis decided early to abandon that idea of writing in the present and using flashback, she inhabited every character and by doing so, she made me do so as well. I felt like I lived through all that. Well, have a read of my review, it reminds me of the kind of reviews I like to read here, just raving you know after reading. :)

    I do think for me that my enjoyment of this book is informed somewhat by some of my reading of Maryse Condé, in fact Homegoing reminded me a lot of Segu, which was a much slower paced read, but equally important in terms of the ‘coming of age’ of the African kingdom and the introduction of the elements that would change it forever.

    I don’t like to define the lens through which I read, I don’t even know that I could define it, it feels limiting to have to do so. For all I know I might be African, maybe not in the last six generations, but so many of define ourselves by such a very short, recent past, that doesn’t really resonate with who we really are, we are all one, we are all learning, sharing, evolving.

    Love your reviews my friend!!

    • Cassie says:

      I’m going to have to go read my review to reply to this comment because I honestly don’t remember what I said, bah! I liked this one, but I think the kindle and not being able to find myself (in a Lost in the story sort of way not a “finding myself” metaphor) made it more difficult. I think if it was in paperback and I could go back and see, I would have definitely felt stronger about it. Isn’t that funny that some books need to be read on either (poetry is like that too).

      I LOVE the fire / water metaphors and tracing, that’s beautiful. There were definitely characters I loved more and now I want to know if I was drawn more to one family than another. I will TOTALLY go read your review. I need a reason to reread in paperback anyway!

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