Tag Archives: Homegoing

Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi

It only seems a short time since I read and reviewed Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi on Bookword blog. It was published in 2016. It was a story in two parts, one following African generations who remained on the continent, and the other following the descendants of an enslaved woman. The novel allowed contrasts between the two branches of the family, and how they emerged in the early 21st Century. It made a strong impression on me.

Since that time, I have wanted to read her second book, Transcendent Kingdom (2020), which has been well reviewed and was shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction in 2021.

Transcendent Kingdom

This later novel is also constructed as a contrast, here to contrast two apparently opposing stances on life. The Ghanaian connection is here again. The narrator is Gifty, who has been brought up in Huntsville Alabama, the daughter of Ghanaian immigrants. 

Gifty has been a brilliant science student and has moved to Stanford, California to work on her doctoral research. She is a neuroscientist, experimenting on mice, hoping to find whether it is possible to control their responses to pleasure and pain. 

Gifty’s mother has put all her faith in the church she attended since arriving in the States: The First Assemblies of God. She is a diligent attendee and as a child Gifty shared her devotion. But Gifty lost her faith and her mother’s was severely tried by two significant losses in their lives. The first was Nana, Gifty’s talented brother, and the second was her father who returned to Ghana. 

Nana, a gifted soccer player turned to basketball and sustained an injury to his ankle takes him to hospital and he is prescribed OxyContin. This is a very effective painkiller, but it is also highly addictive. Nana’s descent into opiate addiction, attempted rehabilitation, heroin dependence and subsequent death is charted through the eyes of his younger and adoring sister.

Gifty’s mother has a breakdown, after Nana’s death and Gifty spends a summer in Ghana. The novel begins, many years later, when she has had another breakdown, and has come to stay in Gifty’s flat as there is no one else to care for her. The narrative jumps back and forth over time, and from Gifty’s attempts to help her mother to her research in the lab. 

Neither mother nor daughter are managing very well. While Gifty is a brilliant student, she has no social life to speak of and she is in her mid-twenties. Her mother lies in bed, hardly moving, speaking or eating for several weeks. Faith and science seem to have failed both women. 

Gifty herself articulates the issue:

All of my years of Christianity, of considering the heart, the soul, and the mind with which the Scriptures tell us to love the Lord, had primed me to believe in the great mystery of our existence, but the closer I tried to get to uncovering it, the further away the objects moved. The fact that I can locate the part of the brain where memory is stored only answers questions of where and perhaps even how. It does little to answer the why. (183)

We are assured, in the Acknowledgements, that Gifty’s research is modelled after a friend’s doctoral studies. The narrator quotes from several scientific papers which are probably real too. She frequently turns over ideas and problems in the text, making this novel less of a narrative progression, but more a contemplation of issues of choice, addiction, the control of the individual (mouse and man), and the division between heart, soul and mind.

Gifty’s research is an attempt to find whether there are any ways in which the brain can be coaxed into refusing pleasure if it also results in pain: the central problem of addiction. A breakthrough in her research leads to some hope. Her mother also gradually improves under her care.

The novel also considers migration, being Black in a White state, being a Black girl (and therefore unable to be a princess apparently), to be young and exposed to the opiate addiction crisis, and the role of the churches in sustaining people through difficult times. Loss and grief are described as acute states.

Two things bother me about this novel: first, the ethical question raised by using animals in experiments is not acknowledged, let along explored. And then I do not understand the title.

Yaa Gyasi

Yaa Gyasi was born in Ghana in 1989 but moved with her family to the US in 1991. Recently she wrote a piece in the Guardian which stung me into replying to her charges in a post called Reading Black Authors, taking our medicine? In that article she refers to her belief in ‘the power of literature to challenge, to deepened, to change’. And she has claimed Toni Morrison as one of her major influences. Both her novels are powerful, in both because, like Toni Morrison, she relates systematic injustice and racism to individuals’ lives.

Related posts

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi (June 2021)

Reading Black Authors, taking our medicine? (May 2021)

Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi 2020. Published in paperback by Penguin 244pp. Shortlisted for Women’s Prize in 2021

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Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

My spotty teenaged informant seemed to think his information in some way mitigated the wickedness of the slave trade. I was at school, half a century ago, and he informed me that, in case I didn’t know, Africans ‘themselves’ sold Africans to the White traders. Last week I read a tweet by the historian David Olusuga.

Literally everyday someone too lazy to read my books accuses me of ignoring the African slave traders that are explored in my books in detail. Black historians are routinely accused of being ‘activists’ rather than historians – an attempt at delegitimisation and a form of racism (11.6.21)

Then and now the involvement of Africans makes no difference to my opinion that the slave trade was an abomination, that it tainted those who came into contact with it and that we still live with its problematic outcomes today.

Homegoing

Homegoing is an ambitious account of the long history of the slave trade and its outcomes. A Ghanaian by birth, raised in the US, Yaa Gyasi has chosen to show the reader stories of individuals from this long history, the damage to their lives, relationships and bodies. The novel is the story of the descendants in eight generations from Maame. She gave birth at the end of the 18th century to two sisters, who never met. One marries a white trader and lives in the white castle on the Gold Coast. Her descendants remain in Africa. The other sister is transported across the ocean from the same castle, and her descendants are enslaved, then imprisoned and finally become educated African Americans searching for their history and roots.

Cape Coast Castle via WikiCommons, Kwameghana, February 2015

The structure of this book allows Yaa Gyasi to consider a broader perspective than, say Beloved by Toni Morrison. Reading the accounts of the generations on either side of the ocean, we note some key moments: American Civil War, Britain’s colonisation of the Gold Coast, the struggle for independence. She avoids the trap of taking key moments in Black history, rather explores the impact of the previous generation upon the individual in each section as they struggle with their own lives. Her skill is in creating 16 very different but nevertheless authentic characters with contrasting strengths, attributes, beliefs, sense of identity and so forth. One sings beautifully, another has great physical power, a third has beauty, a fourth has terrible scars and so on.

For example, there is H. He is the eighth child of Kojo and Anna, but she had been seized as a runaway while pregnant and died after giving birth, so H never knew his parents. The reader does, however. H is a huge and powerful man, angry that he has been picked up by the local police, falsely charged with studying a white woman, and as a convict sold into another form of slavery in a local mine. His strength helps him survive, and he becomes known as ‘two-shovel’ because he uses his strength to protect another man who was struggling to fulfil his quota. 

And there is Abena, from the same generation but living in Africa and falling foul of the marriage practices of the time. Abena is rejected by the man she hoped to marry because he was forced to promise to pay the bride price for another woman as part of a deal to save the village by planting cocoa. Pregnant, she leaves her village and seeks shelter with the white missionaries in the nearby town of Kumasi. Her decision to seek shelter there has consequences for her daughter Akua.

It is not necessarily better to have stayed in Africa. The wars between Fante and Asante are bitter, and the area’s prosperity is reduced by the war with the whites. They suffer too as the whites behave more and more badly, especially in the name of Christianity and colonialism.

The reader often knows more that the characters about their antecedents. This is not a smooth full narrative. Stories are broken off, never to be narrated to their conclusion. But the reader can develop a kind of rhythm as they progress. Each episode has subtle differences in the way it is told: reported by a character, straight forward third person narrative, episodically, and so on. Form reinforces content. Separation and disruption are key themes in this novel. And it ain’t over yet.

Yaa Gyasi

This novel has garnered much praise. I used the Penguin paperback and there are no less than 46 little blurbs of praise included on the endpapers. It also won some awards. Her second novel, Transcendent Kingdom, was published last year.

Yaa Gyasi was born in Ghana in 1989 but moved with her family to the US in 1991.  Recently she wrote a piece in the Guardian which stung me into replying to her charges in a post called Reading Black Authors, taking our medicine?

In that article she refers to her belief in ‘the power of literature to challenge, to deepened, to change’ and this novel certainly did those things for me. With its long sweep of history, I was made more acutely aware that this is not over. Today in the UK, as well as the US, we have a disputed history (see David Olusuga‘s comments at the start of this post, think of the statue of the Bristol trader Edward Colston) and a government that issued a report denying institutional racism. Stop and Search impacts disproportionately on Black youth. The #BlackLivesMatter protests of last summer are treated as an anomaly of the Covid Lockdown, rather than the voicing of a legitimate protest from people who want a change. 

I can recommend Homegoing for this long perspective, but also for the humanising of the very dehumanising practise of trafficking people of colour.

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi published in 2016. I used the paperback edition published by Penguin Books. 305pp

Related post

Reading Black Authors, taking our medicine? (May 2021)

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Reading Black Authors, taking our medicine?

In the last year I have been promoting books by women of colour on this blog. Every month I have read and reviewed a book and every week I have promoted a post from this blog about a book by a woman of colour on my twitter account. My intention is to amplify the marginalised voices, contribute to the discussion generated by these writers. 

I recently read an article by Yaa Gyasi that got me going, made me question my motives and effectiveness, as I expect she intended. It was published in the Guardian in March 2021 and headlined

White people, black authors are not your medicine

You can read the article here

What does Yaa Gyasi say?

Yaa Gyasi is the Ghanaian-American author of Homegoing (2016) and Transcendent Kingdom (2020). She lives in the US. In her article she argues that white people are not moving quickly enough, are still imbued with racist attitudes. In the US ‘they have failed to contend with the legacy of slavery’. I would say that in the UK we have failed to deal with the legacy of colonialism.

Public interest in her work was revived by the Black Lives Matters movement last summer and Homegoing appeared on anti-racist reading lists. But she found this very disappointing for the questions being asked of her at literary events had already been answered, she claims, by James Baldwin in the ‘60s and Toni Morrison in the ‘80s.

She concludes that white people are responding inadequately when they just buy books by black authors. The ‘just’ refers to not going further and reading them.

So many of the writers of colour I know have had white people treat their work as though it were a kind of medicine. Something they have to swallow in order to improve their condition, but they don’t really want it, they don’t really enjoy it, and if they’re being totally honest, they don’t actually even take the medicine half the time. They just buy it and leave it on the shelf. [Guardian article 20th March 2021]

I’m going to note in passing that she cannot know that white people treat the books in this way, although many of us might. More important is the question she goes on to ask:

What pleasure, what deepening, could there be in “reading” like that? To enter the world of fiction with such a tainted mission is to doom the novel or short story to fail you on its most essential levels. 

This tokenism – look at the shelves behind my face on zoom and you can see lots of books by black writers! – this taking your medicine – I’ve bought the books, I’ve done my bit – is clearly an inadequate response. She quotes Lauren Michelle saying

Someone at some point has to get down to the business of reading.

Yaa Gyasi declares

… I also know that buying books by black authors is but a theoretical, grievously belated and utterly impoverished response to centuries of physical and emotional harm. 

I must point out that that sentence I have just quoted begins with this clause:

While I do devoutly believe in the power of literature to challenge, to deepened, to change, I also know …

I am not sure how the two parts of the sentence are connected unless she is saying that she knows that the books aren’t read, because things are not changing, the power of literature is not being realised.

Promoting books by Women of Colour

I too believe in the power of literature to challenge, expose, provide alternatives, to deepen understanding and even to change. I will continue to buy, put on my shelves, and read books by women of colour and blog about them. I don’t regard it as taking my medicine. I will enjoy reading the books because they are books, and many of them are excellent, revealing, eye-opening and brilliant. 

I hope to read them without believing they were written for me and people like me, a white middle class woman of a certain age. Recently I read and reviewed Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga (1988). She is a Zimbabwean writer, and this was her first published book. The introduction made it clear that one of its notable features was that it did not assume a European reader. The Shadow King by Maaza Mengiste (2019), set in Ethiopia at the time when Mussolini invaded Abyssinia (as it was known), also makes few concessions to European readers in its use of indigenous vocabulary and names. 

I hope to see beyond the story to the deeper currents. Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1987) keeps peeling back the layers to expose the damage done physically, psychologically, socially, financially, politically, even lexically by slavery. Her ‘highly vocal ghosts’ must be heard.

Some writing provides joy. In Like a Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun by Sarah Ladipo Manyika (2016) I was pleased to meet Morayo da Silva, a flamboyant, generous, educated older woman born in Lagos, living in San Francisco, created by a Nigerian-American. You should meet her too.

I loved Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo (2019) and the richness of the characters in her multi-layered novel. The novel is innovative in form and structure, her restless style reflecting life in the city. The best book I read in 2019.

And so on.

These are great books, not medicine, not tokens, books worth reading for their own merits. I treasure their challenge, what they give me in depth and how they contribute to my determination to be part of change. 

So, I have bought a copy of Homegoing, and it is not on my shelf yet, but in my tall pile of books to be read. I’ll go on reading and reviewing and promoting books by women of colour. I know this alone will not bring about the change I want, but it’s a step and, at the moment, it’s the least I can do.

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