6 March this year was the 60th anniversary of Ghana’s independence from British rule.
Celebrations are going on throughout the year and those of you who follow Darkowaa’s excellent blog African Book Addict! will have seen her 3-part series GH at 60 | Our Writers & Their Books which looked at 75 Ghanaian writers and certainly caused my TBR to reach even more astronomical heights. As an attempt to reduce the mountain by at least 2, this week I’m looking at 2 novels by writers of Ghanaian heritage. It’s also one more stop on my Around the World in 80 Books Reading Challenge, hosted by Hard Book Habit. Happy Anniversary Ghana!
Firstly, Half Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan (2011) which was shortlisted for both the Orange Prize (as it then was) and the Booker, and won the Giller Prize. Narrated by jazz musician Sid Griffiths, it tells the story of jazz prodigy Hieronymous Falk, a 19 year old ‘Mischling’ (half white European, half black African) and the band he plays in, trying to carry on working in Europe under threat from the Nazis during the Second World War. The narrative shifts between 1939-40 in the build up to when Hiero is arrested and sent to a concentration camp; and 1992, where Sid and his frenemy Chip attend a documentary about Hiero and then undertake a journey to Poland.
“See, Half Blood Blues, 3 min 33 secs, is almost all I got out of that time. I ain’t sore about it. Ain’t no glory made from being dependable. But it started Chip’s career a second time. Jolted the man awake again. And, well, it made Hiero one of them most famous jazz trumpeters of his generation.”
The documentary and journey force Sid to look back on probably the most complex, confusing time of his life. He was a young man, there was sexual jealousy and musical rivalry, and there is survivors’ guilt. Sid could pass for white and had fake papers, but at what price?
“So we passed, sure. But there was passing, and there was passing. Sometimes it seemed like we’d passed right out of own skins.”
Edugyan captures the terror of living under Nazi occupation while the band await papers to get them out of France:
“I was crying soundlessly. I dragged my damn face against my sleeve, feeling ashamed. I ain’t never thought fear had a taste. It does. In that small darkness it was a thing filling my nostrils, thick as sand in my throat, and I near choked on it.”
She also writes evocatively about the music of the band, something which is essentially impossible to capture in words:
“Wasn’t like nothing I ever heard before. The kid came in at a strange angle, made the notes glitter like crystal.”
Half Blood Blues offers a well-researched, evocative portrayal of a time that has been well-documented but from a perspective that has been underrepresented: black experience in World War II. Hiero remains an enigma throughout the tale and so we don’t hear of black experience in the concentration camps but rather as artists declared enemies of the state. The novel never falters under the weight of its research however, and it is psychologically astute:
“I guess mercy is a muscle like any other. You got to exercise it, or it just cramp right up.”
Sid does not behave well at times and his selfish actions have tragic ramifications. However, Edugyan is merciful to her characters and ultimately Half Blood Blues is about redemption, forgiveness and acceptance of ourselves and others. I found the end really moving which meant I got a little teary on the tube – but there’s usually someone having a cry on the Underground so it drew very little attention 😉
Secondly, Homegoing, the debut novel by Yaa Gyasi (2016). Recently I’ve found that contemporary novels garnering hype and rapturous reviews are leaving me distinctly underwhelmed so I approached Homegoing with some trepidation. But I will add to the hype surrounding this novel by suggesting I think it deserved #ALLTHEPLAUDITS. It was hugely ambitious, and I thought Gyasi totally pulled it off, which is just astonishing considering it’s her first novel.
It begins in the eighteenth century with separated sisters in the Gold Coast (part of modern day Ghana):
“in my village we have a saying about separated sisters. They are like a woman and her reflection, doomed to stay on opposite sides of the pond.”
Effia is taken to a fort, The Castle, to become the mistress of a British commander (ie slave trader):
“her whole life Baaba had beat her and made her feel small, and she had fought back with her beauty, a silent weapon, but a powerful one, which had led her to the feet of a chief.”
Her sister Esi meanwhile, is trapped in the dungeons of The Castle, to be exported as part of the slave trade.
“[He] had grown accustomed to the smell of shit, but fear was one smell that would stand out forever. It curled his nose and brought tears to his eyes, but he had learned long ago how to keep himself from crying.”
They don’t know about one another, and subsequent chapters alternate between the stories of their descendants, some in Ghana, some in the United States. Each generation is tracked through, and Gyasi demonstrates that just because slavery ends, the subjugation and marginalisation of people of colour does not.
“The British had no intention of leaving Africa, even once the slave trade ended. They owned the Castle, and, though they had yet to speak it aloud, they intended to own the land as well.”
Gyasi’s ambition is huge: Homecoming tracks over 200 years of history to demonstrate how the legacy of slavery survives to this day. That she does this through a compelling story with people you care about despite only being with them for a chapter marks her out as a formidable storyteller.
“the need to call this thing ‘good’ and this thing ‘bad’, this thing ‘white’ and this thing ‘black’ was an impulse that Effia did not understand. In her village, everything was everything. Everything bore the weight of everything else.”
At times I found Homecoming an almost unbearable read. The injustice, the violence, the depravity of what human beings can do to one another, turning a blind eye in the acquisition of money, made it an incredibly tough read in places. Gyasi does not dwell on violence, but nor does she shy away from the realities of what she is depicting.
“The older Jo got, the more he understood…that sometimes staying free required unimaginable sacrifice.”
Gyasi is a huge talent, and a writer with something important to say. I’m really excited to see what she does next.
Happy 60th Birthday Ghana!