Back in my teenager times I read the book The White Masai. I guess it’s needless to say, my taste has come a long way since then. Mix a bit of pseudo-exoticism and cross-culturalism with some passionate love story, and you get a pretty good idea what kind of book it was. The Hungarian edition actually even bore the title African lovers, and it had a tacky cover: an acacia tree with the setting sun behind, painting the African sky burning orange. Probably now you can easily imagine why it had an allure to a fourteen-or-something-year old girl, and why I’ve been avoiding such books ever since that age. Even though it wasn’t per se African fiction, but this experience has managed to keep me away entirely from books on or from the Black Continent until the recent past. Because – I don’t know if you’ve ever happened to notice, but – most of the books are marketed with the very same unoriginal cover. So, unconsciously, I figured I was also promised the very same (un)literary experience. And I decided I was too old for that.
Fortunately that opinion changed two years ago, when in my book club I was introduced to the Nigerian Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Her Half of a Yellow Sun quickly made it onto my favourite shelf, despite the very fact that on the cover there was a (you won’t believe it!) acacia tree and a setting sun! Well, I’ve just needed to learn again not to judge a book by its cover.
Just as I’ve had to get my head around another unappealing thing about African books – a phenomena that a Guardian article quite nicely put into words for me. Namely, that even the worthiest of books aren’t sold as literary pieces of art, but rather as social and political products. Now, it shouldn’t be a problem, should it? But the thing is, I don’t know how you feel about it, but I feel intimidated by insipid book blurbs with a promise of an educative, mammoth issue. For example, I’m hesitant to read about, race, but I rather wish to read an amazing book that might partially touch the question of race. Do you get the difference? Aesthetics and a unique voice is very important, as well as a unique approach. Because another thing I dread is that I’m going to read the same worn out thoughts about the same issues all over again.
So Adichie did it for me, and I guess it was just the beginning. I’ve been on the lookout for more when #BabblingBookClub* brought into my attention a debut author, Yaa Gyasi‘s novel, Homegoing. The funny thing is, if I’d known anything about this book again, probably I wouldn’t have picked it up myself. Spanning the history of slavery through continents and seven generations sounds like an exhausting history lesson, and the fact that it’s compressed into 320 pages by a twenty-something, first time writer wouldn’t have made it more appealing, either. But the book was a pleasant surprise – so much that it will be probably making it on my yearly top list.
The opening chapters follow the lives of two half-sisters, Effia and Esi, both born in the Gold Coast (later becoming Ghana) in the 18th century. While one of them is wedded to the English governor of the Cape Coast Castle, giving her relative comfort and privilege, her half-sister, captured and imprisoned in the ghastly dungeons of the very same castle, is waiting to shipped off into slavery. From these two women a family history is born. We can follow the two bloodlines through interconnected short stories alternating between Ghana and America, and learn about the lives of their descendants shaped by colonization, tribal wars, the horrors of slavery and the burdensome heritage of it.
So what made me love this book so much?
Its structure. It’s built up from novella-like stories. Beside love as a central motive and the wish to break free through it, and maybe really few information crumbles about previous and future generations, there is not much that connects them together. They are like beads tied loosely together by a fine string. Still, emotionally building on each other, they accumulate beautifully the tension till the last scene.
Its more complex approach to history. Because, it’s the first fiction about slavery that I read, which is not simplified to a white men vs. black men story, but also openly talks about the sins of the natives who played a part in this horrible, inhuman act.
Its sense of place. The Cape Coast Castle has got engraved in my mind so much as if I’d visited it myself. If I think about it I can almost smell the fetidity of the dungeon, hear the scream of the raped women, and feel the sheer terror and desperation of the imprisoned. Yaa Gyasi could show me this place, and put them on the Map of Pain for me. It was truly eye-opening. (See more below.)
Have you read this book? What did you think about it? Any other African author you would suggest reading next?
*#BabblingBookClub is an Instagram-based book club hosted by an inspiring Aussie girl. She picks great reads every month from all around the world (#readtheworld) and invites you for a read-along. Unfortunately since my son’s arrival I haven’t been really able to follow the reading schedule and conversations in real-time, but many of the books she’s chosen are also on my bedside table waiting to be read in the near future.