October 14, 2016

Born on a Tuesday by Elnathan John | Book Review

Dantala's a Muslim boy living in northern Nigeria. His dad is dead, his mother is a shell of her former self due to a family tragedy, and his siblings are scattered. At the beginning of the story he lives with a band of stray, unruly boys who survive the streets by letting themselves be used by political parties to carry out election mischief. He gets redeemed by a Sheikh and is able to live a different sort of life. It's a new chapter in his life and an important part of his growth into a man. A chance happening leads to a sexual awakening but not the kind of awakening a devout Muslim can afford to entertain. These feelings arouse, sober and repulse him. Will he suppress his feelings or seek outlets for exploration? While he deals with that deals with his inner turmoil there are important, life-threatening issues needing attention. His father figure, the Sheikh, and Mallam Abdul-Nur are the heads of two factions who are continuously in discord about what Islam should mean, especially in the wake of international terrorist attacks, and what is the best path going forward both for their community and Islam in general. Tensions rise, things escalate, and people fall left and right.

I haven't read a lot of novels set in northern Nigeria and featuring Muslim protagonists. It makes this book especially more important in the overall quest for more diverse voices from Nigeria and the African continent. While reading Born on a Tuesday and after I was done with it I kept thinking that the novel would mean a little more and I would feel a little more if I could really understand the context of the life portrayed and the gravity of its weighty issues. I'm not saying only northerners or those with a Muslim background would understand Born on a Tuesday. I'm saying I'd probably be a little more heartbroken at the end if I had been able to connect to all of this a little more. I first read Elnathan John in the The Caine Prize for African Writing 2015 Anthology titled Lusaka Punk and Other Stories. I liked his short story Flying. Born on a Tuesday is a good read.

The Caine Prize for African Writing 2015 Anthology | Book Review

[Image via Amazon]

October 07, 2016

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi | Book Review

Homegoing begins with the nighttime birth of Effia Otcher, one of the two great ancestresses whose lineages we will follow to the end. We see Effia grow, get married off to a white colonialist named James Collins, and birth a boy named Quey. The three of them live in a castle that holds captives in its murky dungeons. Esi is the other great ancestress. We catch her just as she turns fifteen while in the dungeon of Cape Coast Castle, a holding place for kidnapped persons just before they are shipped off to the United States of America to serve as slaves. Each chapter in  Homegoing is about a character; each character is a descendant of one of these two ancestresses. We follow these descendants from chapter to chapter, life story to life story, in sickness and in health, till death (sometimes), and then we part. They head off to the afterlife and we, witnesses to their immense pain and suffering, head back to our daily lives incredibly moved and much more aware of the horrors of our history.

Homegoing deals with the slave trade that resulted in millions of men & women being uprooted from Africa and shipped to the United States of America to undergo abominable treatment in the hands of white men. I was nervous about this book at first because I know that the author is a 26 years old immigrant from Ghana not an old, wizened African American lady writing about a history she either knows firsthand or via tales handed down to her from generation to generation. As much as it makes me cringe to admit it, I wondered if this was Yaa Gyasi's "story to tell".  I was worried that this whole thing might come off as a ROOTS (the miniseries) wannabe. I was worried that Homegoing (305 pages) would reek of researched content that would render it lifeless, a big bulky mess in the end. The most appropriate GIF that immediately came to mind to mirror my thoughts before and during the first few pages of Homegoing is this scene with Meryl Streep (one of my favorite actresses in the world) from the movie Doubt. 

Homegoing at HARVARD
I had so many doubts but I was rooting for Gyasi to triumph. And she did. She freaking did. Gyasi's writing is confident, commanding, and effortless like this isn't her first rodeo. Homegoing weaves stories across generations, across cultures, and across continents, a terrifyingly ambitious undertaking. It's the first novel I've read that tells the slave trade story from the African perspective. Gyasi takes us to these characters in whatever corner they may be, either living with family or weathering loneliness, some knowledgeable about their ancestral roots and others not so aware. They are split up just like slavery split up millions of families and you yearn for them to reunite but you know for this plotline to pay true homage to our ancestors they shouldn't reunite because in real life lots of black families did not reunite. By the end of Ness's story on page 87 I was certain our ancestors gave Yaa Gyasi the talent, wisdom and fortitude required to tell this story and that they would be so proud if they could read this. As I neared the end of Homegoing and in the ensuing silence after I finished it (including the Acknowledgments), I was more aware of the magnitude of this project, of this literary achievement, this gift that was crafted by the amazing Yaa Gyasi.

Homegoing is one of the most inspiring books I've ever read. I'm so proud. I'm so moved. I'm ready to stand on the street corner selling copies of this book. I saw it displayed in the window of the HARVARD Bookstore late September when I visited and I was like "yessssss...". You need to read this book. BUY it. BORROW it. Just find some way to READ IT.

[Book Cover Image via Amazon, GIF via ReactionGifs