[In honor of my about-to-conclude grad class on Analyzing 21st Century America, a series on great recent literary works, with the same Af Am lit through-line that I brought to the class!]
On an innovative multi-generational novel that reveals the limits and potential of historical fiction.
I’ve written in a couple different posts about Alex Haley’s semi-autobiographical historical novel Roots (1976), which at its core represents Haley’s sweeping, ambitious attempt to tell the multi-generational story of his African American family from its African and slave trade origins down to his own late 20th century moment and identity. In so doing, Haley makes the choice to focus a good deal of his book’s mammoth length on one particular ancestor, Kunta Kinte, the Gambian man who experiences the turning point experiences of enslavement, Middle Passage, and life as an enslaved person in the Americas. I don’t have the book in front of me and so am not sure exactly what percentage focuses on Kinte, but I remember it being a substantial amount, far more than he devotes to any other figure or generation between Kinte’s and Haley’s own. The choice makes sense, since it was this figure whose story began—served as, y’know, the roots of—the family’s multi-generational African American experience. But it nonetheless means that a lot of history, both familial and national, gets more short shrift in Haley’s telling.
Homegoing (2016), the acclaimed debut novel from Ghanaian American writer Yaa Gyasi, sets itself an even more ambitious task: telling the multi-generational story of two (interconnected) families across roughly the same period as Haley’s book, one family that likewise experiences the Middle Passage and enslavement in the Americas, one that remains in Africa until the early 21st century. In contrast to Haley’s focus, Gyasi chooses a much more overtly sweeping structure: she focuses in each chapter on a new character and generation (or rather two chapters per generation, one for each family), meaning that with each such structural shift we are carried forward something like 25-50 years until we arrive at the 21st century protagonists. And I can’t lie—the AmericanStudier in me had a hard time with just how quick and (at least at times) over-simplified those chapter-long depictions of historical moments can feel; I can’t speak to the African-focused chapters as much, but the chapters on (for example) Reconstruction and the Harlem Renaissance feel painfully brief and like they barely scratch the surface of those hugely complex periods. That’s always gonna be a limit of historical fiction compared with a nonfictional historical work, of course, but Gyasi’s structural choice certainly amplifies that issue.
Yet at the same time, the best historical fiction can both open up the past and connect it to the present (and us as readers) in ways that, as I’ve long argued in this space and elsewhere, are unique and vital to this literary genre. Gyasi’s novel certainly achieves those goals in numerous ways, and it does so most inspiringly in precisely the ways that Haley’s book sought to (and in at least one striking passage did). That is, these glimpses into lives and stories across centuries of historical periods and two continents, brief and quick and partial as they may be, made this AmericanStudier feel the idea of connections—of the links across generations, across history, across an ocean, between ancestors and descendants, and ultimately between all 21st century world citizens—as potently and movingly as any literary work I’ve ever encountered. The British novelist E.M. Forster begged us all (in his 1910 novel Howard’s End) to “only connect,” and I’m not sure any task remains more vital more than a century later. Like much of the best art, Gyasi’s novel can help us find and strengthen such connections, and that alone makes it a 21st century text well worth reading.
Next 21C text tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other recent literary works you’d highlight?
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