This post is inspired by a recent reading of Yaa Gyasi’s book, HomeGoing (2016). It is a book chosen by the majority members of a book club I belong to. I made an effort to read it this time because I didn’t want to show up to yet another meeting without having read the book under discussion. And so I read it to fulfil an obligation and not out of a genuine interest in the narrative. The title was intriguing. If we’re going home, do we know where that is?
After finding the book at an airport book store, I forced myself to open its pages despite the fact that Tsitsi Dangarembgas’ This Mournable Body (2018) and Noviolent Bulawayo’s We Need New Names (2013) which were safely secured in my backpack and armpit respectively were beckoning me to fulfil a promise to read them too.
I desperately wanted to read Tsitsi Dangarembga’s third novel because when when her second, The book of not was published in 2006, I could not afford to read it. Even at that late stage of my life I was still a captive of the narrative which defined the story of Zimbabwe. I was still spellbound, I was standing in awe. I can still feel the emotions that moved within me after reading the book which was a compulsory, prescribed read in primary school. I still lacked the vocabulary to describe them. Those emotions were still in me. I was contemplating opening up the bottled emotions, a little bit, just to taste their flavour. But since I feared that my carbonated feelings would spill out like foam from a champagne bottle, I decided to wait for them to settle a little bit so I could open them without making a mess. I was attempting rather poorly to create an inventory and make a filing system, to place them somewhere. To know what they are and if they were of any value to me or anyone else.
I was processing my own nervous conditions to understand what I had not fully grasped when I found myself in Zimbabwe following the protagonist Tambuzai and her family from room to room all the while thinking; if everyone is right, then who is wrong?
Instead of reading the book itself I read a long article and interview written by a friend. He’d told me a few week’s before the books’ publication that he’d be interviewing Tsitsi Dangarembga for a weekly newspaper. He was nervous. And so was I.
How could I attempt to write about something I barely understood? Where do I even start?
Do I begin in isiZulu, my mother’s tongue? Or use sePedi which is my father’s tongue? How about a colloquial version of seSotho spoken in Soweto, which is a mixture of seTswana, north and southern Sesotho? Do I form words in English? In Fanakalo? Or in the language my cousins and I used to invent to prevent others from hearing what we were not saying about them? Do I form sentences in a handful of French words which sometimes emerge as Afrikaans when my mind finally delivers them to my tongue? Since my words seemed to lack form or structure would silence be enough to express what I’ve felt since reading Nervous Conditions?. Because of this I imagined that reading Noviolent Bulawayos “We Need New Names” might offer a fresher perspective since it was closer to my desire to create a new language for old feelings. When the book first came out in 2013 I instinctively objected to Bulawayo’s chosen title because back then I was convinced that new names could do little to condense history or contain anyone’s identity. I was almost certain that between those pages I would find what I thought I already knew to be true.
There was nothing new under the sun. Just us.
This time as I picked up We need New Names, I hoped the author would pave a way for me to go back in time to approach my nervous conditions gently. To allow me to see an old story from a new perspective. A reading of a chapter of her book published in Granta magazine allowed me to notice a condition which was becoming a regular ocurrance in me; confirmation bias. In my attempt to rid myself of this very human impulse to protect what you know and have come to believe to be true irrespective of the available evidence pointing to the contrary, I promised myself that I will read the book one day.
This day had finally come but there were so many competing interests which were more urgent. So I tried to get through HomeGoing as fast as I could. My aim was simple: I just wanted to finish it and tell my friends I read and finished the book. And then start reading what I wanted to read. Besides I had been slowly grazing over Karthoum; The ultimate imperial adventure by Michael Asher, Africa; a biography of a country by John Reader, Sapiens; a brief history of mankind by Yuval l Noah Harari, First Raise a Flag; How South Sudan Won the longest war but lost the peace (2018) by Peter Martell and other titles which I started and stopped reading, to make room for more stories months before including a recent acquisition of Decolinizing Extinction, the work of care in Orengutun Rehabilitation (2018) by Juno Salazar Parrenas. I needed to get to the end of them too before I latched on to Becoming by Michelle Obama, which is next on our book clubs’ reading list.
In the midst of all this I had not found the time to review, My Traitor’s Heart (1990) by South African journalist Riaan Malan. It had been recommended by a friend after he read my blog post on Forgiveness: It’s not Black or White, It’s personal. I found it at a friends vast home library and had to read it within a day because I could not carry it home with me. I had to leave it there. After My Traitor’s Heart, which left me shivering with a cold. I found White Teeth (1999) staring at me at another bookstore. I had been following Zadie Smith for years without having read a single book of hers, so I figured it was about time.
She made me laugh – she was quite sharp, funny and so confident. She mastered her choice of languages with fluent ease. The stories of awkward people living in London was infused with humour and wit. I relished the sound of her voice. But I couldn’t take her with me either, so I gave her to my sister to read while I travelled. By this time my suitcase was overweight.
When I saw that Zadie Smith had written a very generous recommendation for Homegoing, a book I had to read even though I no longer felt like it, I felt less guilty about the choice I had made. It’s as if she had given me permission to move on.
So with all of my baggage I plunged myself into it.
It took five days. I was carrying it everywhere like a beautiful accessory I couldn’t wait to give-away. I wanted to see if I could read with a level of detached equanimity which had been previously unavailable to me.
How do I write or read without feeling?
Do I have to feel everything I write or read?
What’s the point if there are no feelings involved?
Homegoing is a remarkable literary achievement; each character has its own chapter yet they are all linked and connected through generations from multiple locations, and blood lines – their stories take unexpected turns in familiar narratives with each new chapter and character answering the questions raised by the previous one.
Each chapter leaves you wanting to find out more until you arrive at the end where you realise the magic of it all. It’s worth the ride, the journey through the book makes the ending so sweet. At the end you are just in awe of this magnificent beauty and love her for being humble enough to answer the call to write. There were some moments as I ploughed through the book which made me question Zadie Smith’s assertion on the front cover, “Its an Intelligent, beautiful, healing book”. What could be so healing about the story of transatlantic slaves, slavery, racism and bond labour? I wondered. Hadn’t we heard it all before?
Well I had to read the whole book to find out for myself, and quite frankly I wouldn’t want to spoil the story for you. So I will leave you to do the same, if you haven’t already.
PS: By the time I arrived at my destination I found something quite unexpected, as if someone had put it there just for me. It was another book; On Beauty by Zadie Smith (2005).
I’ll tell you about it soon enough.