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.

Kurt Vonnegut’s Fates Worse Than Death

20160831_1908183.5 Stars

The picture quality is terrible for this review, but fitting for the way I read the book.  Most of the book was consumed in a poorly lit bar.  I read until words became blurry, consuming most of the novel in that sitting.  Fates Worse Than Death is the third in a series of what Vonnegut called autobiographical collages, a collection of writings that were a blend of essays and personal anecdotes all done in that undeniable Vonnegut voice.

For me I’ll always prefer Vonnegut novels although there is something to be said about his short stories as well. With that said, this collection was highly enjoyable and quite thought-provoking. Vonnegut covers such a wide range of topics but the collection spends a lot of time around the topic of death.  The suicides of various family members and friends come across time and again, as does his own attempt.  His time in WWII, especially behind a prisoner at Dresden during the unfortunate bombing is another reoccurring throughout.  Although anyone familiar with Vonnegut shouldn’t be surprised about that.

It’s tough to summarize Kurt Vonnegut, the man had a mind and a voice that was familiar while at the same time like no one else you’ve ever read. That comes through loudly in Fates Worse Than Death as it does in all his works. A lot of what is contained in the book had been published elsewhere as he uses lengthy bits of pieces he’s had published in various papers and magazines along with speeches he’s given to address his points. At times, the essays run on too long because of it and honestly, in the middle, they blur together.  I think that unless you are looking to be a Vonnegut completest this is one that can be skipped. I gave it 3.5 stars but truthfully it gained a star because of how much I love Vonnegut and possibly because of the setting where I started the book as well.

I’m pairing this with Hop God from Nebraska Brewing Company and it pairs pretty perfectly with this Vonnegut collection since it is a collage of styles with a unique flavor.  Hop God is a Belgian IPA that was aged in a Chardonnay barrel.  A Belgian IPA in itself is an interesting look at the traditional IPA but factor in the aging process in the Chardonnay barrel and it is something completely different just like Vonnegut.  Even the bottle, a 22-ounce beer bottle is a blend of a beer and wine bottle.  On a slightly morbid note that I think Kurt Vonnegut would appreciate, he has one other big thing in common with the beer, both are discontinued.  

Favorite Quotes:

“It is tough to make unhappy people happier unless they need something easily prescribed, such as food or shelter.”

“You cannot be a good writer of serious fiction if you are not depressed.”

“Liberty is only now being born in the United States.  It wasn’t born in 1776.  Slavery was legal.  Even white women were powerless, essentially the property of their father or husband or closest male relative, or maybe a judge or lawyer.”

“Am I too pessimistic about life a hundred years from now?  Maybe I have spent too much time with scientists and not enough time with speechwriters for politicians.”

“We probably could have saved ourselves, but were too damned lazy to try very hard”

Format: Trade Paperback.

Naguib Mahfouz’s Arabian Nights and Days

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4.0 Stars

In Arabian Nights and Days, Mahfouz entwines both social and individual morality. This novel really made me think and question how I view people, society, and morality. If these characters abandoned their beliefs effortlessly in these exceptional circumstances, then one has to wonder: did they ever really have any morals? Were they ever inherently good or were they only good because they had to be? This book was published in 1979 and is still insanely relevant and will continue to be as long as humans remain… well, human.

Mahfouz utilizes genies to explore and analyze humanity’s willingness to abandon their morality and conversely the deep-rooted good people who do the exact opposite. I couldn’t help but repeatedly think about The Walking Dead while reading this. Although both seem very different at first glance, the concept of morality is examined in both narrations. When the zombies attack, everyone and everything goes to shit. Once viewed as noble individuals suddenly became trigger-happy rapists and selfish, thieving, liars.

Throughout Arabian Nights and Days, Mahfouz reminds us that simply because someone presents an appearance of being moral it does not necessarily mean they are. Morality is found etched in a person’s very being; it cannot be altered, regardless of the situation. It should not matter what may happen to that individual, they will keep those beliefs and principles. This is important to view in society today where there are numerous wolves in sheep’s clothing and many cowards disguised as heroes, whether it is in politics, work, or even within our own families. Mahfouz allows the reader to ponder these moral issues from the safe distance of an observer. Towards the beginning of the novel, Umm Saad tells Sanaan al-Gamali, “Under the skin of certain humans lie savage beasts.” This sentence sums up the entire novel. When an individual is put into a dire situation, one can truly view what makes up the person. Arabian Nights and Days leaves the reader wondering if they, themselves, are in fact savage beasts.

I chose to pair this novel with Blue Moon‘s White IPA and (just like the novel) I surprisingly really dug it. So this beer bears similar qualities to other IPAs but the flavoring has a certain twist to it, I’m assuming it’s the exclusive hop strain, Huell Melon. I assumed this was going to be a shitty IPA but I was wrong. Just like some people may seem to be really moral and noble, they may just be deviants and cowards. You never know, haha.

Format: Paperback.

Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

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3.2 Stars

There are a shitload of footnotes, let us just get that out of the way. Also, if you can’t roll with lingo you don’t understand or have to look up, then you’re probably going to be annoyed with this novel.

I dug The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. I feel as if this story is the Dominican Republic’s One Hundred Years of Solitude or our House of the Spirits; it is a text that encompasses a nation, its culture, and its people.It’s about three generations of a family that desperately tries to get away but cannot escape the “fuku,” which is in layman’s terms, a curse. I liked that Diaz included some information on the D.R.’s history and of Trujillo. I feel like many people around the world do not know much about this country but need to in order to understand this family. And for us Dominican readers, seeing our slang words, cultural sayings and history in a novel is great and gives a sense of solidarity.

I think this book is more than Oscar wanting to get laid, which is basically the gist of this novel but there is also so much more.  That being said, I found Oscar to be hella annoying. Jesus Christ, I wanted to beat the shit out of this kid. I understand, it’s hard not fitting into the expectations your culture, people and family have set for you but damn, do you really have to be that whiny? I enjoyed everyone else’s stories and histories except for Oscar. Really, every other character was more interesting than him. I loved reading the female voices in the novel and would have probably liked the book better if the book were about them and had Oscar as a side character.

All in all, it was a decent read. (Also, I have to represent the Dominican writers, especially since there are so few of them in the mainstream, American literary game.)

Quotes: “It’s never the changes we want that change everything.”

“For the rest of his short life he existed in an imbecilic stupor, but there were prisoners who remembered moments when he seemed almost lucid, when he would stand in the fields and stare at his hands and weep, as if recalling that there was once a time when he had been more than this.”

I chose to pair this novel with Ballast Point‘s Grapefruit Sculpin because it is a great combination of old and new flavoring, much like Diaz weaves old school Dominican culture with new. Citrus flavoring and hops are usually always a win and the slightly bitter aftertaste is there to remind you it’s an IPA (in case you forgot due to the awesome grapefruit aroma and flavoring). It is reminiscent of all the instances I started to enjoy the novel and then I would read Oscar’s sections and start to like it less. I like drinking this when it is super cold.

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.