Yaa Gyasi (Yah Jesse is close enough), Ghana-born and Alabama-bred, raised such a ruckus with this debut novel that she scored a seven-figure advanceYaa Gyasi (Yah Jesse is close enough), Ghana-born and Alabama-bred, raised such a ruckus with this debut novel that she scored a seven-figure advance for her next one. It's easy to see why: this is an assured, ambitious, entirely successful book.
It traces one family across hundreds of years of history, starting in slavery times and ending around now, in just 300 pages. If that seems like a lot of ground, wait for it: the family is split at the beginning, one branch sold to America and the other staying in Ghana. Chapters alternate between African and American stories. This gives Gyasi the opportunity to make some piercing observations about family, the weight of history, the legacy of slavery.
It necessarily moves quickly, and Homegoing falls into the "linked vignette" category of books. Each chapter covers a different person in a new generation. Each time, Gyasi has to orient you all over again: who is the parent, what was their story, where are we now, before she even gets to an interesting story regarding the person at hand. I'm generally not a big fan of linked vignette novels, which tend to be the first efforts by writers who are still more comfortable writing short stories and are sortof cheating their way into a novel. (See Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich or Last Exit to Brooklyn by Hubert Selby.) But Gyasi has a point, so she gets away with it. It helps that she writes clearly: no writerly bullshit tricks here, she actually wants you to know what's going on.
And it helps that the stories are good. Starting way back in the 1700s, Gyasi gets right into African complicity in slavery, which is a thorny one that we don't talk too much about. She moves from the Underground Railroad to the Great Migration into Harlem during the Renaissance and beyond. It's sortof a greatest hits of African-American archetypes, which is great fun - well, maybe fun is the wrong word since so much of what happens is fucking awful, but it's a compelling read.
This is a big new voice, and she's got a killer book here....more
It tells the story of four brothers who battle fate, or a crazy guy, or Western influence - in an interview Obioma calls the book in part metaphorical, mad "prophet" Abulu representing outsider predictions of what young Nigeria will come to. (The critic Fredric Jameson argues that "All third-world texts are necessarily allegorical.") Abulu predicts death for the oldest son, Ikenna. The brothers deal with that prophecy in different ways. In order of descending age: 15- year-old Ikenna who "nailed small things to big crosses" (view spoiler)[believes it; (hide spoiler)] 14-yo Boja (view spoiler)[succumbs to it; (hide spoiler)] Obembe (11) and our narrator Ben (9) (view spoiler)[fight it, murdering Abulu, with Obembe fleeing afterwards and Ben imprisoned. (hide spoiler)] The father is largely absent, the mother (view spoiler)[consumed by spiders. (hide spoiler)] The two youngest children, David (3) and Nkem (1), are egrets in Obioma's allegorical telling; (view spoiler)[they more or less miss the turmoil and maybe they'll be okay. (hide spoiler)] The plot is solid and interesting; the ending is perfect.
Obioma's use of figures of speech is terrific, entirely unique. I don't know for sure whether it's him or Nigeria coming up with these sentences I've never heard before, but wherever he got stuff like "The dying sun pitched in a corner of the sky as faint as a nipple on the chest of a teenage girl," I'll take it. There are elements of magical realism; Abulu at times seems to have real prophetic power.
There's a quote at the beginning of one chapter: "Those the gods have chosen to destroy, they inflict with madness." It's tagged as an Igbo proverb, but it's originally from Euripides*. We're all working off the same traditions here. This is a terrific addition.
* Wikiquote says it's commonly misattributed to Euripides and it's actually some dude named Publilius Syrus. Whatever. ["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
Other peoples use writing to record the past, but this invention has killed the faculty of memory among them. They do not feel the past any more, for
Other peoples use writing to record the past, but this invention has killed the faculty of memory among them. They do not feel the past any more, for writing lacks the warmth of the human voice. With them everybody thinks he knows, whereas learning should be a secret. The prophets did not write and their words have been all the more vivid as a result. What paltry learning is that which is congealed in dumb books!
says Mamadou Kouyaté, the griot, or oral storyteller, who's reciting this story. It's the 800-year-old story of Sundiata (pronounced Soonjata), the greatest king of Mali and the greatest conqueror since Alexander.
Here's the story: this one king is ordered by prophecy to marry this ugly lady, the ugliest hunchback in the land, which he does but she refuses to fuck him until finally he says whoops my bad I'm actually supposed to sacrifice you, not fuck you, and she gets so scared she passes out and then he fucks her while she's passed out, so, like, good plan? This is gross but no grosser than a bunch of stuff from the Edda. Their son is Sundiata.
Sundiata is super lazy: at seven he still isn't walking, just sitting around eating. When other kids get near him he punches them without even getting off his ass. Finally, when he realizes that his dead father's first wife is humiliating his mom about it, he gets a huge iron rod and struggles mightily to his feet. His immense strength reminds you of Cu Chulainn, the hero of the Irish epic The Tain.
That first wife, an evil stepmother of sorts, understands Sundiata as a danger to her own son Dankaran Touman, who has taken the throne, so she plots Sundiata's death. Being only ten he flees with his mom and half brother Manding Bory. They are pursued by the stepmother, who continually tries to have them murdered. They travel to Guiana and much of northern and Eastern Africa. They are and are among Muslims.
Meanwhile the evil sorcerer King Soumaoro takes over Mali, defeating cowardly Dankaran Touman. Sundiata returns to Mali to defeat Soumaoro. There is a great battle just like in medieval epics like Song of Roland: cavalry and archers. Sundiata's half-sister plays a crucial role in exposing Soumaoro's Achilles heel. There's a roll call like in The Iliad (also: Bring It On).
I'm naming similarities to other epics, but I don't mean to imply that this isn't a specifically African saga. It has African touches - like, when envoys from Mali are searching for hiding Sundiata, they pose as merchants selling Malian produce (gnougnou), waiting until someone is excited to buy it. This person, they figure, may know how to find Sundiata.
Soumaoro gets a sortof weird, murky, ambiguous ending. Other griots tell different endings, apparently. That's a weird thing about oral tradition, right? While it's theoretically possible to pass on a completely faithful, canonical version of a story orally, it's not realistic. So these are by nature evolving stories, with regional differences. There is no definitive version.
The other thing about oral tradition is that it restricts knowledge to those who orally deliver it. Mamadou Kouyaté says "Mali keeps its secrets jealously. There are things which the uninitiated will never know, for the griots, their depositories, will never betray them. ... I took an oath to teach only what is to be taught and to conceal what is to be kept concealed." We're talking about the control of knowledge here. Literacy (and written things to read using it) gives power to the people. So I'm suspicious of the whole concept of oral tradition.
But anyway, that horse is well out of the barn because I just read a book. I thought it was great. It was an exciting story; it was interesting to compare it to other medieval epics, with which it shares a remarkable number of similarities. I'm glad someone finally wrote it down....more
You can see why the Color Purple ran up against censorship in the eighties. It's firmly against organized religion, although it's spiritual in its ownYou can see why the Color Purple ran up against censorship in the eighties. It's firmly against organized religion, although it's spiritual in its own hippie way. It's pretty gay: Alice Walker defines a "womanist" (her term for black feminists, which has caught some traction) as a woman who, among other things, "loves other woman, sexually and/or nonsexually," and she seems to have a fluid idea of female sexuality.
It's pro woman in the same way its contemporary Handmaid's Tale is. Neither book is anti-male; both protagonists like some males quite a lot, although many others are dangerous. But both emphasize relationships between women. (I suppose we could mention that there are zero black people in Handmaid's Tale and no white people in Color Purple, so there's that difference.)
The narrator is Celie, a young woman who's got a tough row to hoe. She gets raped on like page one. She gets pretty much shat on by the whole world except two women, musician Shug and sister Nettie, who get to work on a pretty dire self-esteem problem.
Celie speaks in a heavy dialect, so that takes some getting used to; it's a tough act to pull off and I think Walker totally nails it. I didn't find Celie's voice difficult or condescending; when she emerges with some startling burst of poetic wisdom I believe it. "What the world got to do with anything, I think." It sounds like it's meant to: something smart said by someone smart in a certain dialect.
There's a subplot featuring Celie's sister Nettie going to Africa that fails to engage me as much as the main story. I understand what Walker's up to: she's widening the scope. And she may feel that we need a break from Celie's voice. But we don't.
The story is basically over when pants enter the scene. There are lots of pants. The last quarter or so of the book I could maybe do without.
It's an unapologetically radical book. Walker is not here to pander to anyone. I totally dug it....more
Say there's a bad guy. He's in a book; the book is well-written; fine, there are many books about bad guys. Say further that the book is written by aSay there's a bad guy. He's in a book; the book is well-written; fine, there are many books about bad guys. Say further that the book is written by a bad guy. Fine; lots of authors are dicks. Now say that the author is unaware that they're both bad guys. He hasn't written the book he thinks he's written. Now where are you?
A Bend in the River's Salim is a bad guy. He's a bully and a coward. He doesn't know that he's a bully and a coward, and VS Naipaul doesn't seem to know either. (view spoiler)[In the end Salim saves his own skin, abandoning his ward to violence. He seems okay with it. (hide spoiler)] There's a shocking moment towards the end of the book: (view spoiler)[he savagely beats his mistress. "The back of my hand, from little finger to wrist, was aching; bone had struck bone." She seems okay with it. She calls him later. "Do you want me to come back? The road is quite empty. I can be back in twenty minutes. Oh, Salim. I look dreadful. My face is in an awful state. I will have to hide for days."
The passage confused me because, from what I know about people, they don't like being beaten without a safeword. It confused me so much that I wanted to learn more about Naipaul. I had to know what was going through his head when he wrote this passage. I don't do this normally; I think books should be taken on their own terms. But this doesn't ring true for me. It disturbs me. What happened here?
What I found was a quote from Naipaul about his own mistress, Margaret Murray: 'I was very violent with her for two days with my hand; my hand began to hurt...she didn't mind it at all. She thought of it in terms of my passion for her. Her face was bad. She couldn't really appear in public." So this is where the passage comes from. Salim and Naipaul are the same. So this is truth, right? In its own way?
But: "She didn't mind it at all." That still doesn't seem right. It's the truth to Naipaul; is it the truth to Murray? So I kept looking, and I found a letter from her, in response to the above quote. She says, drily: "Vidia [Naipaul] says I didn’t mind the abuse. I certainly did mind." (hide spoiler)]
So Naipaul is not telling the truth; he doesn't have the truth; he doesn't see the truth. He's the villain in his own story and he's incapable of realizing that he's written the villain in this one.
And why would we read a book by someone who doesn't recognize truth? It's well-written. It's a well-written book by someone who is incorrect about who he is, what the world is. He's telling two stories: one about Africa, one about people. He doesn't know about Africa; he's only visited. He's certainly a racist. He doesn't know about people, either. The situation is imaginary; he made it up to illustrate his twisted, cynical, violent view of the world.
The thing is that this is a good book. The plot is thin, and didn't engage me as much as I'd hope, but the ideas are powerful and disturbing. The writing is something like brilliant. It taught me something about a certain kind of person: the bad kind. To get into the head of someone as corrupt and as devoid of self-awareness as VS Naipaul is, that's interesting and even valuable. He has told the truth; he just doesn't know the truth he's told. Know your enemy, right? Here is the enemy.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
Things Fall Apart shows change coming to Africa, and a friend said he remembered a vague uneasiness about "whether the change was "bad," "good" or jusThings Fall Apart shows change coming to Africa, and a friend said he remembered a vague uneasiness about "whether the change was "bad," "good" or just "different." [He] really was rooting for the children of Okonkwo and they seemed to have better prospects with the change." I kept asking myself about this as I read the book.
And sure enough, not all of the old ways are totally great. Okonkwo's friend Obierika "remembered his wife's twin children, whom he had thrown away. What crime had they committed? The Earth had decreed that they were an offence on the land and must be destroyed...As the elders said, if one finger brought oil it soiled the others." It's not easy to justify double infanticide, and Achebe doesn't try.
The white man is very clever. He came quietly and peaceably with his religion. We were amused at his foolishness and allowed him to stay. Now he has won our brothers, and our clan can no longer act like one. He has put a knife on the things that held us together and we have fallen apart."
Here's where the book gets its title (aside from an awesome Yeats poem), and I think the message is clear in the end: it's not that Africans were doing everything perfectly, it's that white interference certainly wasn't what was called for.
This is loosely the first of a trilogy. I assume the next two books will explore the consequences of the white arrival in more depth - it's just started at the end of Things Fall Apart - and I look forward to reading more....more
Petals of Blood comes up in discussions about the most important African novels of the 20th century. Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o (pronunciation - if you want toPetals of Blood comes up in discussions about the most important African novels of the 20th century. Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o (pronunciation - if you want to pick one name, Ngũgĩ is correct) was a disciple of Chinua Achebe's, until they had a violent falling out over philosophy: Ngũgĩ decided to stop writing in English, switching to his native Kenyan language of Gikuyu. African language for African people. Achebe had a broader audience in mind. 1977's Petals of Blood was Ngũgĩ's final English work.
It's a deep and intense read. Its four lead characters - weak schoolteacher Munira, activist Karega, shopkeeper and donkey aficionado Abdulla, and the woman they're all in love with, Wanja - are archetypical. One or more of them may be murderers, and the book is a mystery: who has killed three evil businessmen? The story flashes back to fill us in.
Ngũgĩ's writing can be frustratingly coy. A character returns: "Five years since he went away," but you don't find out for ten pages who "he" even is. Why the obfuscation, dude? I found it difficult: it was hard to lose myself in the book, even though the plot was often exciting.
There's a Dickensian sort of coincidence at work. Characters turn out to be connected in surprisingly intimate ways. (Or maybe it's not so much Dickensian as Agatha Christie-an.)
Ngũgĩ carefully shows the dismantling of African culture: first by European colonialism, then by the rebels who fought it, as they take power and are in turn corrupted. The road comes, and then the banks come, and the villages never have any chance at all. This is depressing. Ngũgĩ is depressed:
Imaginative literature [of Africa] was not much different: the authors described the conditions correctly: they seemed able to reflect accurately the contemporary situation of fear, oppressions and deprivation: but thereafter they led him down the paths of pessimism, obscurity and mysticism: was there no way out except cynicism? Were people helpless victims?
He lays out three possible paths forward: business, socialist activism, and violence, personified by (view spoiler)[Wanja, Karega and Munira (hide spoiler)] respectively. (If there's a fourth way I missed it.) I get the impression that some combination of strategies may be his best guess for success. Dismissed entirely is the idea of staying out of it. "If you would learn look about you," he warns: "Choose your side." ["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
But it was only now, near the end, and far too late, that the pieces suddenly - dreadfully - clicked into place. Like a long Tetris piece slamming dowBut it was only now, near the end, and far too late, that the pieces suddenly - dreadfully - clicked into place. Like a long Tetris piece slamming down, making a whole block of mystery blink and vanish. Only now did he realize what suddenly seemed so obvious: everyone who had suggested this book to him – every single one – was a middle-aged woman. This book…it was about the importance of family.
A wave of cold horror washed over him.
It would take months of porn and comic books to counteract this book’s effect. Months....more
I recently found myself describing this book as "the literary equivalent of tasing Bono." More or less apt, although actually tasing Bono would be morI recently found myself describing this book as "the literary equivalent of tasing Bono." More or less apt, although actually tasing Bono would be more fun.
Anyway: okay, I'm more or less convinced. Moyo makes a convincing case that aid is not helping in Africa. It fosters corruption, with billions of unsupervised dollars up for grabs, and it destroys local economies, keeping Africa in a state of helplessness. Moyo loses me a bit on the solutions end; when she talks about the international bond market, I...well, I don't really know what that means and she doesn't explain it well enough. (Your results may vary if you're not as dumb as me.) The general idea is that instead of waiting for handouts, Africa should join the global economy; Moyo points out that plenty of developing countries, including a few in Africa, have done that with much better results than relying on aid.
I wish she'd included a few case studies about specific countries in Africa, maybe some that have failed and some that have succeeded (at least a little)using different methods. Instead she refers repeatedly to a fictional country; why not be real? The book's only 150 pages long, it's not like she didn't have room.
But still: overall, she's made her case well.
Will it change anything? I doubt it. There's a lot of political work to make a change as radical as turning aid off, and there's Bono on the other side. China is way ahead of us here, and I think the most likely story is that Africa ends up pulling itself up with their help more than ours, with the result that Africa ends up more Chinese than Western at the end of the process. Which is...fine? I guess?...more
It's gratifying to get the chance to read a book as powerful and influential as this. King Leopold's Ghost is the book that re-exposed the atrocitiesIt's gratifying to get the chance to read a book as powerful and influential as this. King Leopold's Ghost is the book that re-exposed the atrocities Leopold committed against the Congo between 1880 and 1910 - atrocities that sank out of sight after they were finally stopped. An estimated ten million Congolese died during that time.
It's even more gratifying to find that Hochschild's book is well-written, too; it's fast, gripping and clearly laid out. Rarely, I read a book that's so important and so well-done that I feel privileged to hold it. This is one of those. Sorry to gush.
It's not perfect. Tim Jeal has argued convincingly in his biography of Henry Morton Stanley that Stanley exaggerated his own bloodthirstiness, using evidence Hochschild overlooks. The author occasionally lets his own political views show a bit more than is necessary. And more importantly, it suffers from a paucity of stories from the Congolese themselves, a fact Hochschild is quite unhappily aware of. It's not that he didn't try; it's that there are none. No extended, first-person accounts of any Congolese survive from this period. What bits exist are reproduced here, but it's not enough.
It's a tragic reminder of how easy it is to squelch the testimony of an entire people, particularly a pre-literate one. How many stories we have never, and can never hear. A reminder of how delicate history is - like a hollow eggshell - how easily crushed....more
What is it with modern travelogues by people who don't accomplish their missions? This was like the third book like this that I read this year. Okay,What is it with modern travelogues by people who don't accomplish their missions? This was like the third book like this that I read this year. Okay, sure, Tayler's mission to paddle down the incredibly dangerous and volatile Congo was stupid in the first place, but still. Do it or don't, you pansy....more