Two Timely Books

26 Sep

Presented with minimal comment: two absolutely phenomenal novels that, although set nearly 200 years ago, contribute immensely to the conversation of residual racism and racial violence in America.

The Underground Railroad- Colson Whitehead

Image result for colson whitehead underground railroad book

I have loved Whitehead since The Intuitionist, and was thrilled to find he had a new novel coming out. The Underground Railroad is a book that commands your attention from sentence one: “The first time Caesar approached Cora about running North, she said no.” What follows is a freedom struggle that’s as bold as it is devastating. Whitehead loves to veer his readers right to the border of fantasy and reality, and uses his penchant for the bizarre to blur the lines between the shocking realities of life as a slave and events so strange you can’t help but wonder if they’re true. Jumping through time and characters, Whitehead delivers a cat-and-mouse chase so fraught with generational guilt and ancestral entitlement even Javert might have opted out. The ending feels just a little too made-for-the-big-screen, but still delivers the visceral punch of a tremendous story told by a tremendous writer–Ana Duvernay, if you’re reading, PLEASE consider adapting this for your next movie! I would absolutely call this a must-read in 2016.

Homegoing: A Novel– Yaa Gyasi

Whew lordy, where to start? Gyasi is a Ghanian-born writer who moved to Alabama in her teens and, after graduating with her MFA from Yale, chose to take on the nearly impossible: tracing a direct line from the slave trade to modern systemic oppression using the stories of only two families. Not impressed yet? She does it by devoting just a single chapter to each generation’s character. And, for her final trick, she makes you care deeply about almost each of those one-offs as if their story had spanned the entire novel, not just a short chapter.

There is a lot to love about this book–it’s character driven, beautifully written, and never looks away from the cruelty of the slave trade and its lasting implications. One story branch follows an Asante family as alliances shift and colonial capitalism takes root in West Africa; the second branch follows the descendants of a kidnapped, enslaved, and tortured Fante woman through several decades in America. I couldn’t get enough of the West African  stories–Gyasi does such justice to the customs, character, and culture of a people usually mis-represented as primitive, hapless, and uncalculating. The chapters that take place in America, while just as interesting, lack the self-possesion Gyasi allows their counterparts in modern-day Ghana. There’s a bit of symbolism attached to the American chapters– we are meant to understand that each of the characters is representing something, drawing a line from past to present. A powerful point, to be sure, but there are a few chapters that feel just a bit contrived as a result.

This book is a wonderful insight into the struggle to be free, the systems that hinder progress, and the generational melancholy of people who are black in America. Gyasi’s command of history is tremendous, and her carefully-crafted characters become beloved tour guides to America’s dark side. Please let me know when you’ve read it!

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