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ZYZZYVA Book Reviews.

‘If You’re Going to Tell the Story of Slavery, I’m Going to Listen All Day’: Q&A with ‘Homegoing’ Author Yaa Gyasi

Yaa Gyasi (photo by Michael Lionstar)

Yaa Gyasi (photo by Michael Lionstar)

Yaa Gyasi’s recently released and critically acclaimed first novel, Homegoing (320 pages; Knopf) moves from late 18th century West Africa to 21st century California, tracking the repercussions of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. Gyasi, a graduate from Stanford and the Iowa Writers Workshop, and whose book was just named to the longlist for the 2016 Center for Fiction First Novel Prize, illustrates how slavery and white supremacy shaped life in the African diaspora by exploring the history of a single family—one branch of which remains in what eventually becomes Ghana, while the other experiences the turbulent history of African America.

By drawing direct lines among the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, British colonialism in West Africa, and institutional racism in the United States, Gyasi makes a powerful statement about how slavery’s impact continues to reverberate in our contemporary moment. A moving exploration of trauma, survival, and perseverance, Homegoing provides a portrait of the African diaspora with unprecedented scope. I sat down with Gyasi in her south Berkeley apartment to discuss how she constructed the novel, the necessity of telling stories of slavery, and how black narratives push the boundaries of realism.

ZYZZYVA: Let’s start by talking about how you put this book together. I’m intrigued by how you did so—a lot of it resembles a collection of interlinked short fictions. Did it at any point begin as a short story cycle

Yaa Gyasi: Actually, no, it didn’t. It began as a more traditionally structured novel. It was originally set in the present and focused on the last two characters, [Marcus and Marjorie], and then it flashed back to 18th century Ghana. I wrote about 100 pages that way until I got to Iowa. Then I realized that I was interested in tracking how slavery, colonialism, and institutionalized racism work over a very long period of time—not just the beginning and end, but the movement from the beginning to the end. Then I thought that I might as well try a structure that allowed me to stop along as many historical moments as possible, which is how I came up with the structure you see now. But it took me three years to arrive there, and I never thought of it as short stories, perhaps because I’d been working on this novel idea and just pivoted in the middle of the process. But also, the long arc of the book was more important to me. The accumulation of all of the chapters was more important to me than the individual chapters.

Z: Would you say that that pivot toward the long historical arc was a pivot away from a character-based narrative and toward the historical novel?

YG: I think it’s still very character-based. I wanted each chapter to focus on character and not whatever historical event was happening in the background, though obviously, those events very much informs each of the characters’ lives. I guess maybe it was me coming to the realization that a lot of the themes I was thinking about were better suited to a structure that allowed me to follow a longer through line than just having the beginning and the end. So maybe it was a transition, not away from a character-based novel, but into an understanding of the themes that are important in this book.

Z: It sounds right that it’s still character-driven, but because of the nature of the structure, many of your characters’ stories end right before major narrative arcs resolve themselves. As a reader, I found myself wishing I could continue following characters like Akua and Willie. Did you as the author ever wish that you could revisit some of these characters?

YG: Not really while I was writing, because, again, I had that long arc in mind, so I really wanted to get there. But I think as a project of thinking, I’m always wondering, for example, what would happen if we followed Robert’s family down the line, this lineage of people who think they are white and have always been white? That’s always fascinated me. I could have definitely followed any of the characters in this book and ended up in an entirely different place. That’s really interesting to me.

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A Terrible Twist of Fate, the Birth of a Writer: ‘Will & I’ by Clay Byars

Will & I Clay Byars’ memoir, Will & I (192 pages; FSG Originals), could have opened on the car crash that changes Byars’ life at 20. It could have opened nine months after the crash when surgery that is supposed to fix the nerve damage in his shoulder results in a stroke that leaves him paralyzed and near death once more. It could have even opened on the stroke itself, the dizziness and life receding “to a dreamlike distance.” It could have opened on any one of the many dramatic circumstances punctuating Byars’ life, but instead it opens on a singing lesson.

After his stroke, Byars not only loses the ability to move but also the ability to speak. Gradually, he regains a limited mobility and a shaky, barely intelligible version of his old voice. With the help of his singing coach, Dewin, he learns to control it, or rather he learns how to trust sound waves to do their work. At the end of one of his first lessons, Byars feels his voice come in tune with the piano. “The sound,” he writes, “no longer had a ceiling.” The rest of the memoir follows the author slowly and painstakingly removing the ceilings fate keeps thrusting over him. And he does believe in fate, in a writerly way: “The notion of fate only appears when we consider ourselves as unified consciousnesses moving through time, but such an identity is merely a role—or at least that’s how I’ve come to see it.”

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‘Language to Swarm and Eat’ the Hopelessness: ‘A Bestiary’ by Lily Hoang

A BestiaryLily Hoang’s new book, A Bestiary (156 pages; Cleveland State University Poetry Center), proves why a healthy amount of skepticism—at times bordering on distaste—for the self is an undervalued trait in literature. Throughout her collection, Hoang blurs the line between personal essay and prose poetry as she takes stock of her life and often comes to some unflattering conclusions. Reflecting on an unsatisfying, on-and-off-again relationship with her lover, she writes, “I feel like a feminist poser, talking a big game about empowerment but living a reality of passivity and self-contempt.”

A Bestiary offers a snapshot of a turbulent time in Hoang’s life, one in which she’s still grieving her sister’s unexpected death from a brain aneurysm while trying to provide a home for her nephew, a recovering drug addict. Her aging parents also offer a point of concern, with her mother using iPad games to escape from reality and her father needling her about her weight. As a writer, Hoang is refreshingly comfortable with balancing contradictions—the self, after all, contains multitudes. This is why she can remark on Page 107, “I want my sadness to be legitimized,” when earlier in the text she came to the conclusion, “Real sadness does not need a performance.”

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Looking for Life After Death: ‘Zero K’ by Don DeLillo

Zero KDon DeLillo’s seventeenth novel, Zero K (288 pages; Scribner), has all the trappings of a typical DeLillo novel. It opens with the protagonist Jeffrey Lockhart arriving at the Convergence, a techo-utopian compound erected in the midst of a central Asian desert. The compound is a staging ground for a series of experiments, led by the mysterious Stenmark Twins (or, at least that’s what Jeffrey calls them), into the possibilities of cryogenics. These experiments are meant to prepare their participants—including Jeffrey’s terminally ill stepmother, Artis, and estranged father, Ross Lockhart—for a future where death has ceased to exist and life may be everlasting. There’s little plot beyond this initial setup. Rather, DeLillo performs an elliptical investigation of the tensions between skepticism and belief, alienation and community, subjectivity and relationality.

In this sense, Zero K sometimes seems like less of a novel and more of a philosophical treatise. Jeffrey aimlessly wanders the Convergence. Occasionally he encounters screens that descend at random to depict epic scenes of human suffering, as if to remind him of the mortality he might leave behind in the compound. A skeptic amid the Convergence’s utopian promise, he refuses to take the Stenmark Twins’ vision seriously. He’s convinced the entire project is a prank, a cosmic joke on gullible believers. To register his incredulity, he knocks on doors at random, certain no one is behind them, that the Convergence is a stage created for the purpose of an elaborate fiction. For the most part he’s confirmed in his suspicion—until someone answers and topples Jeffrey’s assumptions.

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The Bravery to Stand in Opposition: Adam Hochschild’s “Spain in Our Hearts”

Spain in Our HeartsAdam Hochschild’s Spain in Our Hearts (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 372 pages) carries the unique distinction of possessing value equally for the specialist and the lay reader. Hochschild is not only a historian but also a humane storyteller, and in Spain in Our Hearts the literary quality of his prose alternatively sweeps the reader into the historical narrative, while also situating us in the subjective experience of his key historical personages. His and their conception of what the Spanish Civil War actually meant is attested to time and again by an array of ideologically discrepant individuals ranging from foreign correspondents and foreign fighters, including George Orwell, as well the diaries and letters of the Spanish troops on the ground. Their shared portentous sentiment—that this was the rehearsal for World War II, for the near global and yet by no means black-and-white opposition to Fascism—is eerily and independently echoed by witnesses throughout the book.

The book begins with urgency, pulling the reader into the chaos and tumult that will characterize much of the narrative: “The country is in flames. For nearly two years, the fractious but democratically elected government of the Spanish Republic has been defending itself against a military uprising led by Francisco Franco and backed by Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy.” By November 1936, the country was roughly divided between its West, where Franco had more or less triumphed in a military and government take over, and the East, where Republican, Anarchist, and Communist communities held control. What strikes one immediately is the inventive and therefore especially disturbing barbarity and ruthlessness of Franco’s regime in dealing with dissidents and oppositional forces. These atrocities were often geographically removed from Barcelona, which seemed to many to be a kind of budding egalitarian Utopia, especially to a few of the Americans Hochschild follows who arrived in the city early in the conflict.

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The Powerful Illusions of Literature: ‘The Sky Over Lima’ by Juan Gómez Bárcena

The Sky Over LimaIn Lima, Peru, in 1904, two wealthy young men wrote a letter to the Spanish Nobel Laureate poet Juan Ramon Jimenez, entreating him to send them a copy of his new book of poems. The young men believed the poet would be more likely to write back if they pretended to be a beautiful young woman. To their surprise, their joke backfires in an explosion of emotional shrapnel.

Based on this true story, Spanish author Juan Gómez Bárcena makes his literary debut with The Sky Over Lima (translated by Andrea Rosenberg; 288 pages; Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), the charming retelling of a hoax that occurred a little over a hundred years ago. The novel’s satirical charm and witty re-creation of historical events take us into its embrace, but more than that, Barcena never allows us to forget that this story is, like our own lives, an artistic creation.

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Aftermath of Greek Crisis: ‘Something Will Happen, You’ll See’ by Christos Ikonomou

Something Will Happen, You'll SeeIn the aftermath of Greece’s 2010 debt crisis, amid the hardship in his country, Christos Ikonomou wrote Something Will Happen, You’ll See (Archipelago Books, 250 pages, translated by Karen Emmerich). A recipient of some of Greece’s highest literary honors, as well as praise from across Europe, Ikonomou’s collection of interconnected stories focuses on people with barely a hope for attaining something better than what they’ve been given: a son stays up all night to watch the streets so his neighbors can get some sleep; a group of elderly industrial workers, recently laid off, huddle around an oil-drum fire outside the gates of their old job; fathers are forced to ask—forced to lie to—their children for money; whole communities are broken up like concrete foundations in an earthquake.

“I don’t want to write just about Greeks and Greece,” said Ikonomou in an interview with Nasslit.com, “I am trying to look beyond the walls of language and my country, I’m trying to reach out to Americans, to whoever is interested in my story, and I’m trying to write about human beings, what it means to be human and what it means to try to be human in an inhumane environment.”

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Fake Autobiography, Genuine Examination: ‘Gone with the Mind’ by Mark Leyner

Gone with the MindIn an interview with The Paris Review, Mark Leyner, author of such postmodern classics as Et Tu, Babe?, said, “I think there has to be some kind of crisis before I really feel there’s a book I should write.” In his new book, the fictional autobiography Gone with the Mind (Little, Brown and Company, 250 pages), Leyner shows us that his biggest crisis is his own life.

Gone with the Mind is an existential, experimental autobiography that covers, with broad absurd strokes, the course of Leyner’s life up to the present. The story begins at a food court, somewhere between Sbarro and Panda Express, where Leyner and his mother, Muriel, are holding a reading for Gone with the Mind. The only attendees, besides Leyner’s mother, are some food court employees on break, who are referred to every now and then throughout the novel. We never make it to the reading, however. Instead, we are given a lengthy introduction by Leyner’s mother (in which she gives us the story of her difficult pregnancy and its culmination in Mark, showing us the sort of household Mark grew up in), followed by a lengthier speech by Leyner, then a Q&A session that has neither questions nor answers.

Leyner’s speech is a long, winding stream of consciousness that begins with how he had initially conceived of his autobiography as a first-person-shooter video game. His narrative weaves in and out of childhood stories and metaphysical treatises on subjects like religion and masturbation. He introduces us to his muse, the Imaginary Intern, who appeared to him on the tile of a bathroom floor and helped him to write this autobiography. Amid these ludicrous vignettes, he talks about the traumas in his life, like his battle with prostate cancer and his complicated relationship with his father.

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When the Only Escape Is Through Fantasy: ‘The Seven Madmen’ by Roberto Arlt

The Seven MadmenRoberto Arlt’s The Seven Madmen (New York Review Books, 272 pages; translated by Nick Caistor) is a thriller, a crime drama, a dystopian revolution novel, a metafictional meditation, a tragic romance, and a revenge tale all in one. Julio Cortazar, who provides the introduction in the New York Review Books edition, is correct in saying Arlt’s novel throws off any “literariness”—its schizophrenic characters and arrangement are too emotionally raw, too erratic in theme and direction for it to be a “traditional” novel, especially for when it was written in 1929. (Some of the novel’s formal choices, such as the use of footnotes, and the way its plotting creates a broken narrative wouldn’t be “literary” for decades.)

The story is composed of “The Confessions” of Remo Erdosain, a poverty-stricken, manic-depressive, and hopelessly self-reflective Argentinian. Arlt fronts as if his fiction is real, trying to convince us that he actually met this miserable man and interviewed him over ten days (so say the footnotes). Forged at a young age in humiliation from his father and in pain from destitution, Erdosain constructs an intricate escapism. His intense imagination and its resulting multitude of made-up scenes, stories, and fantasies plunge us deep into the mind of an anguished man.

And “anguish” is the word for it. Erdosain believes he and all his fellow unfortunates live in “The Anguish Zone,” an inescapable layer of existence that curbs their thoughts and actions into unavoidable feedback loops of habit and delusion, keeping them miserable. They live in fantasy instead of reality. Erdosain sees his life almost like a stage drama, one which reality continually crashes, spoiling his idealism.

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Tweeting Ourselves into Oblivion: ‘I Hate the Internet’ by Jarett Kobek

9780996421805_p0_v1_s192x300The last two years have witnessed several novels lamenting the changing cultural landscape of the Bay Area, setting their sights on the runaway capitalism of the tech industry. But few of these books have actually assimilated the language of tech into their critique. This is part of what makes Jarett Kobek’s novel I Hate the Internet (We Heard You Like Books, 288 pages) so potent.

I Hate the Internet is ostensibly the story of Adeline, a middle-aged comic book artist living in San Francisco circa 2013. When Adeline, who purposefully affects a Trans-Atlantic accent a la Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, delivers a guest lecture at a Bay Area art school, she has no idea that her off-the-cuff remarks will be recorded and uploaded to the web by a student, generating a firestorm of Internet outrage in the process. While Adeline’s story remains an anchor throughout the novel, her dilemma is not the main focus of the book. Instead, her story serves as a springboard for Kobek to examine the state of San Francisco in the 21st century.

The narrative transitions from subject to subject at the speed of a mouse-click; a reference to Adeline’s former boyfriend working at LucasArts leads to several digressive paragraphs in which Kobek offers his own explication of the Star Wars property and its billion-dollar acquisition by the Disney corporation in 2012. This technique occurs on nearly every page, creating the impression that the reader has disappeared down a rabbit hole of URLs, following link after link on Kobek’s version of Wikipedia. It also allows Kobek to tie together several disparate threads throughout the book, while maintaining his central thesis that comic book publishers like Marvel and DC Comics—whose artists, such as Jack Kirby, saw almost none of the dizzying profits made off their intellectual properties—were the forerunners of companies like Facebook and Instagram, which earn massive revenues based on the content its millions of users produce for free.

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The ‘Adverse Gift’ Leading to a Full Life: ‘The Child Poet’ by Homero Aridjis

Screen-shot-2015-09-10-at-4.12.48-PM-253x300Homero Aridjis is renowned for his poetry throughout Latin America, his work having received the praise of such titanic contemporaries as Octavio Paz, Juan Rulfo, and Luis Buñuel, But Aridjis is also known for being one of Latin America’s most distinguished and conscientious environmental activists. In 1985, he founded the Group of 100, gathering together artists and academics to promote environmental justice in Latin America and leading to such accomplishments as legal protection for migratory monarch butterfly communities, gray whale sanctuaries for gray whales, and a reduction in Mexico City’s air pollution. Aridjis served as Mexico’s ambassador to Netherlands, Switzerland, and UNESCO, and was president of countless worldwide organizations promoting sustainable living, cultural diversity, and human rights.

His newest book, The Child Poet (Archipelago books, 153 pages, translated by his daughter Chloe Aridjis), is a brief exploration of where it all began, including a retelling of the tragic event he calls his “second birth” that turned him into the amazingly accomplished man he is today.

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The Voice That Moves You: ‘The Art of Perspective’ by Christopher Castellani

9781555977269When readers think of Vladimir Nabokov’s classic novel Lolita, they’re arguably more likely to recall the silver-tongued wordplay of its narrator, Humbert Humbert, than they are of the machinations of the plot, the character’s verbal gymnastics intended to distract from the horrors of his crimes. As Humbert declares, “You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style.” One of William Faulkner’s most revered novels, Light in August, utilizes a complex, impressionistic style, even to the point of incorporating made up words like “sootbleakened” and “childtrebling,” to underscore the psychological complexity of its potentially unsympathetic lead, Joe Christmas. Tim O’Brien’s book The Things They Carried is a Vietnam account that constantly casts doubt on its own veracity, its narrator interrogating just what it means to tell a “true” war story.

All of these works prove why who is telling a story is often just as crucial as the story itself, if not more so. As novelist Christopher Castellani states, “There is no more important decision the writer makes than who tells the story.” Castellani is the author of The Art of Perspective: Who Tells the Story (160 pages), the latest in a collection of books about the craft of writing published by Graywolf Press. While the series may be of most interest to writers, Castellani discusses fiction in such an accessible and engaging manner that the book should prove compelling to anyone who is curious about why some of their favorite novels work the way they do.

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