“Homegoing” by Yaa Gyasi

I’m late to the party with this one. Very, very late. I almost always buy critically-acclaimed books by Black authors immediately, or within a couple weeks of their release. First because I’m just happy they exist in the world, and second, because I want to support Black art in all its forms. And since I can’t (yet) afford art from Kehinde Wiley or Derrick Adams, I buy books.

‘Homegoing’ wasn’t on my list of eager-to-read, to be honest, so it sat there for a long time. I have trouble with books that depict slavery, or the abduction of African people from the Continent, their journey through the Middle Passage and the untold horrors they were subjected to as enslaved people. But, after circling this one for about two years, I finally decided to listen to it on Audible. Let me start with this: the narrator is exceptional. He easily sildes in and out of accents and eras without getting in the way of the story, dramatizes well without being over-the-top, and absolutely transports the listener to a new place.

As for the story … Someone told me it took more than a decade for the author to complete it. I can see why. In a thirteen-hour listen, the author managed to touch on just about every theme and issue that helps tell a complete story of what the scramble for Africa by Europeans meant to people of African descent there and around the world. Following the lineage of two half-sisters, one whose descendants remained on the Continent, and the other who was stolen away to the Americas, Yaa Gyasi tells the story of colonialism, slavery, the loss of parents, of language of culture, the cynical use of Christianity to further enslave and placate a people, the Reconstruction, the Nadir. She also tells of racism, of classism within the Black community, of colorism, the Great Migration, the ravage of drugs on Black families, the struggle of the Black artist to survive while practicing his art, of mothers to raise children without their men, of children to raise themselves after slavery, of Black women to protect themselves from the sexual violence of white men and Black men as well, the lure of passing (as white) for some Blacks, and of the foundation of the modern prison industrial complex … I swear, she got all of that in here, but grounded every single lesson in well-crafted, three-dimensional and unforgettable characters. My heart ached while listening to this book, but it also made me swell with pride for coming from such resilient and beautiful people.

Of all the characters that resonated (and there were so many), the one that stayed with me was Sam, the slave who when brought from the Continent could not be “tamed” or compelled to speak English; who raged and resisted until his “owner” (people can’t ‘own’ people, not really. We know this, right?) gave him a woman (Ness) to make him more manageable. It didn’t work, until Sam eventually does something that she takes the blame for, and she (and he) are brutally whipped for it. He watches her suffer because of him, and speaks his first English words: “I’m sorry.” From then on, they bond over their pain, and then in other ways as well. Eventually, he learns and speaks new English words to her; among them “love.”

What eventually convinces Sam to temper his rage at being stolen from his home is when his woman, Ness, gives birth to their son. Family and human connection is his turning point, not the lash of a whip. I tell you I just about bawled my eyes out during that part of the book. Because love and compassion were, at the end of the day what made Sam control his anger, and because it spoke to the letting go of grief at the loss of so much more than most of us have lost—a home, a language, a people, a culture. Except, of course, we have lost those things, haven’t we?

But there was more like that, a lot more. This book is not for the feint of heart and I won’t lie, it will hurt your very soul. But it’ll feed your soul as well. It definitely did mine. Highly recommended.

‘The Seduction of Dylan Acosta’ is Live on Amazon!

One caution for those who haven’t read my blog before, this book is not erotica. Despite the word ‘seduction’ in the title, this is contemporary fiction about a regular girl and not so regular guy in irregular circumstances. Read chapter one here, and then if you’re intrigued, buy the e-book here!

And then, by all means, let me know what think by leaving me a review.

P.S. The page count in Amazon says 283. That’s the Kindle count, but the real page count is 380.

Happy Reading!

-Nia-

Evocative Writing

Going through the books I’ve read and rated (a part of my quest to identify all the books I ever read), I noticed something interesting. I give many five star ratings. I don’t think it’s because every single one of those writers wrote a perfect book – whatever that is – but it has more to do with whether or not what they wrote made me feel something. I rarely read solely because the subject is “interesting”. That I do for my other work around social policy. In that life, I read things that are interesting and that inform me about a particular issue and make me more effective as an advocate, speaker and writer; I enjoy it immensely and have learned so much about my country, the world and human nature in general.

But when I read recreationally, I read to “feel” something. If I learn something as well, that’s certainly a bonus.

So it’s been interesting to read reviews that other folks write, particularly bad reviews, of books that I enjoyed. Often, the negative reviewer will list at length the ways that the main character frustrated them or made them angry, how the protagonist made decisions they were befuddled by . . . and then they’ll go on to rate the book at one or two stars.

How can it be, I wonder, that you were made to feel something just by reading this author’s words on a page, and then go on to undervalue those words?

Now, this is very different from the negative review that says, “I just didn’t believe it. The author did not convince me” that these characters were in this situation, or that being in that situation, they would have made the decisions they made. That, I think, may merit some disappointment. But to acknowledge that the writing evoked an emotion and then go on to say that you didn’t like the book because you didn’t like the emotion itself, puzzles me.

Here’s an example of what I mean. When I saw the movies, ‘Gone, Baby Gone’ and ‘Mystic River’, I was absolutely horrified and made despondent by the subject matter. I was literally haunted by both for weeks after I’d seen them. Now imagine if I had been a movie critic and panned both on that basis alone.

Similarly, Chris Bohjalian’s book ‘The Double Bind’ continues to disturb me to this day, years after I first read it. I see it on my bookshelf and walk past it quickly, preferring not to even look at the cover, perhaps ever again. That emotion, however uncomfortable, does not take it off my list of all-time best books I ever read, almost purely because of how it makes me feel.

In my own writing, I strive for that. I want my characters to piss you off, or make you love them, or make you sad. If someone says that my main female character is a “nasty piece of work”, my hope is that they mean she’s a flawed person, not a flawed product of my imagination

In my soon-to-be-released book ‘The Seduction of Dylan Acosta’ my struggle has been that the main character is very unlike anyone I know, and certainly very unlike me. She is painfully insecure, easily susceptible to the influence of others, and not at all sure of who she is. These character traits make her say and do things that I find inherently unsympathetic. And that makes it tough to get in touch with her. So I’ve had to constantly remind myself that I need not like her choices, or even like her. I simply need to believe her. I hope you’ll check out ‘The Seduction of Dylan Acosta’ next month and then write me a review telling me if you believed her.

In the meantime, read the teaser and leave me a comment.

Happy Reading!

-Nia-

Every Book I’ve Ever Read . . .

For the remainder of this year, I’ve decided to go on a quest to recall and catalog every book I’ve ever read. With the help of Goodreads and the onset of colder weather in my part of the world, I think I can probably find time to comb through my memory banks, my bookshelves and the internet to remember each and every book I started and completed without skimming or any other little tricks.

The last I heard, the average person reads only about 100 books in their lifetime. I don’t believe this can possibly be true. Of course, “the average person” is highly contextual. The average person in America? In the “developed” world? In countries where women are not subject to restrictions on learning and access to information? The list could go on forever. So, I’m going to assume that this 100 books rule applies to Americans. Still sounds a little low to me. I’ve asked around and a couple people have told me I’m naive, and that the average person probably reads only as many books as they are required to read for school and work, with one or two culturally mandated reads thrown in there, like the Harry Potters and Fifty Shades. God I hope that’s not true.

At the National Book Festival this past weekend, I was struck by how many people braved the heat (yes, it was hot in Washington DC this past weekend) and the chill (it was also a little chilly in Washington DC this weekend; hey, climate change) just for a chance to look through and buy books, and possibly catch a glimpse of their favorite author. Even in a time of e-books and Kindles, Nooks and iPads, thousands turned out to look at books!

I know that Washington DC is probably the part of the country that is less representative of “real America” than just about any other place, but my optimistic nature makes me want to believe that had the festival been in Des Moines, Iowa, the turnout would have been just as great. Still, in DC we are blessed with many esteemed colleges and universities and virtually all of the “think tanks” of note in the nation. Not to mention countless not-for-profit organizations whose sole purpose is to educate and advocate for current and emerging issues. So I suppose there is an argument to be made that in this city, there is a proliferation of people who read and think about stuff all day long just because they get paid to do so.

Anyway, enough about Washington DC, otherwise I run the risk of slipping into a political diatribe of some sort.

So, back to my quest: as I embark on this journey of cataloging every book I’ve ever read, I invite anyone who’s interested to join in and do the same on Goodreads or Shelfari and to friend me. I don’t just want to remember what I’ve read, I would love to see what other folks are reading as well. Happy Reading!

-Nia-