Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing

5.0 Stars

»»» Possible Spoilers Ahead «««

Processed with VSCO with c7 preset“We believe the one who has the power. He’s 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 clear yet still imperfect picture”  (227).

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi weaves a multigenerational tale addressing the history, colonialism, and slavery of Ghana and America by following the stories of two half-sisters. One sister “marries” a white British slave trader because her tribe and family are in the business of selling their African brethren. The other sister is sold as a slave and ends up in America. Each chapter introduces us to a new descendent and a new struggle. Gyasi gives us a glimpse of each person’s life and their hardships. We meet Ness who tries to run away from her slaveowner and ends up captured; but secures freedom for her son, who in turn never knows his mother and grows up as a free man. Across the ocean, we are introduced to James, an Asante, who leaves the bloodstained wealth of his tribe to marry a poor girl whom he loves.

Gyasi’s narrative allows you to only have a portion of each person’s story. There is no end, no closure for some of these characters and that is one of the important lessons of her book. One of the great tragedies of slavery is how much history was lost. Descendants of slaves can only trace themselves back to a certain point – a point in which they were sold, traded, or an ancestor was killed. It is a haunting quality that aches in the minds of people of color today. Imagine being a child with brown skin having to listen, around Thanksgiving, as your white counterparts brag about being able to trace themselves back to the Mayflower or back to George Washington. There is a whole race of people in America who are excluded from that pride because their heritage leads them to slave ships, African slavers, and white slave traders. When white people boast about being able to trace their lineage back to the Mayflower, are they also sorry if they can trace their lineage back to the Confederacy?

This book makes you take a hard look at what being Black was and is like. Gyasi holds you captive in a slaves’ dungeon, sells you in the South, helps you run away from a cruel white master, urges you to leave your Asante lands and tribal wealth, makes you fight in the Civil War, gets you arrested by implementing the black codes, kills you at the hands of a white missionary, forms a union for Black workers, makes you a teacher of your colonizer’s language and religion, helps you escape the Jim Crow South, takes you to Harlem where you are forced to face colorism and the limitations of being too black and not black enough, through the doping and drug-addicted 80s, makes you live in Alabama, all the way to making you a college graduate and becoming your ancestor’s wildest dreams.

The narratives of these characters leaves you longing to learn more, but the point of the book is not to tell you each character’s life story. It is to build on the shared experiences of pain, regret, terror, ignorance, assimilation, pride and strength until what is forged is Black healing- American and African. The reconciliation of the history of colonialism and slavery, and what was lost by the atrocities of the slave trade births a healing that comes regardless of whether you can pinpoint where that pain started. It is a concept that eludes most people today unless you study Black history and Black writings. This is the great achievement of Gyasi’s book: it takes centuries of pain and history, and condenses it into 300 pages using stories that bring to life the subjugation, humiliation, pain, and terror of Black people based on the history of colonialism and slavery, without you having to be well-read and learned in Black history. If all you know about the Civil Rights Movement is that MLK had a dream, if you never cared to read Malcolm X, if you never asked yourself why Confederate statutes exist, if you simply never found it relevant to understand Black Lives Matter; then this is the book for you. It will open you up to centuries of pain and leave you with unfinished stories that have you longing to find out why? When? How come? How could this happen? And hopefully, that will lead you to other books on the history of race in America, which in turn will lead you to understand the current events around race and culture.

A few non-fiction recommendations:

•·• Letters from a Birmingham Jail by Dr. Martin Luther King

•·• The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander

•·• The Half Has Never Been Told by Edward E. Baptist

•·• The Autobiography of Malcolm X by Malcolm X and Alex Haley

•·• Stamped From the Beginning by Ibram Kendi

•·• Color of Law by Richard Rothstein

•·• When Affirmative Action was White by Ira Katznelson

•·• Born A Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood by Trevor Noah

Fiction recommendations:

•·• Beloved by Toni Morrison

•·• Half of the Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

•·• Island Beneath the Sea by Isabel Allende

•·• Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison

Quotes:

“If we go to the white man for school, if we just learned the way the white man wants us to learn. We will come back and build the country the white man wants us to build. One that continues to serve them. We will never be free” (223).

“Sonny would tell Marcus about how America used to lock up black men off the sidewalks for labor or how redlining kept banks from investing in black neighborhoods, preventing mortgages or business loans. So was it a wonder the prisons were still full of them? Was it a wonder that the ghetto was the ghetto? There were things that he used to talk about that Marcus never saw in his history books, but that later, when he got to college, he learned to be true. He learned that his father’s mind was a brilliant mind, but it was trapped underneath something” (285).

“…but the deeper into the research he got, the bigger the project. 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? And if he mentioned the Great Migration, he’d have to talk about the cities that took that flock in. He’d have to talk about Harlem. And how could he talk about Harlem without mentioning his father‘s heroin addiction – the stints in prison, the criminal record? And if he was going to talk about heroin and Harlem in the 60’s,  wouldn’t he also have to talk about crack everywhere in the 80’s? And if he wrote about crack, he’d inevitably be writing, too, about the ‘war on drugs’. And if he started talking about the war on drugs, he’d be talking about how nearly half of the black men he grew up with were on their way either into or out of what had become the harshest prison system in the world. And if he talked about why friends from his hood we’re doing five-year bids for possession of marijuana when nearly all the white people he’d gone to college with smoked it openly every day, he gets so angry that he’d slam the research book on the table…And all they would see would be his skin and his anger, and they would think they knew something about him, and it would be the same something that justified putting his Great-Grandpa H in prison, only it would be different too, less obvious than it once was” (289).

“How could he explain that he wasn’t supposed to be here? Alive. Free. That the fact that he had been born, that he wasn’t in a jail cell somewhere, was not by dint of his pulling himself up by the bootstraps, not by hard work or belief in the American dream, but by mere chance. He had only heard tell of his great-grandpa H from Ma Willie, but those stories were enough to make him weep and to fill him with pride. Two-Shovel H they had called him. But what had they called his father or his father before him? What of the mothers? They have been products of their time, and walking in Birmingham now, Marcus was an accumulation of these times. That was the point” (296).

I’m pairing this book with Dogfish Head’s Romantic Chemistry IPA. I chose this beer because the fruity notes of mango and apricot, ginger and the hoppy finish worked well together. The blend of fruity and hoppy seemed like the perfect combination for this book, bitter but with an underlying sweetness.

Format: Hardcover.

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Trevor Noah’s Born A Crime: Stories From a South African Childhood

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4.0 Stars

I’m surprised by how much I enjoyed Trevor Noah’s autobiography. As a reader, you get so much from this book. It serves as a history lesson and a first-hand account of growing up in apartheid South Africa. The title Born a Crime derives from actual laws that were in place during apartheid in South Africa. One of these laws stated that interracial children were, in fact, a crime because the whites were not allowed to fornicate with any non-whites and a mixed child was proof of such a crime, “In any society built on institutionalized racism, race mixing doesn’t merely challenge the system as unjust, it reveals the system as unsustainable and incoherent. Race mixing proves that races can mix, and in a lot of cases want to mix. Because a mixed person embodies that rebuke to the logic of the system, race mixing becomes a crime worse than treason.”

In his autobiography, Noah achieves the difficult task of combining serious, often sad memories with humor. I found his experiences to be funny and relatable. As a child of an immigrant, I was familiar with his retellings of poverty and the eating of “dog bones” and such. His recounting of being disciplined by his mother made me chuckle because it was similar to the way my sisters and I were raised. Another thing I liked about Noah’s narrative is the circularity aspect of it; he finishes where he starts, with the theme of laughing through the pain. As you reach the end of the book, you realize this wasn’t just an autobiography but a letter of love and admiration to his mother.

On a somewhat deviating note, there’s a part of the book that reminded me of something Ta-Nehisi Coates said in, Between the World and Me. He talks about how Black people discipline their children through whoopings because they rather beat their children into listening to them and potential safety than have them killed by the police or some outside force. Coates writes to his son, “Now at night, I held you and a great fear, wide as all our American generations, took me. Now I personally understood my father and the old mantra– ‘Either I can beat him or the police.’ I understood it all– the cable wires, the extension cords, the ritual switch. Black people love their children with a kind of obsession. You are all we have, and you come to us endangered. I think we would like to kill you ourselves before seeing you killed by the streets that America made. That is the philosophy of the disembodied, of a people who control nothing, who can protect nothing, who are made to fear not just the criminals among them but the police who lord over them with all the moral authority of a protection racket” (82). Although Coates is an African American and some of the dangers he and his son face are different than Noah’s dangers in South Africa, the sentiment of attempting to avoid the destruction of the Black body at any cost is the same. It is a theme that is prevalent in various Black literature. Noah’s mother says something similar to him in the book, “Everything I have ever done I’ve done from a place of love. If I don’t punish you, the world will punish you even worse. The world doesn’t love you. If the police get you, the police don’t love you. When I beat you, I’m trying to save you. When they beat you, they’re trying to kill you.”

I chose to pair this book with Cigar City‘s Jai Alai White Oak IPA. This IPA is a variant of standard Jai Alai. It’s a bit bitter but also has a subtle sweet caramel flavor. I thought it was a good pairing for Born a Crime because like the beer’s bitter notes, the book deals with a lot of sad shit but still has an underlying theme of love and positivity.

Quotes:

“I don’t regret anything I’ve ever done in life, any choice that I’ve made. But I’m consumed with regret for the things I didn’t do, the choices I didn’t make, the things I didn’t say. We spend so much time being afraid of failure, afraid of rejection. But regret is the thing we should fear most. Failure is an answer. Rejection is an answer. Regret is an eternal question you will never have the answer to. “What if…” “If only…” “I wonder what would have…” You will never, never know, and it will haunt you for the rest of your days.”

“If you’re Native American and you pray to the wolves, you’re a savage. If you’re African and you pray to your ancestors, you’re a primitive. But when white people pray to a guy who turns water into wine, well, that’s just common sense.”

“The name Hitler does not offend a black South African because Hitler is not the worst thing a black South African can imagine. Every country thinks their history is the most important, and that’s especially true in the West. But if black South Africans could go back in time and kill one person, Cecil Rhodes would come up before Hitler. If people in the Congo could go back in time and kill one person, Belgium’s King Leopold would come way before Hitler. If Native Americans could go back in time and kill one person, it would probably be Christopher Columbus or Andrew Jackson.”

“So many black families spend all of their time trying to fix the problems of the past. That is the curse of being black and poor, and it is a curse that follows you from generation to generation. My mother calls it “the black tax.” Because the generations who came before you have been pillaged, rather than being free to use your skills and education to move forward, you lose everything just trying to bring everyone behind you back up to zero.”

Format: Hardcover.

LaRose by Louise Erdrich

3.0 Stars

I love Louise Erdrich and I enjoyed reading LaRose. I’m giving it three stars because there was something that seemed incomplete to me. In previous novels, sorrow and power are such strong forces in Erdrich’s storytelling. There are usually multiple points in her novels that wind me up and send me crashing through so many emotions and conflicts, leading me to dwell on a certain scene for weeks after I have finished the novel.
This novel seemed lacking in that aspect. If I had to speculate, I would assert that it’s because, Processed with VSCO with a5 presetdespite Erdrich selling this novel as a story of retribution, it reads more like a story of healing. It’s as though, these characters, whose predecessors were filled with magic and power, are slowly fading into “normal” Indians. They’re forgetting the language, forgetting how to use their power; but they’ve still got their stories. If I were to analyze this book in a hyper-critical sense, I would say that the story seems almost complacent and maybe that is where Erdrich, as a storyteller, was when she wrote this book. I’d argue that maybe this moment of healing and safety is just a prelude to greater things to come.

I’m pairing LaRose with a draft of Chimay Blue. The yeasty fragrance and roasted malt flavor set the mood for the reader as the story progresses. While I feel that the story of LaRose was borderline complacent, this beer certainly is not.

Quotes:

“She had been lying in her room – cooling off after another hot, hot shower. She had started to cry, alone. It was okay alone. But she still cut off the crying as quickly as she could, to toughen herself. She was a wolf, a wounded wolf. She’d sink her teeth in those boys’ throats.”

 

Format: Paperback.

Max Porter’s Grief is the Thing with Feathers

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4.0 Stars

Grief is the Thing with Feathers by Max Porter is a strange little collection on loss that will leave you with a few tears by the end. 

The narrative is dissected into fragments based on perspective. The dad, the boys and the crow all have a viewpoint to share. The story starts after the death of a wife and a mother. Her husband and two young boys are left to grieve. Helping them grieve is Crow. Crow is all parts protector, comforter, and trickster. He watches over the family and offers his incites and anecdotes to help them cope. 

I greatly enjoyed this book. Edmund Burke describes grief as a pain we cling to and make the focus of our lives. Porter expresses this through the father when he is told he should move on: “Moving on, as a concept, is for stupid people, because any sensible person knows grief is a long-term project. I refuse to rush. The pain that is thrust upon us lets no man slow or speed or fix.”

A particularly heartbreaking part of the narrative was how the boys talked about being deliberately mean to their dad so that they wouldn’t feel bad if they forgot their mom. One of my favorite lines in the novel comes from the boys’ perspective: 

“We used to think she would turn up one day and say it had all been a test. 

We used to think we would both die at the same age she had. 

We used to think she could see us through mirrors.”

The vivid expression of grief is intermingled with the absurd, yet for anyone who has experienced grief, you know this is how it is. Grief will stalk you throughout your day, and just when you think you can keep it together; you break down. A memory or a thought will suddenly connect and there is no subduing your reaction to it. Perhaps, the single greatest line to sum up all that grief encompasses is from the dad as he remembers all the memories he shared with his wife:

“Again. I beg everything again.”

Feelings of sadness are always best soothed with a glass of dry, red wine. I recommend Domaine Paul Autard Chateauneuf-du-Pape from Rhone, France. The 2012 vintage was given a 91 rating by Wine Spectator. This red blend consists of 70% Grenache, 15% Syrah, 15% Counoise. It has a full mouth feel and deep flavor. At $39 for a 350ml bottle, it’s on the expensive side, but totally worth it.

Format: Paperback.

Louise Erdrich’s Love Medicine

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5 STARS

I absolutely loved this book.Written in somewhat of the same vein as One Hundred Years of Solitude and House of Spirits, Love Medicine follows a family line that is connected through heartache, betrayal, and love.

Erdrich focuses on a community of women who do what is needed to provide for their families and keep some sense of order in their communities and their own lives despite the greed and the sabotage of the men around them. Although it appears these women lead chaotic lives, they remain the glue that keeps the tribe together. The themes of love, grief, strength, and motherhood can be explored through the lives of Marie Lazarre Kashpaw, Lulu Nanapush Lamartine, and June Morrissey (these are my girls, yo).

Marie Kashpaw is my favorite character. She has quotes that slay; one example: “I don’t pray. When I was young, I vowed I never would be caught begging God. If I want something I get it for myself” I love this so much, I guess because it reminds me of what my mother has always taught my sisters and me, and that is to not wait for help. Help yourselves.

Erdrich is a magician. She weaves an amazing story that fatally hits you in the chest and brutally crushes your soul. Her prose is beautiful and honest. I have no other words than, read it.

I paired Love Medicine with my own medicine (you like that? Haha): Rogue‘s Yellow Snow IPA. It has a hoppy, citrusy scent with a deep-rooted bitterness. I am very picky with IPAs but I enjoyed this one. The lingering bitterness reminds me of how this book kept me thinking long after I finished it. I am a Rogue fan girl so this is slightly biased (“Slightly” because I fucking loathe their attempt at whiskey, ugh. No one’s perfect).

Format: Paperback.