An Uneasy Family Tree

Yaw, one of the many characters in Yaa Gyasi’s book Homegoing, begins his history class with the words: “History is Storytelling.”

Gyasi—who was born in Ghana, raised in Alabama—gives us a book of stories in this epic debut. Each of the sixteen chapters is named after a different character who all trace their lineage to a woman named Maame, an Asante slave in a Fante household in West Africa. The book moves chronologically through eight generations from the 18th century to the present day, alternating between two bloodlines. Maame has two daughters by different men: Effia (who lives in Asanteland in the interior of what we now call Ghana) and Esi who lives in Fanteland along the coast. They know nothing of each other. Effia is married off to an English official involved in the Atlantic slave trade at Cape Coast Castle. Underneath its whitewashed exterior and palatial rooms lay separate female and male dungeons that African slaves were packed into for weeks before boarding boats to America to work on cotton plantations. This is the fate of young Esi who is captured in a raid on her village.

Cape Coast Castle in Ghana. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

The half sisters and their descendants live very different lives. The strand from Effia stays in Ghana; the strand from Esi unfolds in America. And yet no character has it easy. Gyasi shows how each character and bloodline is implicated in the devastating legacy of slavery. A character reflects: “The Asante had power from capturing slaves. The Fante had protection from trading them.”

With Homegoing, I felt like a student in Yaw’s class. Not a boring class but a riveting, I-want-to-know-more kind of class that often happens when I’m reading fiction and realize I’m also reading history. With each chapter/character, the author takes on multiple Black histories: the African-American slave trade, Britain’s colonization of West Africa and the arrival of Christian missionaries, the Anglo-Asante wars, slavery in the American South, the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, also known as the “Bloodhound Law”, convict leasing, Jim Crow laws, the Great Migration of Blacks from the Southern US to the North between 1916 and 1970, the Civil Rights Movement, the heroin and jazz scene in Harlem in the 1960s, the “war on drugs”, and the racism that underlies it all and still exists today. This incredible scope of time, subjects, places, and characters make Homegoing a contemporary classic and a must-read, especially now in the wake of George Floyd’s death and the resulting racial protests.

With each character, I (probably foolishly) hoped, Surely this person will have a better life than their parents. What’s a better life though? Each story had sad parts. Each choice (when there was a choice) had repercussions. Some stories brimmed with sadness. As Gyasi took us through the uneasy family tree, I noticed the racism grew slightly less overt but no less damaging. 

When I was at a North American arts marketing conference in Seattle a couple years ago, I had dinner with a small group of attendees. One woman was Black and had studied Psychology. She told our group she thought all Black people should go to counselling by nature of being Black—to process what their people have been through. I didn’t fully understand her comment at the time but after reading this book, I have a clearer picture.

Yaw goes on to tell his history class:

We believe the one who has the power. He is 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 clearer, yet still imperfect, picture.

The last two stories in the book, Marjorie and Marcus, provide the most hope. After just reading through how these modern-day characters came to be, the reader has a deep appreciation that the closing scene ends with laughter—play, even.

In keeping with the theme of split families (“A Tale of Two Sisters” is a moniker that comes to mind), Gyasi pairs each bloodline with a recurring natural symbol: fire on the Fante side, water on the Asante side. The novel begins:

The night Effia Otcher was born into the musky heat of Fanteland, a fire raged through the woods just outside her father’s compound.

From there, the author continues to play with fire and water. How these symbols develop and culminate through her prose is as layered as the family’s storyline. I began to see fire and water imagery everywhere, even in a line like “a wave of missing hit her, separate and sad.” It’s as if Gysai reminds us that the memory of slavery is always present, breaking through the surface, breaking into speech.

While Homegoing‘s subject matter was far from enjoyable, Gyasi’s use of language certainly was. I would read this book a second time to pay more attention to how she connects characters through word choice. In the following examples, the emphasis is mine. 

Yaw’s daughter Marjorie has an Asante name, Abronoma, which means “little dove.” The author writes:

She had always hated it when her father called her Dove. It was her special name, the nickname born with her because of her Asante name, but it had always made Marjorie feel small somehow, young and fragile. She was not small. She was not young, either. 

Later in the book, Gyasi transforms Marjorie’s African name from noun to verb when another character describes Marjorie:

He had learned not to be surprised by how forthcoming she was. How she never gave in to small talk, just dove right into deep waters.

To layer the connection even more, Gyasi has Marjorie enact this metaphor in the closing scene of the book. She dives into the ocean.

Another example of linked language:

Marjorie muses about her parents who are watching a movie:

Maybe her mother was sleeping too, her own head leaning toward Yaw’s, her long box braids a curtain, hiding their faces.

When a character later meets Marjorie at a party, Gyasi writes:

At the mention of her name, Marjorie lifted her head, the curtain of wild hair parting to reveal a lovely face and a beautiful necklace.

Gyasi scatters family clues like Hansel and Gretal, and this reader loved picking them up. Another purpose these language connections have is unifying a book that could be criticized as resembling a collection of short stories more than a novel. I experienced this primarily in the first part of the book, but in part two, more preceding characters are present in various ways, strengthening the book’s cohesiveness. That being said, each character was so richly drawn, I wanted to follow them longer. To achieve this effect sixteen times is no small feat. Gyasi could write sixteen separate books for each character. Yet she provided just enough material to grasp each person’s essence. The choices they made, the choices made for them. Who they love, who they hurt. How they love, how they fight. Their small acts of defiance and compliance. The contradictions of the human heart. Split identities. 

I had the sense Gyasi could have kept writing this story forever. When do you stop a family lineage? When does that better life materialize? It’s what every parent wishes for their child. It’s why there are Black Lives Matter protests. If Gyasi were to continue with this family tree, what would the stories of future descendants say?

Discovering the Four Quartets

A friend and I lamented the other night how we were only taught T.S. Eliot‘s early poems in undergrad: The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock (1917) and The Waste Land (1922). She came over so we could discuss the suite of four poems Eliot wrote after his conversion to Christianity and what I would claim as his magnum opus: the Four Quartets (1935-1942).

I fell in love with Prufrock as much as the next budding English student swept away by the angst of modernism. This poem and The Waste Land were taught as Eliot’s crowning achievements, as if that was all there was to the man. It wasn’t until this year that I read his entire collected poems and realized if you just stop at his early works, you rob yourself of the bigger, more complete picture of who this famous poet was.

There’s no doubt T.S. Eliot is intimidating to read. He can throw down references to the Baghavad Gita as easily as the Bible, and there is a level of erudition from the reader his poems require. Every word and image matters, and there are so many layers to his work you could be peeling the onion forever.

One of the biggest differences that struck me in comparing his earlier poems to his later poems is the emergence of hope in the latter. Prufrock and The Waste Land are notable for their lack of hope—the despairing landscape they paint after World War I. A recurring theme in Eliot’s work is the failure of words to adequately describe human experience.

We see this in The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock:

And would it have been worth it, after all,
Would it have been worth while,
After the sunsets and the dooryards and the sprinkled streets,
After the novels, after the teacups, after the skirts that trail along the floor—
And this, and so much more?—
It is impossible to say just what I mean!

We find a similar sentiment in East Coker, the third poem in the Four Quartets, and yet there’s a twist. I’m including this whole passage because it’s my favourite in the Four Quartets:

So here I am, in the middle way, having had twenty years—
Twenty years largely wasted, the years of l’entre deux guerres—
Trying to learn to use words, and every attempt
Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure
Because one has only learnt to get the better of words
For the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which
One is no longer disposed to say it. And so each venture
Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate
With shabby equipment always deteriorating
In the general mess of imprecision of feeling,
Undisciplined squads of emotion. And what there is to conquer
By strength and submission, has already been discovered
Once or twice, or several times, by men whom one cannot hope
To emulate—but there is no competition—
There is only the fight to recover what has been lost
And found and lost again and again: and now, under conditions
That seem unpropitious. But perhaps neither gain nor loss.
For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.

My friend posited that the early T.S. Eliot would have stopped after “by men whom one cannot hope to emulate”, and I tend to agree. But this T.S. Eliot didn’t. Hope is the difference. You wouldn’t keep trying if you didn’t think it was worth it, after all. There is a significant change in his worldview.

I love this passage not only because it speaks to me as a writer, but also because I sense this is actually Eliot talking, not the speaker. It’s rare to get these vulnerable glimpses of the man behind the poet, and it draws me closer to him, hearing him wonder on the page if he wasted twenty years, if his work matters, if he matters.

T.S. Eliot may be intimidating, but the irony is that he’s so human in his questions and observations. There are passages in the Four Quartets that completely stump me, and others that make me laugh out loud with how in touch he is with human behaviour:

The tolling bell
Measures time not our time, rung by the unhurried
Ground swell, a time
Older than the time of chronometers, older
Than time counted by anxious worried women
Lying awake, calculating the future,
Trying to unweave, unwind, unravel
And piece together the past and the future….

Perhaps the biggest joy I had in reading the Four Quartets was discovering he was the author of a phrase I had heard before and cherished, and never knew it was him who had penned it (it’s not the Julian of Norwich reference, but the first four lines). This is the stanza that ends the Four Quartets and which I never would have guessed came from the T.S. Eliot I studied in school. People change, and all his searching, questioning, and exploring led him to a beautiful place.

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, remembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning;
At the source of the longest river
The voice of the hidden waterfall
And the children in the apple-tree
Not known, because not looked for
But heard, half-heard, in the stillness
Between two waves of the sea.
Quick now, here, now, always—
A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything)
And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
When the tongues of flame are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.

A Prayer for Owen Meany

Some voices you can’t get out of your head. After recently reading John Irving’s 1989 novel A Prayer for Owen Meany, Owen’s unforgettable voice is ringing in my ears.

YOUR MOTHER HAS THE BEST BREASTS OF ALL THE MOTHERS.

GOD HAS TAKEN YOUR MOTHER. MY HANDS WERE THE INSTRUMENT. GOD HAS TAKEN MY HANDS. I AM GOD’S INSTRUMENT.

FAITH TAKES PRACTICE.

John Irving said he chose to write all of Owen’s speech in capital letters because he had to have some visual way of setting apart his unique voice on the page. Owen’s Adam’s apple didn’t move when he spoke, and so his voice was stuck as in a “permanent scream.” Owen’s best friend and the narrator of the story, Johnny Wheelwright, opens the story this way:

I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice—not because of his voice, or because he was the smallest person I ever knew, or even because he was the instrument of my mother’s death, but because he is the reason I believe in God; I am a Christian because of Owen Meany.

Owen often wonders why his voice doesn’t change. We don’t find out till the end of the story, but there is a very good reason for Owen’s voice sounding the way it is—a reason he attributes to God’ s plan. Owen’s voice is just one of the many mysteries the reader is confronted with in the early stages of the novel that Irving expertly and unexpectedly ties together in the end.

In writing classes I’ve taken over the years, teachers have said to look out for physical traits of characters, such as a scar or birthmark, that the author draws our attention to as we’re reading. It’s for a reason. Owen’s short stature (everyone loves lifting him up all the time) and his voice set Owen apart right away.

Irving continues this theme inwardly too. Owen stands out for his unwavering faith in God from such a young age. How many 11-year-olds talk about being God’s instrument? That their life is part of God’s bigger plan?

It’s hard not to like Owen Meany but it’s hard to like him too. Irving summarizes this tension in his Afterword:

Owen’s voice is irritating, not only because of how it sounds but because of how right he is. People who are always right, and are given to reminding us of it, are irritating; prophets are irritating, and Owen Meany is decidedly a prophet.

When I was reading the novel, I didn’t think of Owen exactly as a prophet, but now I see that Irving was dropping hints of this along the way. Owen foresaw the future, including his death; he had visions that reality would imitate; he wasn’t afraid of telling the truth. His unique voice would become “institutionalized,” when he and Johnny attended Gravesend Academy for boys and Owen wrote a regular column for the school newspapers under the pen name THE VOICE. His words were always in capital letters, of course. Johnny reflects, “The Voice expressed what we were unable to say.” I think Owen’s voice functions as a conscience too.

What made this novel a delight to read, and why I would read it again, is because Irving connects everything so well, though of course you don’t realize it until you’re finished.

Owen playing the part of the Christ child in the Christmas pageant makes for a very comedic scene early in the novel and emphasizes how small he is—i.e. he can fit in the manger. Not until the end of the novel, though, do you realize how symbolic this role is in light of what his parents reveal to Johnny.

There are many symbols in A Prayer for Owen Meany and none of them are thrown in half-heartedly. A dressmaker’s dummy, a stuffed toy armadillo, and Watahantowet’s totem become powerful, armless images of suffering and submission.

Even the ridiculous slam-dunk that Owen and Johnny practice countless times to do in under 4, then under 3 seconds has a very serious purpose.

“I may use you in a game, Owen,” the coach said, joking with him.

IT’S NOT FOR A GAME, said Owen Meany, who had his own reasons for everything.

Indeed, John Irving had his reasons for everything too. The story is long (about 600 pages), but it is well crafted and held my interest. The highest praise I could give an author is making me feel their character was real, that I actually knew this person from spending so much time on the page with them. Owen is whom the story is named after, but Johnny was just as real to me. His loss felt like my loss. His gut-wrenching prayer that closes the story felt like my prayer.

Outspoken to Unspoken: Searching for Anne’s Voice after She Marries

Like many Canadian girls, I grew up on Anne of Green Gables. My sister and I watched the movies so often we’d recite scenes in our bedroom at night. The “fishing for lake trout” episode was our go-to favorite. When an elementary school friend visited Green Gables on Prince Edward Island, she brought me a porcelain figurine of Anne I still have on my shelf. A few years ago, I made my own pilgrimage to the Island that inspired L.M. Montgomery’s beloved series.

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Photo from my visit to Green Gables

Despite this history, I’d never actually read the books, much to my husband’s bewilderment. “How in the world can you call yourself a fan?” he wanted to know. “Isn’t reading the books the whole point?” The question bothered me enough that I read all six this summer.

Anne books

Read the rest of my article over at The Curator.

A Poem in PRISM

I began this blog back in 2011 to write about the city as text and text as the city. I was noticing many examples in Vancouver of “literary buildings”—buildings that contained written text on it, such as a poem or a phrase. I was fascinated by this combination, how a city is a surface to be read, and how some architects make this literal.

I don’t talk about architecture as much on here as I used to, but cities (particularly Vancouver) still heavily inform my creative writing practice, which is focusing on poetry.

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I’m saying all this to lead up to an exciting announcement: this past summer, my poem “Text to Vancouver” was published in PRISM international, a quarterly literary magazine based in Vancouver.

Given the content of my poem, I was thrilled my piece found a home in this particular magazine among many writers whose work I admire.

If you’d like to read it, you can order a print copy here. To whet your appetite, I will say that I wrote this poem after reading Elizabeth Bishop’s “Letter to N.Y. ” The rhythm of her poem captured me and I wanted to write my own version to my city, but update it for the twenty-first century. Kits Pool, designated bike lanes, and glass condos are some Vancouver references I place in there (I initially wrote “thrown in” and realized how wrong that is. Nothing in poetry is ever thrown in!)

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Speaking of publications, you may notice that I’ve also put up a new Publications page. The writing life has plenty of discouraging moments and I feel it’s important to celebrate  what I’ve done so far, as I aim to keep pursuing this path. Hence me sharing this news with you!

Thank you for reading and encouraging me in your own ways. If you’re comfortable sharing, I’d love to hear what little or big thing you’re celebrating. We could all use more reason to!

Our Souls at Night

Some might call it boring. “It’s just two old people talking in the dark,” as one character says.

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I call Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf a quiet book that sneaks up on you with its loveliness.

Two lonely people in their seventies—Addie and Louis—(both widowed) decide to sleep together at night. Addie clarifies her intentions to Louis, her neighbour down the street in their small Colorado town:

No, not sex. I’m not looking at it that way. I think I’ve lost any sexual impulse a long time ago. I’m talking about getting through the night. And lying warm in bed, companionably. Lying down in bed together and you staying the night. The nights are the worst. Don’t you think?

As you read it, you realize it’s about a lot more than two old people talking in the dark. It’s about ordinary, flawed people reflecting on the past and taking a risk to make the most of the present.

Addie and Louis are two characters who make me look forward to growing old. They’ve lived long enough to stop caring what other people will think or say about them, but they each have a child and live in a town who doesn’t share their way of looking at things, which brings tension into their story.

Their simple, routine lives are attractive. They work in their gardens, drive elderly neighbours to the grocery store, go on outings occasionally. Haruf doesn’t cut these ordinary elements out of his fiction. For example, one chapter starts:

The next day he worked in the yard in the morning and mowed the lawn and ate lunch and took a short nap and then went down to the bakery and drank coffee with a group of men he met with every other week.

The way the author tells the story is cinematic, a movie camera following the characters around their small town, paying close attention to the little things brought to life with such love. Waiting at a stoplight. Cooking sloppy joes over a camp stove. Walking a dog. Similar to a scene in the film Lady Bird where a character talks about love as paying attention; paying attention as love.

Haruf’s style of prose mimics his subject matter. The writing is poetic in its spareness. Rhythmic in its brevity. There are no quotation marks around the dialogue, and it would look cumbersome if there were because so much of the novel is dialogue and, for the most part, it’s clear who’s speaking when.

The only other book I could compare it it to is Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation, a similarly brief yet eloquent portrait of two people exploring the landscape of marriage (with a more devastating tone though).

Our Souls at Night was the author’s last book before he died in 2014 at 71, a similar age to his characters. He based it on his and his wife’s story, two people who found each other later in life. Knowing this makes the reading experience that much more tender. What a gift to leave the world.

In a literary market where the protagonists are typically young, larger than life, and the plot full of action and surprise, this novel landed in my lap like a letter from another world. It was refreshing to know a book like this could be published, and with acclaim! And not just published, but deemed interesting enough to make into a movie, which I think I will watch tonight.