On Homegoing

9781101947135

Let’s just add spreading the word about Yaa Gyasi’s stunning novel Homegoing to the ever-growing list of reasons why I adore Ta-Nehisi Coates. It was Coates’ off-hand endorsement of Gyasi’s debut in a recent article that first alerted me to the presence of this instant classic. Once I caught onto the buzz via Coates, it was pretty hard to ignore the cacophony of rave reviews, podcasts, and bookstores, all imploring me to read this book. Then I suffered a few agonizing weeks, waiting for everyone else who had heard the buzz ahead of me to return their copies to the library so I could take my turn. Spoiler alert: Homegoing was totally worth the wait.

There are literally thousands of reviews out there lauding the achievement that is Homegoing, and still I feel compelled to add my voice. There isn’t much I can say that hasn’t already been covered regarding plot. The story begins with two half-sisters, unknown to one another, who lead very separate lives in Africa. Effia, married to a white man, becomes ensconced in the comfort of the Cape Coast Castle, while her sister, Esi, comes to live in the very same castle, only she is one of many women kept in the dungeon and sold into slavery. From this starting point, Gyasi follows each woman’s lineage, alternating between the two family lines with every other chapter. But rather than following Effia’s or Esi’s life stories to their respective ends, Gyasi only devotes a single 20-odd page chapter to each character in her story. And so a child of the protagonist from the preceding chapter becomes the new protagonist in the next chapter and so on across the generations.

In so doing, Gyasi covers over 300 years of story, from the eighteenth century through today, profiling specific moments in time from the lives of just a few members of this family. She creates a remarkably complete portrait of the family’s past and present, finding ways to subtly tie loose ends and clear up those questions left unanswered when she abandons one character’s story for that of his or her offspring. Beyond that, Gyasi crafts a fully realized study of the experience of black families across both time, as three centuries of story are captured here, and space, as Effia’s descendants mostly remain in Africa while Esi’s live in the United States.

Though readers may at first consider the general outlines of these characters’ stories rather archetypal, from the runaway black slave who will never know true freedom to the single mother finding community in her church choir, Gyasi is remarkably apt at filling them in to their most fully realized extent. Although we may get only the smallest taste of any given character’s circumstances, Homegoing never wants for greater detail. Despite being an oft-overused and thus weak statement, there is no more apt way to put it than to say that Gyasi makes her characters come to life. She does so in a tender, artistic, and seemingly effortless way, leaving me in awe of her talent and unable to select a character that was my favorite, nor one that felt underdeveloped or that I disliked.

Gyasi not only captured an incredible story in Homegoing, but maybe even more remarkably, she shared it in a beautifully inventive and surprisingly comprehensive fashion. I think this is what struck me most about the novel, the way in which brief snapshots of so many interconnected yet disparate lives were able to so thoroughly capture the black experience. As a white woman, I completely acknowledge the presumptuousness inherent in me writing that Gyasi has captured the black experience; this is obviously an experience that has never personally been my own and all the books in the world could never provide me enough insight to equal the actual experiences of black people themselves. However, I believe most readers would be hard pressed to find a novelist who has provided this type of insight in greater measure than Gyasi has here. In conveying the stories and histories of African and African American people so effectively, Gyasi makes them become at once both universal and absolutely singular. Relatable to those outside the black community through the unapologetic rendering of each character’s essential humanity, their flaws, inconsistencies, struggles, passions, and triumphs, while also brilliantly detailed enough to highlight uniquely specific experiences of life that many readers may otherwise never know. Seeing how Gyasi strikes a perfect balance between these two qualities is quite a treat for readers, but also seems desperately necessary now more than ever. I think Roxanne Gay put it best when she said “Homegoing is a very confident debut novel. Exceptionally engaging and the strongest case for reparations and black rage I’ve read in a long time.” Gyasi renders the existence of intergenerational poverty and structural racism utterly undeniable, logically connecting the historical experiences of black people to the reality of their lives today.

While the structure of Homegoing is unlike anything I’ve ever read and the subject matter is oftentimes heavy, ranging from tribal conflict between the Asante and Fante people to drug abuse, single parenthood, and the violence and abuses of slavery, it is a quick and absorbing read. The frequency with which new characters are introduced, the desire to know what happened to the previous protagonist, and the language with which Gyasi writes all make this novel rather easy to settle into. Still, I wouldn’t be surprised to find that Homegoing one day becomes required reading in the classroom. It’s that kind of good, that kind of important, that kind of accessible.

I will admit, I found the ending a bit underwhelming, but mostly because it felt pretty inevitable. This is one of those cases where the cheesy saying is totally true: it’s about the journey and not the destination. While readers won’t have trouble guessing how Gyasi will end her novel, that’s not why you pick up a book like this one. It’s the process of getting there, of seeing how Gyasi takes us through the ages and does so in such a riveting and artful way, that makes Homegoing worth a read.

One of my litmus tests for books is the degree to which I want to discuss a book with others as soon as I’m finished reading. Similarly, the amount with which I recommend a book to family and friends is also highly associated with my opinion of it. I guess the two are intertwined, along with my desire to write this review; good books beg to be shared, discussed, and read as far and as wide as possible so that they can foster more sharing, more discussing. Gyasi’s debut is one of those books that I’m absolutely aching to talk to someone about. I’ve already advised several family members and friends that it’s a must-read, and now I’ve taken to the internet, hoping to connect with other readers who can fill the void in me as I eagerly seek a dialogue about just how incredible Gyasi’s Homegoing is. I couldn’t recommend this book more highly and I couldn’t be more excited to hear from others who consumed this book with as much gusto as I did.

Advertisements

On The Lumineers

At this point in time, it’s pretty hard to have avoided hearing The Lumineers’ debut single “Ho Hey” on radio airplay or as background music for a popular TV commercial for some product I have managed to forget. Their sound falls easily into a currently popular genre of polished indie folk alongside bands such as Mumford and Sons and The Avett Brothers. Though the band’s self-titled full length album is not as completely satisfying as the first single, there are moments of pure folk brilliance. It is these few songs, which will get your feet tapping and make your heart melt (at least a little bit), that have made this album a quick staple in my current CD rotation.

The opening notes of the Lumineers’ first tune, “Flowers in Your Hair,” instantly reminded me of Jeff Tweedy’s solo cover of an Uncle Tupelo tune  called “Wait Up” (listen here). Tweedy fan that I am, I was immediately hooked. As the Lumineers’ tune picks up, it becomes increasingly engaging and ultimately serves as a wise and satisfying choice for the album’s opening track.

 

The tune that I have found most irresistible is “Classy Girls,” a simple song about trying to steal a kiss from an alluringly elusive girl in a bar. The first few lines are reminiscent of a classic Irish folk ballad, just string and vocals over the quiet cacophony of a bustling pub. But the song transforms into a rousing melody as the lyrics narrate a particularly flirtatious game of hard to get. Maybe its the careful incorporation of background chatter or just the storyline of the song, but the most natural setting in which I can imagine enjoying “Classy Girls” is live in a comfortably crowded bar. I’ve been listening to this track nearly nonstop whenever I find myself in the car and it hasn’t gotten old yet.

 

And then there’s “Ho Hey,” another melodic love song that begs for a sing-along session. The chorus of voices that chime in on this tune make it an mid-tempo anthemic folk tune. The sentiment of the Lumineers’ first single is sincere and its simplicity matched by the effortlessness with which this one will get stuck in your head.

 

Though there are some songs that I routinely skip while listening to the album, there are just as many tunes that I know will become tried and true favorites of mine long after the Lumineers have expanded their catalog.

On Glaciers

It’s a rare treat these days to settle down with a good book and read purely for pleasure. Between working two jobs, attending grad school, and all the other demands of running a modest rowhome complete with husband, cat, and dog, I haven’t been able to indulge in fiction (or pleasurable nonfiction for that matter) nearly as much as I’d prefer. But in the midst of all the bustle, I completely relished my reading of Alexis M. Smith’s debut novel Glaciers, a delightful book that took barely two hours to finish. It was a perfect treat in fiction form.

Glaciers is all about Alaskan-native Isabel, a twenty-something living in Portland, Oregon who collects relics from the past. But Isabel’s affinity for thrift stores and vintage clothing is not the stuff of a passing trend; it is indicative of her enduring desire to explore the quiet histories of simple people, to forge a useful meaning out of long-forgotten items, to amass a collection of personal treasures. Much as she likes to dwell in the past, both her own and that of an era long before she was born, Isabel’s affection for a coworker at the Portland library is the present she most passionately wants to create. Glaciers is a novel about storytelling and memory, about the importance of what we make of both past and present.

Though Isabel’s story is a simple one, it is beautifully and poignantly told. Smith’s narration is straightforward and unpretentious, her characters effortlessly drawn and achingly real. Glaciers was reminiscent of Vendela Vida’s Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name in that I was completely captivated for those few short hours required to finish reading and also the film Spooner because it was so unassuming and unaffected, a piece of art that never tried to be more than it was.

I’ve heard quite a lot of good buzz about Glaciers and am so glad to have made the time to find out what it’s all about. It’s a thoughtfully crafted novel, but compact and precise enough to finish in just a day. I anticipate many more novels to treasure from Alexis M. Smith in the future and am sure to revisit the delightful Glaciers again soon.