Black History Month Book Report #1: Homegoing, by Yaa Gyasi

First off, this is a great book that succeeds on just about every level. If good books is your jam, here is one.

A woman escapes slavery in the Gold Coast in the late 18th Century. She leaves behind one daughter, goes inland to freedom, has another. One daughter marries an Englishman, and lives out her life in a castle by the ocean. The other is captured, and taken there as a slave, to be sold on to the American South. The novel follows their children and grandchildren down the generations, alternating between the lines, as they live their lives embedded in our history, both African and American, until more or less the present day.

It’s a worthy conceit to hang the novel’s structure on, though not without its dangers. Characters rarely appear in more than two or three successive chapters, and each chapter has a new protagonist moving through a significant chunk of their lives. Each has their arc, though thanks to the history we’re following, arcs do not so much as close as find a way to keep going under immense and unfair restrictions. In less deft hands, a novel like this might fail to resonate, but Gyasi does such a good job with her characters that most all of the chapters are satisfying, to the reader if not the protagonist, and when characters reappear in their children’s lives we can see what those children can’t, that their parents were people in their own right, trapped in unkind history, and doing what best they could under the circumstances, even if that best wasn’t great.

Gyasi’s gorgeous, evocative prose helps the project along immensely. She has a knack for framing that conveys a rich, deep world in the background, the kind of world you could wander off and get lost in if you weren’t careful. But you never do, because the narrative carries you forward, through decades and centuries of lived history, of heartbreak and small victories just great enough to keep it all going, all of it rendered with flawless grace and economy.

My intent is to keep things spoiler-free, so I won’t go into individual characters and arcs. Telling truth, I think it best to encounter them with fresh eyes, even if you know your history well. What Homegoing excels at is melding that history with story, with the stories of lives lived swimming in history’s currents in the wake of the African slave trade. It is, all of it, complicated, with sympathetic villains and humanizing moments to spare, and Gyasi doesn’t spare the reader that complexity in the service of easy answers. This is a work of art, not polemic, after all.

I’m disinclined toward numerical rating, or trying to give my subjective experience a gloss of objectivity. Suffice to say, if you are a person who enjoys moving, beautifully written, well-constructed literature (with or without a capital ‘L’), you will find Homegoing to be all that and more. If you have the interest (and fortitude) to take a long and often painful look at the ramifications of human chattel slavery, in a well-researched  and -rendered (albeit fictional) form, you could do a lot worse than read Homegoing.

It’s one thing to know something intellectually, say that Jim Crow laws in the post-Civil War South led to all manner of abuses. It’s another to engage with a firsthand account, or a first-rate artistic engagement, one that plays to the full human spectrum, rather than seek emotionless shelter in facts. To my mind, it’s one of the highest purposes of human creative endeavor, an accomplishment of serious magnitude when well-executed. Yaa Gyasi has done that, and then some, with Homegoing.

You should read it.

I Read Only Books by Women For a Year: Here’s What Happened

I read a lot of great books, is the short answer.

So, a few days ago writer K Tempest Bradford published this article, in which she challenged readers to stop reading white, straight, cisgendered male authors for one year. Sadly (and predictably), certain corners of the internet exploded in rage at the notion (she has assembled a lovely collection of rage-tweets here, if you enjoy that sort of thing). I won’t reprise their objections, which savvy interneteers will likely be able to intuit themselves, nor pass judgement on any validity those objections may or may not have. But it so happens that I recently spent the better part of a year doing something very similar to Ms Bradford’s challenge. From roughly November 2013 until late last year, I read only books by women(*), many of them women of color, others not cisgendered (two of the new favorite writers whose work I discovered are married).

I did so for my own reasons, both personal and (for lack of a better term) professional. On a personal level it was simply the realization that the vast majority of the books on my overstuffed shelves were by men. I fought it for a long time, that realization. I mean, these were great books, each easily defensible on the merits. I have, if I may say, damned fine taste in literature, and reading material in general. Ask any of my friends. I’ve been an obsessive reader since kindergarten, the kind of person who never goes anywhere without a book and hasn’t since he could carry one. But looked at en masse, the unconscious bias in my collection was (and is) painfully clear (in my defense, I actually am a cisgendered white male).

My bookshelves.
My bookshelves.

When I was younger, the notion of placing any kind of limitation on my reading material for a whole year would have seemed preposterous. Now comfortably ensconced in middle age, it didn’t seem like that big a deal. It wasn’t like I was going to run out of good books to read, and while it might mean holding off on some things in my to-be-read stack, it’s hardly without precedent for a book to be in that stack for years before I get around to reading it. Really all I had to do was rearrange the order, though of course I used it as an excuse to go book-shopping, which is one of my favorite things to do.

The timing that November seemed propitious. I’d started writing Continue reading “I Read Only Books by Women For a Year: Here’s What Happened”

Things I Learned from the Internet This Week

In a blatant attempt to rationalize how much time I spend reading the internet, I’ve decided to post this first of what I hope to be a semi-regular roundup of some of the more interesting things I’ve come across in my coffee-time divagations. Those who follow me on facebook will recognize many of the links (one of the reasons I want to do this is to keep track of all the things I link to), though thanks to the mystery of facebook I never know how many people see any given link. At any rate, here are some things I found interesting these last couple of weeks. Maybe you will find some of them interesting, too. Continue reading “Things I Learned from the Internet This Week”

Five Great Speculative Fiction Novels by Women

I’ve been meaning for a good long while to set aside a period to read only women authors. It’s not that they’re unrepresented on my shelves or in my to-read pile. But if I’m honest, I’ve read way more books by men than by women. Having realized the disparity, I felt a certain compulsion to address it. But I put it off for a long time, for whatever reason I could think of when the disparity re-intruded on my consciousness. Again, if I’m honest, my resistance was rooted in discomfort, as much as anything at the realization that my personal pre-sets, left unchecked, had brought about the disparity in the first place. If I did something about it, well, that meant it was a real thing, a disparity between my aspirational and actually-lived selves.

All the more reason to do something about it, and so a few months back, I made a conscious decision to read mostly books by women for a while. And I am surely glad that I did. Not for some consciousness-raising epiphany about men and women and society and literature (though there surely was that), but because I’ve found a rich vein of work that tickles a personal and particular sweet spot that I had been previously unaware existed, and that I had fervently wished was out there. Turns out my pre-sets had just prevented me from seeing it (thanks, patriarchy).

See, I’m a bit of a rare bird in reader culture, or so it seems to me. I love and identify with both speculative fiction in most of its forms and with more highfalutin quote-unquote literary fiction, with all its inquiries into history, psychology, language, and well, you name it. I came up reading both, love both, and wish they got along better in public. As a writer I try and draw from both sources. As a reader I crave works that weave the two together. Despite the continued snootiness of the literary set and the flagellations of spec fic’s misogynist rump, the overlap between the two is growing, and the correlation with the increasing prevalence of women writing speculative fiction leaves little doubt the phenomena are connected.

There’s so much great work being done right now. It’s a really exciting time for a reader like myself.

In celebration of that, and in honor of Lightspeed Magazine’s Women Destroy Science Fiction! issue, here are five great speculative fiction books by women that I’ve read recently, and why I think they are awesome and you should read them, too, whatever kind of books you like to read. Continue reading “Five Great Speculative Fiction Novels by Women”

What I Like is Better Than What You Like, or It’s Not Genre if Literary Writers Do It

Literature is like pornography: no one can tell you what it is, but they know it when they see it.  Such is the underlying assumption behind this cry for help from Arthur Krystal in the New Yorker, which allows him, among many other logically-suspect things, to claim unto literature’s greedy penumbra several works which are clearly speculative (that is, genre) fiction.  It allows him to say that works like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road are simply a literary sensibility working with genre, and not in it, as if some aesthetic prophylaxis were involved, allowing said literary giant to wade into the post-apocalyptic pool and take a swim without getting any of it in his hair.

What is the nature of the distinction?  I’ll let Krystal answer for himself. Continue reading “What I Like is Better Than What You Like, or It’s Not Genre if Literary Writers Do It”