January 16, 2018


Friday, May 12, 2017

When skin is destiny

By Nicolás Meyer
For The Herald
It may not be too far-out to suspect that a novel about slavery is almost sure to receive good reviews, assuming it’s at least halfway competent (and that it’s AGAINST slavery, of course, and not in favour of it). Which reviewer would want to risk being seen as soft on slavery by panning a book that condemns that monstrosity?

However, rest assured that with Volver a casa (“Homegoing,” in the original), high praise is genuinely justified. It tells a great story, and unfolds it admirably. There’s wisdom here, and lots of interesting happenings in a variety of settings and periods. In short, author Yaa Gyasi, who was born in Ghana and was raised and lives in the US, has produced an outstanding novel. Since it’s her first book, let’s hope she hasn’t painted herself into the customary corner for successful first-time writers: how to live up to it afterwards. Particularly since it seems unquestionable that she used up a lot of personal material here (fictionalised, extrapolated and so on), in addition to all that she drew from research and from her imagination, and may have to delve into universes further afield for future work. She should be relaxed about that endeavour. She clearly has what it takes.

Slavery per se is present in the first of the two parts of this book, although, needless to say, it casts its shadow over everything else, and in fact the second part begins by showing how the post-Civil War period in the United States could be just as brutal as before for blacks. The novel — which, it must be noted, is feisty rather than depressing — ambitiously covers the whole period from about 1760 to the present, in both the Gold Coast (now Ghana) and the US. It does so by following two families, one in each country, but both originating with the same woman. Each of the family members whom it focuses on, in each generation, gets an individual chapter, and some of those chapters could very well stand alone as fine short stories.

One of the tale’s virtues is that it’s balanced on the issue of race relations. Not, certainly, in the sense that it in any way seeks to minimise the evils perpetrated by the white man, from old-time slavery to modern discrimination. But in the sense that it freely narrates the evils among blacks too, from tribal slaving raids back then to black US schoolgirls today who mock another black schoolgirl because her accent isn’t like theirs (it’s “almost British”). The Gold Coast woman who begets both families is an Asante (Ashanti) slave of the Fante people. Among the roster of atrocities in the novel — enslavement itself, vicious beatings, barbaric imprisonment on minor or imaginary charges, and so on — there is precisely one lynching, and it is of a white man by blacks in Africa.

Diverse issues come up in the unfolding storylines. Among others, mental illness, drugs, domestic violence, and the temptation in a light-coloured black to pass himself off as white — and what it does to the rest of the family.

Speaking of temptations, at the beginning the reader may fear that Gyasi is falling for the one that consists of making too many of her characters too special to be statistically believable. The females tend to be unusually beautiful. If a character is a ship caulker, he’s the best caulker around. If he’s a coal-miner, he’s the biggest and strongest. But by and by the average balances out, with a quota of weak or just ordinary folk.

One misstep involves a woman in a fiendish holding pen for slaves who commits suicide by willing herself to stop breathing. Death that way is impossible, because when unconsciousness sets in, the body will automatically start inhaling again. Besides, another slave is said to deduce how she died from a change in her colour, which she might find hard to perceive in a dark-skinned person, even in good lighting — and the text emphasises that it is always dark in the cell.

Later the other woman is pulled out of the cell by a soldier-jailer to rape her. Although the process by which the soldier selects her and takes her to his quarters is described step by ugly step, there is no mention of his throwing a bucket of water over her or anything like that, although it has repeatedly been described how the slaves are covered in their own and their neighbours’ excrement.

But for each of the few doubtful details, there are splendid other passages in this highly recommended book.

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Edition No. 5055 - This publication is a property of NEFIR S.A. -RNPI Nº 5343955 - Issn 1852 - 9224 - Te. 4349-1500 - San Juan 141 , (C1063ACY) CABA - Director Perdiodístico: Ricardo Daloia