The Week of Getting Back to Reading

Work has been busy this month, and I've struggled to find energy to read in the evenings. It has even been difficult to stay awake long enough to watch a TV show. But yesterday I was finally able to take a day off and relax enough that I could immerse myself in a good book. I slept in, read for a bit, ran a few errands, read some more, saw friends, and continued reading after Kevin made me a delicious dinner. So finally, after four weeks, I have a recommendation to share.


Here's what captured my attention this week...

I'm reading: Part of the motivation for getting back to reading was that this morning I attended a book club discussion of Yaa Gyasi's novel Homegoing. The novel follows two branches of a Ghanaian family for seven generations, alternating back and forth between the descendants of two sisters. One sister (Effia) and her descendants remain in Ghana, and while the other sister (Esi) is captured in her village and and sold into slavery in the United States. The lineage of Effia traces the history of African and British slave trading, British colonialism, and Ghanaian independence, while Esi's lineage experiences the indignities of enslavement in the cotton fields of the American South, the chain gangs sent into the coal mines of Alabama, and the discrimination and segregation of northern cities after the Great Migration.

Homegoing excels in four ways:

1) By evoking empathy for the intergenerational trauma that Africans and African Americans have experienced (and continue to experience) as a result of slavery, colonialism, and racism. 

2) By covering 300 years of history on two continents in a way that, while not comprehensive--how could it be, in only 300 pages?--is broadly representative of each generation's particular social norms, legal freedoms, and motivating interests. It's quite a feat. The nearest comparison I can think of, Chimamande Ngozi Adiche's Americanah, manages to cover two continents but is mostly set in the twenty-first century. 

3) By challenging the binary of edenic, righteous, genuine Africa and the corrupted diaspora. Mostly notably, in addition to addressing Africans' complicity in capturing and selling their enemies into slavery--and thus profiting from the transatlantic slave trade--Gyasi manages to weave into this family drama an acknowledgment that even in the nineteenth century the world was small enough that the Asante and Fante tribes knew exactly what was happening to slaves once they reached the Americas.

4) Finally, the form of the novel is interesting to dissect. Despite following fourteen different characters with minimal overlap between their stories, each chapter shares a fundamental core: the marriage plot. Each must end with a man meeting a woman and--through love or, too often, through violence--conceiving the next generation. In this way, they are all love stories, be it love between two partners or between parent and child. 

Despite these merits, at times I felt that the balance between trauma and agency tipped towards the former to an extent that undermined the book's ultimate emphasis on resilience. There is also a motif of fire vs. water that runs unevenly throughout the book, and I'm unsure whether it needed to be highlighted more or pared back. But overall, this book will leave you marveling at how many stories and how much history can be packed into 300 pages without it ever feeling clunky or bloated.

I'm listening to: An old favorite.

I'm watching: "Nanette," Hannah Gadsby's Netflix stand-up special. This is one of those recommendations where the less I say, the more you will enjoy it. It's truly one of the most radical pieces of art I have ever experienced, and I strongly urge you to drop everything and watch it now. You will not regret it. Between Homegoing and Nanette, you'll be left with a lot of thoughts about the power and politics of storytelling. 

Enjoy posts like this one? Check out Brisket to read more about what's on my mind--just bring some bread to go with the meal! If you're interested in sampling a bite, I currently have a public post up that introduces the theme for July: Cityzenship.