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?

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.

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.

Commonwealth: Coming Together after Breaking Apart

If ever there was a book to convince about why divorce isn’t great (in a non-didactic way), Ann Patchett’s Commonwealth is it.

I don’t posit this as a main theme of the novel or want to reduce a masterpiece of storytelling down to this statement, but it is something that ran through my head while following the lives of ten characters over five decades (6 children, 4 parents), so I want to explore that lens a bit.

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The first chapter takes you into the house of a California couple, Fix and Beverly Keating, who are hosting a christening party for their second daughter Franny. It’s a long scene in which the omniscient narrator weaves in and out of multiple house guests, interactions, and seemingly unimportant observations that set the stage for the rest of the story. It is a kiss between Beverly and a surprise guest, Bert Cousins, that sparks an affair and leads to the eventual dissolution of both Beverly’s and Bert’s marriages.

The scene basically ends with the kiss though. The next chapter picks up with Fix as an old man going to the hospital with Franny for a cancer check-up. We understand Beverly and Fix divorced long ago, and yet the effects of their split and the blended Keating-Cousins children that result from Beverly and Bert’s marriage are very much the thread of this ambitious book. Patchett is concerned with inciting incidents and the long, complicated aftermath.

The two Keating girls, Caroline and Franny, move with their mother and Bert to Virginia. Caroline makes no secret of being mad at her mother and wishes she could have stayed with her dad instead. Teresa keeps her four children (Cal, Holly, Jeannette, and Albie) in California, but all six children come together in Virginia every summer when Bert gets his time with his kids, though ironically he never wants to spend any time with them. Beverly reflects on how all she ever wanted was her two daughters. Patchett’s decision to include the very real and mundane logistics of finding a chaperone for the four kids each summer on a cross-country flight is enough to make you feel sorry for everyone involved.

Sadness, blame, guilt, resignation, and regret all surface through this book, stemming from that one illicit kiss—that one action with a thousand consequences.

In a similar way of “like mother, like daughter,” Franny, as a twenty-something, gets involved with a famous author, Leon Posen, who’s married. Just like the opening scene of the christening party, Patchett vividly shows you that first encounter between Leon and Franny, and that scene is enough to fill-in-the-blanks about where their relationship goes. It goes into Franny recounting her family story to Leon who turns it into a bestseller and forces her family to revisit it all over. Again, an action with a thousand consequences.

Patchett primarily tells the story through the lives of the six children uneasily united in their disillusionment with their parents. The four parents get space too, but the bulk is the children’s stories told non-chronologically. There isn’t an obvious main character, but Franny would be it as Patchett spends more time on her and gives her the last word.

My only disappointment in reading the novel is that it wasn’t longer. I wasn’t ready to move on to what another child was up to in his/her adult life because I wanted to stay with the current character. An author who can create that desire in the reader has achieved something remarkable for a number of reasons:

  1. The reader doesn’t tend to stay with flat or perfect characters. Each of the children are recognizable but not clichés—in other words, human. They surprise you, especially their movement from childhood to adulthood, and they each have a good mix of likeable and unlikeable qualities.
  2. Patchett understands that certain siblings in large, blended families get overlooked, especially in childhood (e.g. Jeannette and Albie). By giving attention to all of them, Patchett shows each person is interesting, even if they’re not all “doing” interesting things.
  3. The reader can witness a tragic incident in all of their lives from multiple perspectives, highlighting the various ways guilt and grief manifest.

In closing, I want to revisit my opening statement about this book showing how messy and unattractive divorce is. The book also shows six children picking up the pieces of their parents’ decisions and finding their way through the brokenness together. If ever there was a book to convince about the benefit of having siblings, Commonwealth is it.

Franny gave her sister a tired smile. “Oh, my love,” she said. “What do the only children do?”

“We’ll never have to know,” Caroline said.

On Finishing War and Peace

The idea of writing a review on War and Peace is almost as daunting as reading the novel itself.

So I’m not going to. Instead, here are some bullet-point thoughts (probably spoilers in here) now that I’m done and not just a 1/3 of the way through:

  • The title is apt. The book flips between battlefields and domestic scenes as the Russian men go off to fight against Napoleon’s army and the women deal with things at home: mainly men woes and money woes. I preferred the domestic scenes.
  • The book also flips between the epic and the miniature: the grandeur of war, history, human action juxtaposed with the beautiful simplicity of staring at a night sky, a glance that reveals someone in a new way, a conversation that changes how you love people. In my opinion, Tolstoy is best at the latter.
  • It took me a while to figure out the main characters: Pierre Bezukhov, Prince Andrei, and Natasha Rostov, and that’s mostly because their names are listed in the description on the back of the book. I guess this shows 1) there are so many characters and 2) not a clear plot line to determine the main players.
  • I didn’t like Pierre Bezukhov (apparently modeled after Tolstoy) as much as I thought I would, except near the end. It seems like he functions similarly to Levin in Anna Karenina, but I found Levin far more winsome.
  • Speaking of Anna Karenina (the only other Tolstoy novel I’ve read), overall I preferred it to War and Peace (for plot and characters).
  • I’d rather have characters grow on me as I get to know them, rather than the other way around where I initially like them but grow to dislike them. That’s how I felt with Rostov, Princess Marya, and even Natasha somewhat. Prince Andrei was the most intriguing character, and perhaps the most honest: “I said that a fallen woman should be forgiven, but I did not say that I could forgive. I cannot.”
  • There was a section in the middle that I absolutely loved and might be my favourite chapter of any book. Maybe I loved it so much because that’s the last time we really see the Rostov children as “children” before innocence gives way to experience.
  • The last 1/4 was the hardest to get through. The burning of Moscow went on forever, and Tolstoy gave far more attention to describing this historical event than wrapping up the plot on the domestic front with the characters’ fates that I was far more interested in. And when he did wrap them up, he did so hastily. The character I ended up caring about most (Sonya) essentially disappeared from the narrative in a very unresolved way.
  • The ending (if you can even call it that) was a philosophical treatise of Tolstoy’s thoughts on how history unfolds, and whether human’s actions are predestined or done freely. He should have published this separately; it felt like it didn’t belong.
  • Am I glad I read it? Yes. Would I read it again? Hell no.

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Yes, I’m showing off the thickness of this monster. 1225 pages.

What I enjoyed most in reading War and Peace was Tolstoy’s language (translated by the excellent duo of Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky). His power of observation is unrivalled. Here are some passages that stand out (it’s really hard to choose just a few!):

When Princess Marya came back from her father, the little princess was sitting over her work, and she looked at Princess Marya with that special expression of an inward and happily serene gaze that only pregnant women have. It was clear that she did not see Princess Marya, but was looking deep inside herself–into something happy and mysterious that was being accomplished in her.

Prince Andrei smiled, looking at his sister, as we smile listening to people whom we think we can see through.

Rostov kept thinking, not believing his eyes. “Can they be Frenchmen?” He looked at the approaching Frenchmen and, though a moment before he had been galloping only in order to meet these Frenchmen and cut them to pieces, their closeness now seemed so terrible to him that he could not believe his eyes. “Who are they? Why are they running? Can it be they’re running to me? Can it be? And why? To kill me? Me, whom everybody loves so?” He remembered his mother’s love for him, his family’s, his friends’, and the enemy’s intention to kill him seemed impossible

Boris told them about his Schongraben action in just the way that those who take part in battles usually tell about them, that is, in the way they would like it to have been, the way they have heard others tell it, the way it could be told more beautifully, but not at all the way it had been.

At that time there was a special atmosphere of amorousness in the Rostovs’ house, as happens in a house where there are very nice and very young girls.

When Pierre left and all the members of the family came together, they began to discuss him, as always happens after the departure of a new person, and, as rarely happens, they all said only good things about him.

For him, Moscow was comfortable, warm, habitual, and dirty, like an old dressing gown.

It was too frightening to be under the burden of all the insoluble questions of life, and he gave himself to the first amusements that came along, only so as to forget them.

She valued the society of the people to whom, disheveled, in a dressing gown, she could come striding out of the nursery with a joyful face and show a diaper with a yellow instead of a green stain, and hear comforting words that the baby was now much better.

Pierre’s insanity consisted in the fact that he did not wait, as before, for personal reasons, which he called people’s merits, in order to love them, but love overflowed his heart, and, loving people without reason, he discovered the unquestionable reasons for which it was worth loving them.

Have you read this book? If yes, I want to hear from you and what you thought about it!