Friday, August 3, 2018

Homegoing and the Power of Family Lore

It's time  to review some books! I've been reading aplenty, but I have this rule of only posting positive reviews. Don't worry. I have a few on my list to keep this blog from going dormant! But I'll start with one of my top reads from last year.

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi is a stunning book by an up and coming author. She happens to be a graduate of the University of Iowa Writer's Workshop and came recommended by my smart and poignant daughter. I actually read this book twice in one year. And I'd read it again. It's just that good.

The story tracks the descendants of two half-sisters from a Ghanian matriarch during the height of tribal wars and slave trade. One sister, Effia, stays in Africa. The other, Esi, is sent to America on a slave ship. The novel cleverly weaves several short stories with unforgettable characters, African folklore, and history that would impact society for many decades. You'll definitely want to bookmark the family tree at the beginning of the novel since it begins in the mid 1700's and ends in current day.

Ms. Gyasi's writing style is effortless, lyrical, and chock full of symbolic imagery. Themes of water, earth and fire pervade the book in a way that masterfully avoids cliche. To read this novel fast would be a crime, as there are so many lovely and thought-provoking passages. I was actually somewhat reminded of Alan Paton's Cry, the Beloved Country. (In truth, my plan was to skim it the second time for book club. But I couldn't. The language and the stories were meant to be absorbed.)

As an author and avid book reader, I will admit bias. But I strongly believe storytelling to be a critical aspect of human development. I almost feel it's child abuse when parents don't read to their children! And for anyone who only reads "non-fiction," so as not to waste time with fluff, I ask them to reconsider. Don't get me wrong, I love my share of non-fiction. But when a well-written narrative places you in an unfamiliar world and stirs you to genuinely sympathize, you cannot possibly discount the power of a story.

Such is Homegoing.

Obviously, the book reveals the oppression of Africans and African-Americans which sickens and disturbs. But. Ms. Gyasi never fails to pepper her stories with a lesson in morality and the glimmer of hope.

"You want to know what weakness is? Weakness is treating someone as thought they belong to you. Strength is knowing that everyone belongs to themselves."
–Yaa Gyasi, Homegoing

I read this and think to myself, how does one summon strength and courage through tragedy and persecution? I think of my own cushy, little life. I'm ashamed to admit the things that cause me anxiety. One of my book club friends mentioned how they thought the book was depressing. I responded that I thought it was important for us to hear these stories, to give us perspective. She tilted her head and thought about my comment. Later, she said that perhaps I was right. 

"This it he problem of history. We cannot know that which we were not there to see and hear and experience for ourselves. We must rely upon the words of others. Those who were there in the olden days, they told stories to the children so that the children would know, so that the children could tell stories to their children. And so on, and so on."
–Yaa Gyasi, Homegoing

I keep thinking about family stories – and all those that become lost through the years. I have always loved to listen to my parents and grandparents tell stories. As I grow older and as relatives pass away, I crave those stories even more, especially as the memories and details of those stories fade. For example, there's this story of an ancestor who left the Confederate Army and ended up fighting against his brothers. Who was he? What happened? I'd like to think his actions somehow formed my family's sense of justice. Of course, I have no idea what really happened. But neither did Yaa. And she created a masterpiece worth telling over and over again. 

There's lots of stories needing to be told. And as long as we have ears, we need to listen.

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