We are taught, from a very young age, how much gossip is woven into the fabric of the human experience. Too young to fully understand, I often sat in the room while my mother talked to her sisters and friends about anyone and anything. One of my aunts’ was so well versed in the task that she was eventually gifted with Tribune as a nickname, solidifying herself as the family newspaper. As I started to develop my own circle of friends, we would partake in similar talk and my voice was often included. However, as I got older, the ritual of gossiping started to feel exhausting, making me nauseous and instigating me to pull away. The realization didn’t fall out of thin air, though. It came to me when the tables were turned and I was on the receiving end of said gossip; lies and frustrating rumors being spread to ears that never had the opportunity to learn of me on their own. It opened a space for me to reevaluate myself, who I was and, most importantly, how I treated people.
What I learned during those slow moments of discovery is the truth behind “common sense ain’t so common” because no story is ever translated or transferred in the way the initial speaker intended. No moment can be duplicated and the past can not be changed. My spoken words have been turned inside out many times, leaving me wondering if I was, indeed, speaking a foreign language. We are left the only ones defending ourselves, wishing there was a fly on the wall who’d be able to speak for us or, better yet, let the walls tell it. These are not singular sentiments and people all over the world have endured similar situations.
The same can be said about the stories that make up our human history and individual lineage. We have learned about who we are and where we come from through word of mouth, depending on someone else’s experience to fulfill our own. How much of what we’ve heard is true? How many pieces of that story are we missing? Who knows the answers to hard questions? Yaa Gyasi, in her debut novel Homegoing, is the fly on the wall who can speak.
Every chapter in Homegoing is narrated by a different voice of the same family tree. We travel down through each generation, connecting dots along the way, learning of inherited demons and blessings. While we are made aware of each personality and experience, we are pulled into a political and spiritual world that is often out of reach. Like, for example, the African “big men” who assisted the British in enslaving people so that they could solidify business deals for their village. And the daughters and sons who are married off to ensure the family maintains a powerful lineage. And the ancient ghosts that haunt family members through dreams. It is a story that covers a wide range of topics, many that are parallel with the concerns of today.
Throughout the world, with the help of our smartphones, we are able to witness anger and suffering on a much higher level than ever before. It provides some of us with a sense of personal responsibility to be the change we wish to see. But, also, it heightens the feeling of consistent war, as if we are always right in the middle of calamity and turmoil. In February 2016, for example, it was reported that Boko Haram was responsible for a bombing in Nigeria that killed 86 people. For the year 2015, MappingPoliceViolence.com reported that at least 102 unarmed black people were killed through the use of excessive police force. In November of the same year, 128 people were killed in Paris through a series of bombs. In June 2016, 49 people were killed in Orlando at a nightclub. The list can go on. It is often questioned whether our society has always been this way, the use of our cell phones making it all feel so raw. Homegoing provides an interesting perspective: nothing we are currently experiencing is new under the sun. The beginning pages of Gyasi’s novel are set in Africa around the 1700’s and war is constant, consistent and without pause, just like today.
“Kwaku Agyei said that if this mission failed, there would be one raid every night until the end of time. ‘If it isn’t the West, it will be the whites,’ he reasoned, darkness glinting from the gap between his front teeth.”
The world and how we know it, didn’t happen overnight and could not have manifested without the collective agreement bringing it forward. Why, then, did we decide to be the kind of animals that could create such majestic and intricate things with our minds and hands and, also, be equally angry and flawed?
War on this planet started the very moment our ancient primal selves, Homo sapiens, discovered that the throwing of a rock to another caused harm. Like everything, causing pain to others evolved, becoming useful through the use of bow and arrows, guns and eventually bombs. My biggest concern about how we are changing with the help of our technological advances is that we will become a society of people who suffer from PTSD. We watch tragedy from our phones and computer screens on a daily basis, sitting front row and center to pain, feeding our fear and anger far more than our happiness, creating a cycle that simply continues to repeat.
“We avenge lost lives by taking more? It doesn’t make sense to me.”
It is our failure to take chances towards a positive evolution that is currently hindering us. Much like how we’ve developed into our modern anger, we can grow towards the direction that nourishes our creative selves and our happiness. But once there is a collective agreement for something, it is increasingly difficult to alter it. Those who are brave enough to go against the grain are, in the beginning, often crucified. The same concept can be said for family traditions and parents who do not want to give their children the freedom to choose.
Like, for example, the James Collins character in Homegoing. James is the son of a “big man” who earned his fortune through the slave trade. He finds no interest in the profession of his father and grandfather, wanting to heavily disassociate himself with politics to live a simple life as a farmer. He is forced to marry a woman he doesn’t love and his lack of interest keeps him from sexual intimacy. His wife demands he visits the village witch to ask for herbs that would assist in his failed duty as a husband. Instead, what he seeks of the witch is permission to relieve himself of guilt.
“‘This is how we all come to the world, James. Weak and needy, desperate to learn how to be a person.’ She smiled at him. ‘But if we do not like the person we have learned to be, should we just sit in front of our fufu, doing nothing? I think, James, that maybe it is possible to make a new way.'”
How do we, after all, forge a new way in our individual lives and the world we live in if our agreed societal standards strictly prohibits such change?
Yaa Gyasi is fearless in her attempts at answering these questions, tackling a full circle of who and what our world is composed of. She is not biased in her teachings, providing us with the stories of the good, the bad and the ugly of both her own culture and that which inhabits America.
We get distasteful brutality coupled with slavery, families who are forcefully disconnected, love scenes, fornication and steamy sex, the black man who passes as white and denies his black wife, a cocaine addict who abandons his babies and an ending love connection that takes us back to where it all started. Homegoing’s multi-generational landscape is generous in supplying a broad collection of individual stories that closely link together. ♦
Feature image by Colby