When Discussing Diverse Books: Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

twitter1Guys, Twitter is kind of a terrifying, brilliant, and secret place.  Sometimes, I sit there wondering if this is the only place most people have a voice, even journalists in today’s political and economical climate. In just the ten days where I transitioned from a full-on teacher Twitter account to one for bookish and Cassie things I’ve watched the following: people harassed for days over one ill-worded (or even just ill-timed) tweet.  Authors berated for being pro-Trump. I’ll be honest, in my personal life, I had no clue that Trump would be elected because I had literally not one single person in my circles that would ever vote for that man.  Like last female on the planet shiz. However, I’ve been a little horrified.

Here are the things I know:

*People lash out because of their collective memory on injustice that their background (whatever that may be) has faced due to abuse, bigotry and ignorance across time and space.

shame-gif-1465520937*While shame and guilt are very real feelings, sometimes that isn’t the way that sways people to  see another side. Particularly when you’re going all Game of Thrones walk of shame on them.  Getting a posse of others like you to gang up on this Twitter person and tweet abuse and harassment towards them probably only makes them believe further in their own bigotry.

*We do not have enough diversity in books to justify quieting any voice that speaks out for diversity in books.

*Some of the comments on writing diverse books really rub me the wrong way.  Things like, “I don’t think white people should write about other races at all, keep your mediocre hands off of that literature.”  With the same person tweeting things earlier in the day like, “if your world in your book is full of only white characters then your book is in a bubble that doesn’t exist.” (That last one I definitely agree with, but both of these tweets cannot exist in the same book).

All of this has made me do some serious soul searching.

homegoing_custom-09de3d52d3ab0cf5400e68fb358d53da9c78afe6-s400-c85I pride myself on reading diverse books. A lot of the times because I want to learn, but more importantly because I want to listen.  In fact, I listed my favorite authors out for a student the other day and every single one was a woman + Junot Diaz. I also try really hard to not just read bestsellers (or books graciously and eloquently thrown down our throats by the NY Times Best Seller’s List or Kirkus Reviews).  I’m not saying this because I have something to prove in my small corner of the internet. On the contrary, it’s because I’m about to review the book Homegoing by 27-year-old Yaa Gyasi from a white female perspective, probably really close to what the world has come to know as white feminist perspective.

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If I ever sound like this, CALL ME OUT. 

See the following for a clearer definition of white feminism: Tilda Swinton’s emails, Amy Schumer and Lena Dunham, Taylor Swift and her adult cheer squad, and all of the Huffington Post tags.

I’m owning it because I have to in order to write about diverse literature.  In every solid academic research paper, the author must spell out their limitations, and this one is mine. I come from a place of white feminist baggage. That’s what I’m carrying to your table, and what I’ll try to leave behind as I grow in perspective and curiosity.


I’m not going to lie, halfway through this book I tweeted the following:

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I feel bad for this tweet. It sucks. No one liked it, and they shouldn’t have. (And I actually think I got the wrong publisher too, to top it off. Sorry, Alfred A. Knopf).  At the 48% mark  (thanks, Kindle for always making me feel great about my reading speed) I just didn’t get it.  I didn’t get the magic of what Gyasi was doing here.  Twisting two family trees, coppicing.

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I’m obsessed with the UK cover. 

Now there were times in the novel when I got lost. When I left it for two days and came back to the middle telling of a new character’s story and I would have to read a few pages to know where we stood in time and place, but taking two families from African diaspora all the way through the millennium is a feat that I’ve never seen before in literature. And for that I will forever be in awe of Gyasi’s breakthrough in an art that doesn’t always adapt easy to change.  Maybe this is why so many avid readers had troubles with this book though.

The plot did move very slowly and although we knew the person intimately who came before the character we would read about next, I’m not sure the connection was enough to sustain a reader who needed action.  Akua brought the action, so did H and Ness, but characters with gritty stories came at strange moments.  A reader on Twitter said he believed the book should have been split into three parts and not two.  He never responded to me when I asked where he would have broken the third part, but it did have me curious.  If we read this book and immediately have questions about structure, does that mean that Gyasi didn’t perfect her rhythm here?

5e0190c717c99df3c8a4b610e72b19c1I’m not sure how I feel. This multigenerational history of the world through the eyes of African American families moved me almost to tears at times, but there were other times when the characters just weren’t real enough for me, and these moments alternated regularly.  The raw moments, in Ghana, Willie in Harlem, H imprisoned and sold into mining, and “the Crazy Woman” all made for characters that “lived inside me” as Marjorie learns from her teacher in one of the final chapters.  But other characters didn’t come alive until I knew what they bred or brought into the world in later chapters. I almost needed their children to open my heart towards them.  That came a little frustrating when I just wanted to continue with one of the family lines, but had to read the alternating. I also had to look at the family tree a lot, which made reading on a Kindle difficult.

(Still, thank you so much for the arc, Alfred A. Knopf).

I do understand that to span 300 years in 300 pages is not an easy task, and there’s very few moments to take a breath, but I still sit here not one hundred percent sold. One of the things I did love was all the beautiful, beautiful language moments.

“That night, lying next to Edward in his room, Yaw listened as his best friend told him that he had explained to the girl that you could not inherit a scar. Now, nearing his fiftieth birthday, Yaw no longer knew if he believed this was true.”

And all of the commentary on society that was subtle but powerful:

“The need to call this thing “good” and this thing “bad,” this thing “white” and this thing “black,” was an impulse that Effie did not understand.  In her village, everything was everything.  Everything bore the weight of everything else.”

“That I should live to hear my own daughter speak like this.  You want to know what weakness is? Weakness is treating someone as though they belong to you.  Strength is knowing that everyone belongs to themselves.”

“This is the problem of history.  We cannot know that which we were not there to see and hear and experience for ourselves.  We must rely upon the words of others.”

“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.”

And my personal favorite:

“She stopped walking.  For all they knew, they were standing on top of what used to be a coal mine, a grave for all the black convicts who had been conscripted to work there.  It was one thing to research something, another thing entirely to have lived it.  To have felt it.  How could he explain to Marjorie that what he wanted to capture with his project was the feeling of time, of having been a part of something that stretched so far back, was so impossibly large, that it was easy to forget that she, and he, and everyone else, existed in it, not apart of it, but inside of it.”

I feel like I’ve been a little hard on this book because it is truly a literary first for me.  I recommend it to everyone who needs diverse literature, who wants to support a debut author, and who is interested in structuring writing in new and profound ways for their readers.

The List: Bookish Edition

If you’ve been following for a while you know that every year I do a Bookish Christmas List.  This year, I’m a tad late, but for all of your procrastinating shoppers, I have the list for all the book lovers, cat ladies, school teachers, and hipsters in your life.

For the Gilmore Girl in all of us:

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  1. “Gilmore Girls Helvetica” T-Shirt (multiple colors) | $31.95 @ Red Bubble
  2. “Mama Kim” Sticker | $2.40 (buy 6, get 50% off) @ Red Bubble
  3. Rory Enamel Lapel Pin | $13.00 @sweetandlovely
  4. Luke’s Mug Vinyl Logo Decal | $18.00 @ The Party Palette
  5. The Rory Reading List | $19.47 @ Neighbourly Love

For those Witty (W)itches in Our Life:

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  1. Okay Ladies, Now Let’s Get Information T-Shirt (multiple colors) | $27.65 @ Red Bubble
  2. Be Pretty Driftwood | $34.00 @ Peacelovedriftwood  on Etsy
  3. Ceramic Coffee Mug with Quote | $13.95+ @ Vitazi Designs on Etsy
  4. Olde Book Messenger Bag | $34.99 @ Think Geek
  5. Olde Book Pillow Cases | $14.99 @ Think Geek
  6. Banned Book Match Set | $8 @ Tiger Tree (How very Fahrenheit 451 of them, har har).
  7. Nancy Drew Pillows (these are my fav) | $24 @ The Sleuth Shop
  8. Internet Grammar Is Ruining Everything | $16+ @ Kathy Weller Art on Etsy
  9. Bibliophile Girl Scout Patch | $7 @ Storied Threads on Etsy

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  1. Lit Cap | $2.40 @ Red Bubble
  2. 52 Lists for Happiness | $16.99 @ Modclot
  3. Narnia Coloring Book | $15.99 @ Think Geek
  4. Disney Princesses: a Magical Pop-Up World | $65 @ Amazon by Matthew Reinhart
  5. Diagonal Alley Coat | $139.99 @ Modcloth

For the Editor in All of Us (that we want to murder):

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  1. Talks with the Editor Letterpress | $15 @ RD1Vintage on Etsy
  2. Books & Eyeglasses Earrings | $20 @ Uncommon Goods
  3. Whom T-Shirt | $25 @ GrammaticalArt on Etsy
  4. Seven Year Pen | $8.95 @ Seltzer Goods (they even have one dedicated to cat ladies.  CALLING ALL OF YOUUUUUU).
  5. Vintage Oak Desk Set | $32 @ InglenookMarket on Etsy
  6. Hand Engraved Compass Necklaces | $140 @ Uncommon Goods

Feministing:

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  1. Feminist Enamel Pin | $10 @ Stationerybicycles on Etsy
  2. Working Women: The New Pinup Collection | $12.95 @ Chronicle Books
  3. Shattered Glass Ceiling Necklace | $68 @ Uncommon Goods
  4. Parks & Rec Pawnee Poste | $11.99+ @ Genuine Design Co on Etsy
  5. The Future is Female T-Shirt | $14.90+ @ DesignDepot123
  6. Frida Kahlo Paper Dolls | $9.95 @ Chronicle Books

Teachers of all Kinds:

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  1. Staple Free Staplers | $16 (set of two) @ Uncommon Goods
  2. Scratch Map | $26-$40 @ Uncommon Goods
  3. Blue Book Personalized Pillow | $36 @ Uncommon Goods
  4. Microbiology Wax Seal | $29.95 @ CognitiveSurplus on Etsy
  5. Sometimes I Go Off on a Tangent T-Shirt | $25+ @Boredwalk on Etsy
  6. Moon Phases Notebook | $5.14 @Newtonandtheapple on Etsy

And Dudes:

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  1. Tesla Circuit Building Kit | $100 @ Uncommon Goods
  2. 3d Printed Bowtie | $32.70 @ 3different on Etsy
  3. Iron Coin of the Faceless Man | $14 @ ShirePostMint on Etsy
  4. The Hydra Smart Bottle | $59.99 @ Think Geek
  5. Build on Brick Mug | $2.99-11.99 @ Think Geek
  6. Medieval Knight Hoodie | $49.99 @ Think Geek

I know it’s pretty close to Christmas and you’ll need expedited shipping.  I hope I made it a little easier on ya for finding your bibliopiles the best presents.

I’m ready to make the argument: Beyonce loves Beloved.

I want to construct the theory that Beyonce was directly referencing Beloved, the book by Toni Morrison and the haunting character reincarnated in the novel with her video “Formation.”

Reasons for these beliefs are as follows:

  • Cover art of Beloved hand-in-hand with stills from Beyonce’s video for “Formation.”

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  • Beloved (the character) comes from the water, a symbol of “New Life” and purity. Beyonce sinks into the water as a comment on the government’s reaction (and the people of America, we’re all complicit) to New Orleans after Katrina.  But also, she makes a call to justice and a call to new perspective on race relations in America, particularly with white police officers and black men.
  • School Teacher, who comes for Sethe in the book, could be seen as the police in Beyonce’s video.
  • Both texts reference “baby hair.”  “Formation”: I like my baby heir, with baby hair and afros. Beloved: “Instead she gazed at Sethe with sleepy eyes. Poorly fed, thought Sethe, and younger than her clothes suggested–good lace at the throat, and a rich woman’s hat. Her skin was flawless except for three vertical scratches on her forehead so fine and thin they seemed at first like hair, baby hair before it bloomed and roped into the masses of black yarn under her hat…her feet were like her hands, soft and new” (62).
  • Beyonce seems “haunted” in the scene at the plantation house where she wears all black and is surrounded by men in black suits.  She keeps bobbing her head up and down to the beat in a ghostly fashion.  Beloved is a ghost that haunts the house and is known as “crawling-already.” Then, returns from the grave.  A reincarnation much like the rising up of New Orleans after Katrina — on its own mind you — because our government sucks sometimes.
  • Sethe doesn’t really understand her own history, but her husband Halle comes from Baby Suggs who is well-known as a priestess in the community.  Beyonce references her heritage several times in the story.  While Sethe doesn’t know her heritage, Beloved comes back from the dead to honor her mother, her heritage.
  • Beyonce claims to “twirl on the haters.”  It can be argued that Sethe, by slitting the throat of her daughter, “twirled on” School Teacher who thought that he could take Sethe and all her children in as runaway slaves.
  • In the scene below, Beyonce acts as a “Mrs. Garner” of high class woman of the South who gave Sethe the only thing she ever truly owned, diamond earrings.

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  • Beyonce repeats “I Slay,” while Sethe literally slays her child by slitting her throat in a hurried effort to save her from slavery and School Teacher.
  • Both women also take great pride in their children, Sethe to the point of saving them by murdering them and Beyonce by having her daughter dance in her highly-acclaimed music video.
  • Beyonce says at the end of the song, “You know you that bitch when you cause all this conversation,” while Sethe is the talk of the town after her behavior with School Teacher and Baby Suggs in front of her sons and family.
  • Red Lobster is where Beyonce takes her man, letting him also take her chopper to the mall for some j’s while Sethe is completely supportive of Paul D in the novel.  To the point that she supports him before he can get back to work and sleeps with him regularly.
  • The men in the background of the actual song also sound an awful lot like Paul D and his “baby, baby, baby,” neediness. He even calls Beloved’s sexuality her “shine,” while today we have “glo up” (not mentioned in Beyonce’s video, but just a correlation).
  • At the end of Beyonce’s video there is a congregation worshipping at church.  This could be a direct reference to Baby Sugg’s forest homily’s in Beloved.  Baby Suggs manages to conjure the spirit for the people of her community the same way the spirit finds its way into Beyonce’s video.

There you have it. As much argument as I can puzzle together for Beyonce making a direct connection to Beloved by Toni Morrison.  If so, those are some powerful allusions, if not, it’s fun to try to prove it.

Update:

*Here’s an article on what to read after watching “Lemonade.”

*Also, the speaking intro of “Hold Up” is basically Beloved, yet again where Beyonce says things like, “Tried to be soft, prettier, less … awake.  Fasted for 60 days. Wore white. Abstained from mirrors. Abstained from sex. Slowly did not speak another word. In that time, my hair I grow past my ankles. I slept on a mat on a floor. I swallowed a sword. I levitated. I went to the basement. Confessed my sins and was baptized in a river. Got on my knees and said amen and said I mean. I whipped my own back…” This is eerily similar to Beloved by Toni Morrison. Check out the stills from the video:

Milk also commented on how much Toni Morrison influenced Beyonce even commenting that “Lemonade is like seeing her words come to life.”

Vox too.  Man, I had no idea people thought this.

Because That Mom Wants to Ban TKAM

Books are challenged all the time.  The political state of America is just (and always) getting hotter.  In a time where we need books more than ever, particularly books that foster discussion of racial barriers, gender barriers, and sexuality barriers, a school system has decided to ban two books that illuminated (and still do) the American experience.  And I would put “in the South” after that last sentence but I feel like that doesn’t take into account all the reverberations from Southern attitudes and culture on the rest of our nation, and really, the world.

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

I can think of several reasons to not teach To Kill a Mockingbird.  The one I most often use is that while this book is a true “coming of age” tale, that doesn’t mean it was written that way.  The narrator of this novel is an old woman looking back on her childhood. It’s not written from the child, or high school perspective, it’s written from the perspective of a woman who has lived a whole life and is flipping to which scrap book page story she will tell.  Although I don’t love teaching this book to students (not true, I loved it one year), would I ever ban this book from a classroom or institution of literacy, hell no.

To Kill a Mockingbird is arguably one of the most important books written about the South.  There’s an idyllic father, a neighborhood of interesting people, and a family built on the moral code of a saint.  (See: Go Set a Watchman for what I believe is more of the truth).  This part of the book is set against the part of the book that contains the trial of Tom Robinson and a look into not only the class system of the novel but the racial prejudice of the community. Tom Robinson, likewise, is a family man, idyllic in his own way, but due to lack of means (thanks to the community he lives in and the history of the US) lives in a community of people who hate him. One could argue, and I will, that this festering belief has sparked where we are today with #blacklivesmatter because black people are damn tired of being hated (in action AND words).

Love this poster for Banned Book Week from ALA

Love this poster for Banned Book Week from ALA

The problem I have with banning this book is the reasoning behind the parent’s wishes. She says her son “struggled to read the racist language,” furthermore, “There’s so much racial slurs and defensive wording in there that you can’t get past that.” And finally, “Right now, we are a nation divided as it is.”

I could seriously give her some slurs right now, but we all know that solves nothing.

The problem with the mentality of this mother, and her son because he’s learning this wacked-out belief system, is that if we don’t give students the space to learn the context and scope of these words then they will always see them as “those that shall not be said.” I don’t want kids going around calling other kids n-words, but I also don’t want students to understand the implications behind language like this.

The belief, and I’m not sorry at all for this Donald Trump, but that words FUCKING matter.  And they are much larger than “curse words.” Words that appear in this book have connotations that could have potentially changed throughout times, that certain groups of people own and certain groups of people can never respect, words that have not only historical meaning, but meaning to our current world as well because the full mouth of their history has carried through to today.

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And the problem with our society is that instead of talking about, instead of asking @shishirose her definition, we push it under the rug, for the seven hundredth time and hope our little Chris or Patrick or Jean keeps that word to the confines of his own house, or his own friend group, or just keeps it locked away silent in his brain somewhere never to be used. We say it’s okay “as long as you don’t say it to those people, or we say “it’s never okay, it’s a dirty word, don’t say it.”  But if a child never gets educated on the context, the scope, and let’s not forget the HUMANS that this word has shaped, refined, developed, and trampled, then what is the point in any conversation ever? What are you protecting them from … life?

This isn’t life, people. This isn’t how we educate students on how to have a conversation. How to speak not to, but with people who are different from them so that they don’t end up with one token “different” friend because they’re too scared to love anyone who doesn’t agree with them, have the same upbringing as them, or understand the connotation of the words the same way they do.

You Don't Have to Like Me by Alida Nugent

You Don’t Have to Like Me by Alida Nugent

I’ve been reading the book You Don’t Have to Like Me by Alida Nugent.  In the very beginning after the introduction, she discusses her growing up and having to choose a side because biracial wasn’t accepted (I’m not sure if I should have said that sentence in the past. You know how America loves its binaries).  She came to call herself a “mutt” in between figuring out who wanted what side of her.  Nugent goes through the realization that if she just discusses her white side she can get a job, a better paying job. But at what cost? She says, “My identity comes from how I feel.” and “We have to speak, in all our different voices, to tell our unique stories.  I will always tell mine” (30).  This is what I mean about words.  When we start banning books.  Wait, when we start banning words. Then, what else are we banning?

Words come with culture too. And the way we use them waves our beliefs in the air (like we just don’t care).  To ban a book is like banning a historical moment, blipping out that time period for your child.  To ban a book is like a blacking over, smudging out a whole culture of people who have come to either own that word, be known by that word, or despise that word because of the historical or societal weight it carries. To ban a book for a word is leaving out a narrative that could have educated your child on how to live in a world, a world in our “current political climate” and navigate it so that instead of hurting other people, they love them. With their words, because what else do they have?