Book review: Homegoing

One of the landmark pieces of TV programming that had a significant impact on me as a young teenager was the adaptation of Alex Haley’s Roots. As we have come to know, Haley’s research for his original work was not as solid as he had claimed in terms of the ability to authenticate the work as a more or less factual account of the origins of Haley’s family in what we now call Gambia, although we should remember that his publishers originally marketed his work as a novel. Haley’s decision to devote his closing chapter to documenting his research blurred the boundaries somewhat, but also exposed his work to fact-checking and, even though he himself came to refer to the work as ‘faction’, he is of course not guilty of the location of the book on booksellers’ non-fiction shelves and neither can he be blamed for the phenomenon that the work became once the TV adaptation had taken hold.

Comparisons with Roots are impossible to avoid when looking at Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing, a novel which also traces the lineage of one family to, in this case, what we now call Ghana and which also follows the arrival in the US of black Africans sold into slavery. My copy of the book (which predates the current paperback edition which openly describes it as ‘a novel’) wears the Haley comparison openly in terms of the endorsements carried in its frontpages; while it is also bejewelled with praise from fellow authors and publishers’ puff drawn from reviewer quotes. This always makes me wary although of course this is neither the fault nor, usually, is it the responsibility of the author. The dangers of hype are clear as indeed, from Haley’s precedent, are the lessons of substantial works of fiction taking on a life of their own and becoming phenomena in their own right.

Developed over a period of seven years, Homegoing traces the parallel development of generations of two branches of a family with a shared female ancestor, one sold into slavery in America and the other which made its way in pre-independence Ghana as traders of slaves. Each chapter narrates the story of one member of each successive generation, Africa and America side-by-side, until those of Marjorie and Marcus, the last pair which are both set substantially in America and which, together, deliver the book’s resolution. In sharp contrast to Roots, Homegoing is not a biographical novel, although the Gyasi family name does make a brief, and inconsequential, appearance in its pages, and it is clearly set forth as a work of fiction.

Gyasi pulls no punches in her work. The role of black Africans in slave trading and in the capture and brutal treatment of slaves is unflinchingly described, and she makes several references to damaging and divisive inter-tribal hatreds. The physicality of life in pre-independence Ghana is also evident and neither does Gyasi shy away from drawing a narrative in which the physical nature of interactions between people living in close proximity features strongly. And neither should she, for this puts the reader as close to the inside of the novel as it is possible to be.

She is also capable of resonant turns of phrase although the work also suffers from characters from previous generations thinking and saying things more appropriate to modern times, customs and mores; while the work also on occasion wears its learning a little too heavily as if Gyasi has felt pressure to demonstrate the fruits of her research (or to justify her funding). Either way, a stronger editorial hand here would have helped.

The central difficulty is that, despite its ambitions, Homegoing is just too short. At 300 pages, and covering two branches of a family extending over seven generations, divided thus into fourteen chapters, each person’s life story is little more than a vignette. People do re-appear over two or more chapters and key events in their stories sometimes take place after decades-long intervals with a timeframe that is, at the same time, both compressed and extended. Thus captured by its form, and marred by the confusion created by the shifting nature of its timeframe, the novel doesn’t allow for detailed character development and the workings of the author as puppeteer are, therefore, sometimes evident. Furthermore, characters are sometimes stock ones, emblematic of particular times – Sonny, in particular – and reducing individuals to types, broadly representative of a particular class or period and used to provide colour to those times. This is especially true of the US chapters and it is therefore the African chapters which tend to work better.

The second criticism reflecting the brief nature of the novel is that an apparently essential narrative theme is also missing. Comparisons between the treatment of slaves in Africa and in the US – both similarities and divergences – are evident in the novel. There is historical precedents for this both in that the micro nature of slavery within western Africa often meant that slaves (while subject to random acts of cruelty) were not brutalised in the same way as under the macro conditions of slavery in the US. The vast scope and hard labour aspects of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, to say nothing of the monstrous conditions of transportation, featured less in the lives of slaves within Africa while the demand for labour on the US cotton and sugar plantations clearly fomented the conditions for war as a precursor to increasing the volume of the slave trade: war as a means of production. The difference between the two is the primitive accumulation of capital under the slave trade that created the conditions for industrialisation and the advent of capitalism; and the racism that follows from a view of peoples as a caste and an economic resource. From the sources she herself cites as references, Gyasi is aware of such a theme but, apart from in the chapter on ‘H’, this does not appear in the novel and, even then, it does not do so in a particularly coherent way.

The book’s long genesis also means that it suffers from something of an identity crisis. Indeed, it might have worked better as a short story (or collection) which would have allowed Gyasi to develop her theme of the lasting, multi-generational effects of capture and enslavement, on both those who are captured as well as on those who capture, without getting embroiled in the continuity requirements of a family saga. Here, the two stories which close the novel are perhaps the best written, and Marjorie and Marcus are, in reality, the novel’s central characters; these chapters are also likely to have been written first before the decision was taken to extend the fiction backwards to trace the development of their essential personality traits. At the very least, this provides what is a historic novel with a hopeful, forward-looking closure.

Gyasi has written a powerful and emotional novel with an important central theme – that the ‘evil in the world began as the evil in [one’s own] home’: that these live on and, in their repercussions, are visited on subsequent generations in sometimes unpredictable and frequently subconscious ways. That has a resonance both at a collective, societal level as well as at the individual; and embodies implications in both cases. Creating the conditions for that to happen is the job of the author and, in spite of the textual, and occasional research, flaws in the work, Gyasi has made an important contribution.

A complex and difficult word, Sasainn

We recently returned from a weekend trip to Stornoway and, staying in Sandwick, one of our priority ports of call was the memorial to the men lost on HMY Iolaire, which went down nearby on 1 January 1919 in the process of bringing home some of those from Lewis who had survived the First World War.

It is almost impossible to imagine the scale of the loss involved. This remains one of Britain’s worst maritime disasters: in peacetime for the rest of the UK; while war memorials on Lewis and Harris are the only ones to list the dates of the First World War as between 1914 and 1919 so as to encompass the loss of HMY Iolaire. Nearly 200 islanders perished on it, on top of the 1,000 men who had died (out of 6,000 called up: one in two Lewis men, of whom one in six never made it home) during the War itself. Yet, few outside the islands know of the tragedy. We might surmise some of the reasons for that, but these would include a shameful desire to hush things up in the interests of morale among the wider public, not least amidst the substantially reticent results of the Naval Court of Inquiry run by the Admiralty in private and which were not released into the public domain until 1970 (there was also a public inquiry, whose outcomes did have greater impact, held in Stornoway). Despite the tragedy taking place just yards from the shore, the bodies of some 64 of those who died – nearly one in three – were never found: heavy naval uniforms and a surging swell, and a lack of life-saving equipment due to the boat being vastly overcrowded, being among the factors of blame. It is also impossible not to be both touched by the scale of the tragedy and angry about these things as well as that the loss of the Iolaire is not more widely known.

Erected in 1960, and in spite of some local opposition, the memorial overlooking the site of the wreck is a fairly simple granite affair, added to which there is a stone cairn; the impact of both being undermined – of course temporarily – on our visit by the construction of a new DDA-compliant access path and, more long-term, by a line of small-scale wind turbines located perhaps rather too close at hand. And, indeed, by those who, on the day, had somewhat thoughtlessly chosen that spot from which to attempt to fish (the campaign to have the site of the wreck of HMY Iolaire designated as a war grave seems long overdue).

In the centre of Stornoway itself, there is also a recently-constructed tribute designed by students of the Nicolson Institute whose touching idea it was to collect stones from each of the home villages of those who were lost – and including, therefore, some from typical port and naval towns both in mainland Scotland and from England since the crew of the yacht, which had been commandeered into naval service during the war, were substantially English (but also included some men from Cardiff). The last three stones were collected by Angus MacNeil MP from the Thames, representing men from London (and nearby) who were lost and are among the 18 on the south face of the cairn (adjacent to the left on this view) listed as from ‘Sasainn’.

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I should be absolutely clear at this point that ‘Sasainn’ is simply the word which is commonly used today in Gàidhlig (and, indeed, similarly in Irish) for ‘England’. There is no attempt to denigrate – this is, not least, a memorial; and high school students have been closely involved.

Yet the word itself is complex, and difficult: most people will know of the term ‘Sassenach’ (used pejoratively to denote the English); while the derivation of the term itself is originally a very broad way of denoting anyone who came from outside Gàidhlig-speaking areas (and thus includes lowland Scots) and where, in some respects, it might be seen as the counterpart of the similarly pejorative ‘teuchter’, the lowland word for those from such areas (= ‘bumpkin’ or ‘yokel’). ‘Sasainn’ itself originally referred to ‘Saxon’. Perhaps oddly, ‘Sasainn’ also bears absolutely no relation to the Gàidhlig for the English language (= ‘Beurla’).

There is thus something of the concept of ‘outsider’ contained in the continued use of ‘Sasainn’ to mean ‘England’, which is problematic both in itself as well as in the context of the islands (and the language) opening up to outside influence. This is not at all a criticism of islanders themselves (at least, the large majority of them who are outside the influence of the shockingly rabid right-wing irrelevancies of the type set out here by the Free Church of Scotland (Continuing)) – and, indeed, I did visit the still pristinely-painted mosque in the centre of Stornoway. The islanders I’ve met have been without exception warm, open and hugely welcoming – and which in itself says quite a bit about the ways in which language can change meaning over time and used as it evolves without regard to the historical precedents. And, perhaps, it ultimately says more about my perceptions of myself as an English-origin outsider than about others’ perceptions of me.

But I do wonder whether Gàidhlig needs another word for ‘England’ which conveys, at least to this outsider, a rather less apparently loaded set of meanings.

100 posts and a beer

No, not a reward for finally finishing painting the fence (that’s a little way off, yet, though progress is indeed a little in evidence in the photo below) but in honour of this, my 100th post since establishing The Back Room. I started this particular blog in October 2016 and so, 92 weeks later, I’ve managed to produce at the rate of about 1 post per week which, given that early days were spent writing quite a lot of material to allow it to hit the ground running, as opposed to embodying a forlorn and somewhat empty-looking single post or two, is not exactly Stakhanovite. A little more needs to be done there, I think.

Many of my more astute readers will have picked up that a lot of my post titles have a (quite deliberately, and stretched in only a few cases) musical connection so, in celebration, I added up how many. (Some sort of answer below.)

In the meantime, and also in honour of the recently passed second anniversary of my coming to live on these islands, I thought I’d toast the last 100 posts and look forward to the next one with a bottle of homebrew: actually, the last remaining bottle of the first batch (of five surviving) I made. This was really quite a good beer – dry, citrusy and hoppy, gently carbonated, a rich golden colour and with a decent and lingering head, and finish: or, at least, the top half was, the bottom half being sediment-heavy and, once added to the glass, making the whole closer in style and appearance to a German hefeweizen than a true IPA. I do need to do something about the sediment next time as it changes the character and taste of the beer completely and I’m not entirely sure I’m such a fan of murk. Not yet, anyway. (Though I’d also be happy to go the whole hog and start brewing hefeweizen, too.) In taste, the closest match I can recall from my efforts is to a Brewdog Dead Pony Club – although that ought not to be the case since this is an American Pale Ale and, being more of a session ale, a little lower in alcohol content than my fairly heady brew. Knowing neither the hop content nor the malt mix involved in my brew, the reasons why will have to remain a mystery for now until I gain a bit more confidence with the basics and start developing my own sources of malt and hops.

But, all in all, a decent start. So, here’s to the next batch – both of beers and, of course, of posts, too.

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It’s 15. (Judge’s decision is final.)

Orchids eh

One of the pleasures of living on the Western Isles is watching the predominant colours change as early spring evolves into late, and late spring into summer.

The yellows of the early wildflowers on the machair – the unique and highly fertile land environment specific to the Hebrides consisting of an alkali top dressing, drawn naturally from seashell fragments blown ashore by the winds as well as from crofters’ use of seaweed as a fertiliser, on top of an acid base founded on peat – give way firstly to whites and then to reds, blues and purples. Yellow flag iris, birds foot trefoil and buttercups – yes, and dandelions (grr); daisies, eyebright, bog cotton, water lilies, clover, yarrow and cow parsley; red clover, thrift, ragged robin, knapweed, cranesbills and harebell. The blurred boundaries between the arrivals and departures of the various colours lead to breathtaking displays of nature at its fertile, naturally cohesive best. As well as a real reward for not cutting the grass.

And they also lead, in summer, to orchids.

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The spotted leaves give this away as a heath spotted-orchid (thanks to Rebecca Cotton for the ID!) though orchids are notorious hybridisers and there could, as a result, be all kinds of things in this one’s particular DNA. In warm conditions, heath spotted-orchids can be up to 40 cms (16″) high and feature a cone, or pyramid, of up to 50 flowers, though orchids also come in dwarf varieties – as apparently this one seems to be: just two flowers and little more than a handful of centimetres high, as the daisy (placed here for comparative flower size, not height purposes – the orchid is shorter) highlights. And no more than a pair of those spotted leaves.

They’re also pretty hardy – this one was found right underneath a washing line in regular use, and on a patch of our own machair which is mown quite regularly; either or both of which might well account for this one’s cropped top. A similar specimen subsequently discovered a few feet away (and with a total of a massive four flowers) was right underneath one of the washing line posts and existing on a few centrimetres of soil cast cosmetically on top of the several inches of concrete in which the post is embedded and which has been recolonised by nature. Mind you, if it’s warm conditions that lead to taller and more plentiful flower spikes, the general weather conditions on South Uist might well indicate a more natural than human explanation for this one’s more stunted, but nevertheless determined growth.

In contrast to the rather fragile exotic orchids beloved of flower shops and home design specialists, that these orchids have to struggle to survive in tough conditions (aside of the comforting soil of the machair) makes them a more than suitable metaphor for the Western Isles themselves. On top of this, their diversity and ability to develop hybrid versions of themselves provide an inspiring route map for essential survival and regeneration. Together, all this leads to orchids fast becoming my favourite wildflower – hence my delight at finding versions right on our own patch!