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.

All About Love by bell hooks

17607Nonfiction — print. William Morrow, 1999. 240 pgs. Library copy.

This collection of essays by bell hooks analyzes the many facets of love — self-love, romantic love, parental love, greedy love — and how the lack of love (or, too much of “bad” love) can spread from the public sphere to the private sphere. She defines love as “as the will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth”. And hooks’ central thesis is that individual lives can be better by fostering love within oneself for the individual, finding non-romantic love for their community, and upending a social structure in with patriarchy and male-domination are the established order.

Cultures of domination rely on the cultivation of fear as a way to ensure obedience. In our society we make much of love and say little about fear. Yet we are all terribly afraid most of the time. As a culture we are obsessed with the notion of safety. Yet we do not question why we live in states of extreme anxiety and dread. Fear the primary force upholding structures of domination. It promotes the desire for separation, the desire not to be known. When we are taught that safety lies always with sameness, then differences, of any kind, will appear as a threat. When we choose to love we choose to move against fear — against alienation and separation. The choice to love is a choice to connect — to find ourselves in the other. (pg. 93)

On that last point, hooks draws on her own personal history and the revelation during second-wave feminism of just how widespread domestic and sexual abuse were (are?) within American families. Her father’s domination of their family unit, including his insistence on elevating the voice of his son over his daughters and wife, meant that hooks would go on to engage in romantic relationships with men who were not really men and were unwilling to support her with the kind of love she desires and deserves.

The first man adopted strict gendered-expectations for their relationship when hooks pushed him to grow up; the second did the same as people began to assume their age differences meant she dominated him. And the love she experienced as a child ended up becoming her defining foundation of love as an adult so that she was unable to find the kind of affirming or uplifting love that enhances a person’s life, that recharges their soul.

She does spend some time on how marital love is different from the passionate love that Hollywood says women should aspire to, but her primary solution to this lack of love is to encourage a more community-based version of love. For people to put more stock into the friendships they form, to accept that single parent homes are often supported by friends who take on godmother roles, to renew the ties with their larger family structures.

To that point, although she considers her nuclear family to be dysfunctional, hooks credits her extended family with supporting her through her childhood and demonstrating how love should be manifested within the family. I think this credit has a tendency to cloud her judgement — at one point, she encouraged her lesbian sister to maintain ties with their hateful and homophobic family simply because their had to be some sane ones in the lot somewhere.

It’s been my experience that people don’t tend to cut off their families unless things have reached nuclear wasteland levels of toxicity, and pushing someone to stay while preaching about self-love and affirming communities is quite hypocritical. Particularly since hooks devotes an entire essay on how society has equated parents caring for their children with love. A child who is presented to the world with clean clothes and a full belly may be utterly deprived of love and affection at home; a child who goes to bed hungry could be surrounding with love every moment of their lives.

To hooks, this false equivocation perpetrates a cycle where parents who grew up without love go on to have children who grow up without love in their lives. It also contributes to what she calls a “love of greed” where a capitalist society’s obsession with material goods drives a wedge between communities and leaves people in a constant desire for more, more, more. I agreed with the premise of this chapter, but it found her constant “slut shamming” towards Monica Lewinsky to be completely off-putting.

Could the greed hooks says motivated Lewinsky to tell her story not also have been a realization that she deserved a better kind of love than Bill Clinton was offering her? Or, a conflation on Lewinsky’s part of physical, male-dominated love with the kind of love that hooks’ admonishes our society for upholding as real and fulfilling?

And there’s the evidence that I took something from hooks’ essays. That her thinking turned my thoughts inside out and made me pause and contemplate. I ended up flagging several passages in this book, including hooks’ daily mantra that she repeats to herself each morning:

I am breaking with old patterns and moving forward with my life. (pg. 70)

But, like her, I think our personal experiences colors how we each view and approach love. I have not yet experienced romantic love, although I’ve had a tendency over the years to fall into fairly one-sided friendship that take me some time to walk away from. But I have experienced familial love far above and beyond the kind that marked hooks’ life. Yes, my parents care(d) for me in all the ways she’s listed, but I also know in the depths of my soul that they love me. That they would challenge their own thinking in order to accept me as I am; that I would be a lucky person if I was to follow the old adage about girls marrying men like their fathers.

So while I agree with some of her essays, there are others that I could not reconcile with my own definition of love. I certainly don’t feel that need to seek out the spiritual-based love she expounds upon in the end in her essays on religion and angels as a solution to society’s lack of love. This doesn’t necessarily mean that she’s wrong — after all, I agree that a growing obsession with consumerism and immediate gratification means people end up experiencing bursts of love rather than a sustaining love.

Yet there was also so much that I didn’t agree with, including the gendered assumptions she makes about men and women and how each of them approaches relationships. (She has a whole chapter on how men will use lying to control and subordinate their partners, but the “best” liars I know are women.) Which made the authoritarian tone hooks adopts throughout the book hard to tolerate at times and led to me skimming some essays rather than taking the time to stop and unpack each one.

That said, this is very likely my longest “review” to date so there certainly is a lot of food for thought crammed into these essays. And despite my negative reactions to some of her assertions, there is a large part of me that wants to put this book into many different hands in the hopes that each of one could scoop out the gems within these pages and discuss. I imagine each person I gave the book to would find different aspects as gems, though, given our varying experiences with love.

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.


A Bride’s Story by Kaoru Mori (Volume Seven)

25602608Fiction — print. Translated from the Japanese by William Flanagan. Yen Press, 2015. 191 pgs. Library copy.

On his journey from present-day Mongola to India, the British wannabe anthropologist Mr. Smith stays for a period of time with a wealthy trader and his beautiful, young wife named Anis. As a Muslim woman, Anis is required to remain hidden from Mr. Smith and other male, non-family visitors to the home. Therefore, she often passes her days in complete solitude save for the few moments she spends with her son, Hassan, and the woman hired to care for him, Mahfu, and the Persian cat that often spurs her affections.

Anis tries to remind herself that she has no reason to be unhappy. She lives in a beautiful home, her husband has no plans to take another wife, and she has given birth to a son. Yet her loneliness is still omnipresent, particularly after Mahfu explains to Anis about the sacred tradition of “avowed sisterhood” where two married women become lifelong secret keepers and never become jealous of each other. Determined to make a female friend if not an avowed sister, Anis convinces her husband to allow her to visit the public baths with Mahfu accompanying her and eventually meets a women by the name of Sherine.

I mentioned the first six volumes of Mori’s series in my list of ten favorite reads from 2015, and this volume will likely make my list for 2016. Her choice to focus on Anis’ interest in Sherine’s body — the shape of her eyes, the size of her breasts, the comparison to Anis’ cat — as the basis for Anis’ interest in getting to know Sherine is a departure from the typical focus of Mori’s series, but I think this emphasis on sexuality and the differences between female bodies is an interesting and accurate approach to how women view one another at first glance.

Whether women have been conditioned to “compare” because of society or not, Anis develops a “girl crush” (as my friends and I call them) based on the appearance of Sherine’s body. Yet Mori’s drawing of this interest is never drawn with the heaving, over-the-top focus that more male-oriented comics suffer from. Breasts and bodies are presented in all different sizes and shapes — much like one would see in the changing room of a gym (apropo  given the setting of the story) — and the near-constant nudity is beautifully rendered without feeling like fanservice to keep male readers interest.

While there is some nudity during scenes with Anis and her husband, her breasts are nearly always covered in those moments and the focus is either on her back or her mouth as the converses with him. The emphasis of the story is on female friendships and how women view the female body rather than that the male perception so often seen in comics. (Interestingly, scenes where Mr. Smith and Anis’ husband visit the men’s public bath are typically devoid of nudity.)

As Sherine and Anis’s attention moves away from physical appearances, the two women are able to find common connections based on more substantial interests and develop a bond that allows them to lean on each other after a tragedy. This shift in focus would have been added by an additional chapter where the women are allowed to get to know one another. Even the other women in the story express shock at how quickly Anis and Sherine’s relationship advances! But the story is still beautiful in its simplicity and in the way it is visually rendered in each panel.

At the end of the book, Mori discusses how she chose to use a lighter touch in her drawings this time, and this stylistic choice is best seen in her full-page drawings of Anis spending time the courtyard of her home. (I included pictures of two such panels above.) The panels feel very airy and include beautiful depictions of the scenery yet still manage to convey the darkness of Anis’ loneliness. This is one of those rare comics where I read first for the story and then go back to look at every panel in greater detail because every single panel is beautiful. Seven volumes into this series, Mori still manages to amaze me with her talent.