Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

28683066Fiction — Kindle edition. Knopf, 2016. 320 pgs. Library copy.

Gyasi’s novel opens with the story of Effia, a young girl living a small village along the Gold Coast (present-day Ghana) with a father who adores her and a mother whose good graces Effia is excluded from. On the cusp of womanhood, Effia is desperate to marry the future chief of her village, Abeeku, and is told she will as soon as she has her period. Her mother, Baaba, convinces Effia to tell only her when her period finally begins yet, when the moment happens, Baaba refuses to inform Effia’s father, Cobbee, so the marriage to Abeeku can occur.

Baaba’s silence is twisted into a myth about Effia — the large fire that accompanied her birth is a sign of a witchcraft that has left her unable to bleed — and Cobbee must send his beloved daughter away to preserve the safety of his village from her curse. Effia is married to the British commander of the Castle, James, and learns about the existence of unknown sister.

“We believe the one who has the power. He is one who gets to write the story. So when you study history, you must always ask yourself, Whose story am I missing? Whose voice was suppressed so that this voice could come forth? Once you have figured that out, you must find that story too. From there, you begin to get a clearer, yet still imperfect, picture.”

This unknown sister, Esi, is then introduced in the following chapter, and Gyasi’s novel proceeds to jump back and forth from the descendant of one sister to the next as their lives split further apart. One descendant is raised to be the bookkeeper for the family’s business trading in slaves from present-day Ghana; one descendant is sold into slavery in America. One descendant becomes a college professor; one descendant ends up addicted to drugs.

“Forgiveness was an act done after the fact, a piece of the bad deed’s future. And if you point the people’s eye to the future, they might not see what is being done to hurt them in the present.”

Because each chapter introduces a different character, the novel takes on the form of a collection of short stories. There are some connecting themes and characters who move from one story to the next, but the focus is largely on the pinnacle moment in each character’s life. The moment where their husband leaves them or their mother dies or they become addicted to drugs or kill their child.

In another author’s hand, this structure would feel superficial; the reader only being able to see the surface of each character’s life. Yet Gyasi managed to pull me into every single story, to make me feel for each character, to leave me frustrated when she forced me to move along to another character because I just wanted to spend one more second with this character.

I would gladly read a full-length novel on any one of these characters, particularly those still living in Ghana whose experiences have not featured in other novels I’ve read. (The structure and themes of the American stories of Gyasi’s novel reminded me quite strongly of Alex Haley’s Roots.) Given how stunning this novel is, particularly for a debut, I look forward to reading whatever Gyasi decides to write next.

Kenya by R. Mugo Gatheru

3618265Nonfiction — print. McFarland, 2005. 236 pgs. Library copy.

Long time readers of this blog will know that the continent of Africa is poorly represented in my reading selections. In fact, a quick perusal of the category shows that the majority of the books I’ve read set in one of the 54 African countries have largely focused on the genocide in Rwanda or the economic development of the continent as a whole.

Since I’ll be traveling to Kenya later this month, I’ve tried to make it priority to read more about the country before I leave. I brought home the three nonfiction books on Kenya available at my public library as well as three fictional accounts by white and non-white authors. At the top of that stack was Gatheru’s slim volume on the history of the country from colonization to independence (1888-1970).

“We [Britons] have responsible government, and the right of free criticism, and there is a check on the Government’s activities. In the case of Kenya, the African people are government by an alien race. The black people have no voice whatever in government; there is segregation of land and many of us feel that our native policy in that country has been reprehensible. The racial and economic structure of the two countries is vastly different. There is no analogy between England and Kenya.” (pg. 120)

The book concludes with the results of the Mau Mau Rebellion (also known as the Mau Mau Uprising or the Kenya Emergency) between members of one African tribe (the Kikuyu), white settlers, and segments of the British Army in Kenya from 1952 to 1956. Roughly 12,000 people were killed in the conflict while another 1,900 native Kenyans and 30+ white European civilians were killed. (Official numbers are still disputed.) Although the rebellion ended in British victory, the conflict officially concluded with the First Lancaster House Conference in January 1960, the establishment of a government reflective of the native Kenyan majority, and the decline of British colonial rule in the country.

I bring up the conclusion of the book not to spoiling the ending, but because the central thesis of Gatheru’s writings is that British colonial policies — the allocation of land, the suppressed wages of the majority black population, the denial of representation or education, the divisions by race and tribal identification — culminated in the Mau Mau uprising. If, like me, you have never heard of the Mau Mau Rebellion, then the book can begin to feel like a running list of grievances rather than the cause-and-effect explanation that Gatheru was hoping to achieve.

“The truth is that the Mau Mau rebellion was the revolutionary expression of a national feeling, becoming a national movement, led by members of the largest tribe and influenced in its organization by the ways of that tribe. It is the emphasis on tribalism that misled the government to underestimate the movement at the time and, against the proven facts, still misleads some of the theorists.” (pg. 139)

The cause of the Mau Mau Rebellion and the effect the uprising had on decolonization of Kenya continues to be debated. (Its Wikipedia article is currently flagged for a question of neutrality.) Yet Gatheru’s running list of grievances is quite convincing.

For example, a 1938 ordinance on labor rights in Kenya made it legal to place children aged 12 to 16 under a contracts of employment lasting five years. (The age limit was originally set at 10 until an unnamed outside pressure raised the limit to 12.) The ordinance outlawed informing an individual of the conclusion of their contract, which white employers used to bar parents from seeing their children. (The idea being a parent would know the age of their child and, thus, the date of contract termination and encourage their child to “desert”.) Such lengthy contracts also placed a native Kenyan child “at the mercy of a single and unchangeable employer during the period that a white boy of similar age would be receiving the most significant part of his education” (pg. 114).

Worse still was the allocation of land in Kenya to benefit white settlers, many of whom arrived in the country with the promise of land as reward for their service in the British army. Much like the Indian reservation system in the United States, native Kenyan tribes were forcibly removed from lands deemed best for agricultural or coveted by white settlers and resettled on a series of reserves within the country. The Kenya Land Commission of 1932 found that 48,189 square miles of the country (or, 22% of the land mass) was allocated to a native Kenyan population of 1,518,578 people. The total area allocated to the nearly 600,000 strong Kikuyu tribe was 2,350 square miles leading to a density of 253 persons per square mile. No less than 16,700 square miles were reserved for the exclusive use of a white population numbering 20,000 (nearly a one to one ratio).

These were the two concrete examples I flagged while reading, but Gatheru also discusses across multi-chapters how the refusal of the British colonial government to set up an education system for non-white Kenyans led to a heavy reliance upon schools run by Christian missionaries. These schools were concentrated in specific locations, and their ungoverned lesson plans left many of their students unable to pass rigorous exams to advance to the next grade. (The exams were also rigged to fail 80 percent of test takers.) Native Kenyans were thus trapped into low-skill jobs and considered to be too uneducated to participate in civic life thus propagating the “need” for a colonial government.

I would have liked for Gatheru to expand more on this subject, to touch upon its (possible) impact on the establishment of an independent nation, but Kenya post-Mau Mau is largely skimmed over. Gatheru quickly moves through the establishment of a Kenyan majority government under the man photographed on the front cover Jomo Kenyatta and the change of the government from a bicameral legislature to a unicameral system.

The pedantic and academic style of writing, though, means it took me much longer to read Gatheru’s book than I anticipated given the page length so this is the only book on Kenya (besides the guidebook) I will have finished reading before my trip. This, of course, dates the extent of my knowledge about Kenya to 1970, but that shouldn’t be much of a surprise considering the subtitle of the book.

Aya by Marguerite Abouet and Clément Oubrerie

308424Fiction — print. Translated from the French by Helge Dascher. Drawn and Quarterly, 2007. 105 pgs. Library copy.

Nineteen-year-old Aya lives in working-class city of Yopougon (also known as Yop City) of the Ivory Coast in 1978. Aya’s father works for Solibra, a beer company, and is determined to establish a match between the young son of his boss and his daughter.

As a studious young woman determined to become a doctor, Aya is neither interested in this match nor in the cousin of one of her closest friends. As such, much of the novel is devoted to the antics of Aya’s two closest friends, Adjoua and Bintou, who enjoy dancing, sneaking out to the tables in the city center known as the Thousand Star Hotel to meet boys, and generally having a good time.

Focusing on Aya’s friends and their lives rather than Aya herself seems like an odd choice given that Aya is the title character, and I’m curious to see if this changes in the subsequent volumes. But certainly focusing on Adjoua and Bintou helped the stress the differences between Aya and her friends. And as someone who grew up in a society where my female friends expected to go to college, get married, and become stay-at-home moms, I certainly connected with Aya and how different she is from her friends. And the street harassment Aya and her friends are subjected to repeatedly? What happens in Yop City also happens in Boston and other cities throughout America.

The color palette  Oubrerie used to bring to life Abouet’s words beautifully brings to life the warmth of Yop City and the Ivory Coast. While some of the characters appeared rather cartoonist in appearance, I loved how Oubrerie focused on utilizing three colors — red, yellow and orange, or blue, green, and purple — for the panels of a certain chapter or page.

The two sections of this novel that should not be missed are the introduction and the glossary at the end. The glossary explains the slang interspersed throughout the story as well as the particular way Ivorian women dress. The discussion on how to roll a tassaba in order to make the men fall at your feet read like a humorous lesson being given by Adjoua and Bintou.

The introduction, which was written by an economist, discusses the setting of the novel — the Ivory Coast in the 1970s — and how the country was considered an example of how countries in Africa could develop. The spectacular economic growth the country experienced from the conversion of forests to cropland and from investments from French nationals in the country was dubbed the “Ivorian miracle” and explains why Abouet and Oubrerie’s novel does present a version of Africa that does not include lions, child soldiers, and AIDS. It’s such a refreshing view, and I am now wondering why this “miracle” was not discussed in my courses on economic development in university.

 

The Bone Woman by Clea Koff

Nonfiction — print. Random House, 2005. Originally published 2001. 304 pgs. PaperBackSwap.

In order to prosecute perpetrators for genocide and crimes against humanity, bodies must be exhumed and their condition as well as the mass graves they are found in must be documented. It is not enough to say people of particular ethnic or religious groups have disappeared and are presumed dead as perpetrators can claim these missing individuals were casualties of war or are undocumented refugees in neighboring lands.

Koff’s memoir recounts her experiences as a twenty-three year old exhuming and identifying bodies for the United Nations International Crimes Tribunal (ICT) in Rwanda and, later, her five missions with the ICT throughout the former Yugoslavia. The work itself was grueling and difficult, and Koff’s years of schooling and training left her unprepared to deal with the realities of working in worn torn regions under an cumbersome bureaucracy.

The missions lacked the necessary tarps to keep out the rain, which added in decomposition and washed away important evidence, and the guards hired to protect the forensic anthropologists were ineffective when the Congolese military opened fire on people swimming across Lac Kivu mere feet from where Koff and her coworkers were working. The last section of the book focuses less on her work and more on her difficulties with her coworkers and the UN bureaucracy. A clear sign of burnout, although Koff never calls it this, and so the book ends on a less interesting note than the one it began on.

In the United States, where Koff received her training, victims would be identified through dental records or medical procedures performed on their person when they were alive. Of course, in war torn nations like the former Yugoslavia or poorer nations like Rwanda, dental and medical records were not available to aid in identification. Instead, Koff had to rely on clothing to identify people, which can be unreliable as people trade and steal clothing as needed during times of war. In places like Kosovo where the populace was confined to their homes for years, however, the widows and mothers of the genocide victims were able to identify their husbands and sons based on stitching and patches on their clothing.

The sections of the novel detailing the days where Koff would clean these clothes and lay them out for the local populace to come identify carried the most emotional impact. Koff’s distance from her subject matter — necessary in order to do the kind of work she does — would breakdown on these days because she would begin to imagine the skeleton as a person with hopes, dreams, and aspirations (“double vision” as she calls it). At one point, Koff uncovered the body of a young boy with marbles in his pockets. His family was being persecuted for their ethnic background and fleeing for their lives, but this little boy brought his marbles with him because they were an important possession to him. Koff had to leave the grave; I had to set the book down and cry.

Koff ruminates quite a bit on the necessary of emotional distance when doing this kind of work and how she had to fight against “double vision” in order to keep going. Does maintaining such distance leave her cold, heartless, and unable to connect with people? Or does it serve humanity because she is able to do this kind of work? Able to bear witness to the unspeakable crimes committed against these people and be a voice when so many other’s have been silenced? Her introspection on these questions was briefer than I would have liked, but it is clear Koff believes in her work and knows the distance she personally needs to maintain in order to carry out this work. Her story is pretty extraordinary and inspiring. I’m sure if I had read this one back in college, I would have turned the final page and then headed down to the registrar’s office to change my major.

Roots by Alex Haley

Fiction — audiobook. Read by Avery Brooks. BBC Audio, 2007. Originally published 1976. 30 hours, 7 minutes. Library copy.

Subtitled “The Saga of an American Family”, Haley’s book begins in the eighteenth century with the story of Kunta Kinte, a young African male of the Mandinka people captured from present-day Gambia and sold into slavery in 1767. The story progresses through the lives of seven generations of Kunta Kinte’s descendants and is largely based upon the stories passed down to Haley by his Grandmother Cynthia, whose father was emancipated from slavery in 1865.

There is some debate whether or not Haley’s book should be shelved as fiction or nonfiction but, regardless of genre, it is clear why this sweeping saga won a special Pulitzer Prize in 1977. The beauty of this story lies in its presentation of people — their emotions, the intimacy of their relationships, the horrors of their situations — and the way these characters are determined to keep their family together in memory when slavery kept them physically separated.

It is difficult to image these characters were singularly created by Haley; they seem to mirror real people in a way not always found in a novel. What happened to the characters may appear to be overused tropes in literature, but the characters themselves are so beautifully written that they transcend this charge.

I listened to the audiobook and so I cannot back this statement up with page numbers, but it felt as though much of the story was focused on Kunta Kinte’s life with his grandson, Chicken George, receiving a fair amount of attention compared to Kunta Kinte’s daughter, Kizzy. It felt very much as though she was the medium between the two man who interested Haley the most, and this feeling as well as the rushed presentation of the connection between Chicken George and the author would be my only complaints about the novel as a whole.

That said, the time spent detailing Kunta Kinte’s life in present-day Gambia — his culture, his family, his traditions — and his adjustment (for lack of a better word) to slavery in the United States contained some of the most emotionally evocative passages in the book. At no time did I feel impassive as I listened to the seemingly indescribable fear and sense of loss Kunta Kinte experienced as he was transported across the ocean in chains, renamed “Toby”, or forced to abandon his religion and his language.

Admittedly, I avoided this book for so long because of its sheer size — 729 pages in paperback — and I am glad I turned to the audiobook, which is a little over thirty hours in length, narrated by Avery Brooks to help me overcome my timidity towards the novel. Brooks’ voice is just lovely — deep, warm, infused with emotion as just the right moment — and his narration added to my love of the characters and the story they reside in.

The Classics Club:

I read this book for the Classics Club, which challenges participants read and discuss fifty or more books considered to be classics within a five year period. My personal goal for this project is to read seventy-five books in three years ending on August 15, 2017. You can find out more information by checking out my introductory post, project post, or spreadsheet of titles.