15 February 2020

Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing: P.O.V and Narrative Structure

The historical fiction, Homegoing, spans over three centuries and eight generations. Its author, Gyasi, assigns one chapter to each of the major characters and narrates each chapter from the perspective of the central character, a descendant from either side of Effia or Esi, half sisters born in the African Fante and Asante land where the Atlantic slave trade originates. Gyasi employs the third person limited omniscient POV and presents a balanced and panoramic view from the opposite side of slavery – one side running the business, profiting from it and eventually fighting against it on the African continent; and the other side being sold to bondage on the American continent. These individual voices come together and form a collective vantage point that allows readers to examine and ponder the slavery’s root causes and its dire consequences on the individual, the communities, and the race.

Esi, once the pampered princess of the Asante land, is captured by invaders from another village and was sold to the British colonizers. She was kept in the dungeon of Cape Coast Castle before being shipped to the American south. This is the starting point, a point of no return, to “Hell”, as Esi tells the reader: “When she (Esi) wanted to forget the Castle, she thought of things, but she did not expect joy. Hell was a place of remembering, each beautiful moment passed through the mind’s eye until it fell to the ground like a rotten mango, perfectly useless, uselessly perfect.” (28) Here, through the third person limited POV, the character reveals and articulates her inner thoughts and emotions: how desperate and futile she tries to cope with the inhuman condition in the dungeon by trying to remember her father’s compound, the respect her father, the “Big Man”, gets from his village, her suitors with bountiful of food and palm wines. The distance between the reader and the narrator is almost as close as with the first person narration. This close and intimate distance gives readers focus to fully stay in the character’s world at the particular time and space.    

The POV works in tandem with the narrative structure of the book to solve the seemingly daunting and ambitious task the author intends to accomplish. Homegoing is an unique novel in a sense that the story is told through linked, episodic stories rather than through a central storyline. Each episode and its central character stands alone, representing the generation he or she belongs: on the American side, there are the sharecropper H for the Jim Crow South, Willie for the Great Migration, Sonny for the Harlem jazz scene in the late 20th century, etc.; and on the African side, there are characters for the exiled king, the warrior queen, and the crazy woman who kills her own two children, people who got caught in the human trafficking, tribal conflicts, and the wars that are turned to produce supply for the slave trade. Reading as a whole, it provides an all-inclusive picture of the history’s stories and lessons.

Towards the end of the chapter of Esi, Esi loses her mother’s stone before the British soldiers take her and other slaves out of the dungeon and march them to the boat. At that moment, the Governor of the Castle, Esi’s brother-in-law (unknown to Esi), looks and smiles at her. “It was a kind smile, pitying, yet true.” Esi tells the reader, “But for the rest of her life Esi would see a smile on a white face and remember the one the soldier gave her before taking her to his quarter, how white men smiling just meant more evil was coming with next wave.” (49) The advantage of using third person limited POV gives the author flexibility what to reveal and how. As the ending of this chapter shows, the zoomed-in moment gives much weight to the scope of the chapter and the whole story.

In the case of Homegoing, it seems that the story is choosing the point of view from which it wishes to be written. What is original and remarkable about the organizing structure of the book is that in each individual voice, readers hear the multiple. The chorus, as a whole, seems to be sung by a single voice, a God-like voice that connects the individual ones and raises them to an epic level.   

Work Cited

Gyasi, Yaa. Homegoing. Ed. First Vintage Books. New York: Vintage Books, 2017.

12 February 2020

Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day: Psychological Development of A Character

Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day is a masterfully and quietly executed tragi-comedy about private agonies of an aging, old-fashioned, and workaholic English butler, Mr. Stevens. Stevens, in his later years of his career, undergoes a transformation in his first-ever week-long motoring trip outside the confines of the estate of Lord Darlington to visit a former colleague, a housekeeper named Miss Kenton, who left twenty years earlier to get married. In his journey, Stevens reminisces and ponders on the dogged professionalism and dignity of his and his father’s work, his disgraced former employer, and most importantly, his relationship with Miss Kenton. Through Stevens’ reflections, subtle emotions beneath his proper and polished narration comes to surface and roil. When the story reaches its climax in the quiet surroundings of a Cornish tearoom, where Stevens meets with Kenton after decades of his self-denial and inability to show his feeling, he finally realizes that because of his blind loyalty and pursuit of the work ethics of professionalized servitude, he has let slip through his fingers what truly matters to him in the remains of his day: the love of his life.

Initially, Stevens does not want to embark the road trip to the West Country to “see around his own country” suggested by his new American employer. “It has been my privilege to see the best of England over the years, sir, within these very walls.” (4) Stevens reasons to his employer. However, he changes his mind quickly after receiving Kenton’s letter. But then he takes great pains to explain that her letter has only something to do with “professional matters here at Darlington Hall, and I (Stevens) would underline that it was a preoccupation with these very same professional matters that led me to consider anew my employer’s kindly meant suggestion. But let me explain further.” (5) Such high mannered tactics in self-protection and evasion of true feelings run through most of Stevens’ life. Whenever he reaches a sensitive subject, such as later when he questions whether Kenton is driven away by his refusal to admit his feelings for her, he digresses for pages before he continues, “Indeed, all in all, I cannot see why the option of her returning to the Darlington Hall and seeing out her working years there should not offer a very genuine consolation to a life that has come to be so dominated by a sense of waste.” (48)

However, the thick layers of self-denial, or self-preservation in delusions, start to peel off right at the beginning of Stevens’ once-in-a-life-time trip outside his comfort zone. On day one of the trip, the foreshadow of upcoming change in Stevens’ perception grabs the reader: “But then eventually the surroundings grew unrecognizable and I knew I had gone beyond all previous boundaries… I imagine the experience of unease mixed with exhilaration…” (24) Instead of the grand cathedral or the charming sights of the city, it is the seemingly plain but “marvelous view… of the rolling English countryside” (28) and the friendly local farmers and townspeople that remain with Stevens when he retreats to his room to rest after a day’s journey. As days go on, Stevens  recalls how Miss Kenton would bring flowers to his room, a distraction to him at the time; how she would argue with him about his father’s “over-working”; how pleasant and nostalgic he feels about their nightly “work meeting” at her parlor over cocoa; how they argued about the staff issues; and how frustrated she feels towards him: “Why, Mr Stevens, why, why, why do you always have to pretend?” (154).

One of the most profound and hilarious moments takes place on day three of the trip, when Stevens recalls how Miss Kenton wants to know what kind of book he is reading. He remembers the moment as if it is frozen in time:

“Then she was standing before me, and suddenly the atmosphere underwent a peculiar change – almost as though the two of us had been suddenly thrust on to some other plane of being together. I am afraid it is not easy to describe clearly what I mean here. All I can say is that everything around us suddenly became very still; it was my impression that Miss Kenton’s manner also underwent a sudden change; there was a strange seriousness in her expression, and it struck me she seemed almost frightened.” (167)

When Kenton finds out the book Stevens is reading is “simply a sentimental love story”, Stevens begins to defend himself that he is reading it because he wants to develop his command of the English language.

Towards the later half of his trip, Stevens begins to sense the lost opportunity caused by his callousness and lack of empathy towards Kenton’s loss of her aunt. He is aware by now that he is “becoming unduly introspective, and in a rather morose sort of way at that.” (179) He realizes that “when one looks back to such instances today, they may indeed take the appearance of being crucial, precious moments in one’s life;” and he regrets not knowing that before, that “such evidently small incidents would render the whole dreams forever irredeemable.” (179) At the end of his trip, he meets up with Kenton and hears her confess that she has thought about a life she may have had with him. Stevens breaks down at this point: “their implications (Kenton’s confessions) were such as to provoke a certain degree of sorrow within me. Indeed – why should I not admit it? – at that moment, my heart was breaking.” (239)

The Remains of the Day tells a cautionary tale about a thwarted love and life. Through the pragmatic and formal voice of the protagonist Mr. Stevens, the reader discovers the psychological under-currents of longing and desperation beneath the character’s straight-laced façade. The subtle, enigmatic shift in Stevens’ transformation is achieved through what is not said throughout the text, which makes the final breaking point all the more powerful.  

Work Cited

Ishiguro, Kazuo. The Remains of the Day. Ed. Vintage International. New York: Vintage Books, 1993.

23 April 2018

Psychic Distance

In the beginning of drafting a short novel, I have to consider different options of point of view and narrative space, as well as their pros and cons. To brush up what I have learned on this topic, here are a quick review and some examples. Hope this will help you in your reading and writing.

Outside POV: Panoramic view

  •  Dramatic or Playwright POV

Excerpt from Hills Like White Elephants by E. Hemingway:

‘It’s really an awfully simple operation, Jig, the man said. ‘It’s not really an operation at all.’

The girl looked at the ground the table legs rested on.

‘I know you wouldn’t mind it, Jig. It’s really not anything. It’s just to let the air in.’

The girl did not say anything.

‘I’ll go with you and I’ll stay with you all the time. They just let the air in and then it’s all perfectly natural.’

‘Then what will we do afterwards?’

‘We’ll be fine afterwards. Just like we were before.’ ‘What makes you think so?’

‘That’s the only thing that bothers us. It’s the only thing that’s made us unhappy.’

The girl looked at the bead curtain, put her hand out and took hold of two of the strings of beads.

‘And you think then we’ll be all right and be happy.’

Combination of Inside & Outside POV: Panning Out and Closeups

  •  Omniscient

 Grapes of Wrath Chapter 7, page 77-78:

“A lot and a house large enough for a desk and chair and a blue book. Sheaf of contracts, dog-eared, held with paper clips, and a neat pile of unused contracts. Pen- keep it full, keep it working… Owners with rolled up sleeves. Salesmen, neat, deadly, small intent eyes watching for weaknesses…”

“Lookin’ for a car? What did you have in mind? See anything attracts you? I‘m dry. How about a little snort of good stuff? Come on, while your wife’s looking’ at that La Salle. You don‘t want no La Salle. Bearings shot. Uses to much oil. Got a Lincoln ‘24. There‘s a car. Run forever. Make her into a truck.”

*This also includes Direct Internal Monologue (the car dealers) Many, many shifts of temporal and psychic distance in this book

From War and Peace by Tolstoy:

“When Boris came into the Rostov’s dining room, Natasha was up in her room. Hearing of his arrival she almost ran down to the drawing room, red in the face and radiant with a more than friendly smile.

Boris was still thinking of the little Natasha he had known four years ago dressed in a short frock, with brilliant black eyes darting out form under her curls, all wild whoops and girlish giggles, so when he saw a totally different Natasha coming into the room he was quite taken aback, and the surprise and delight showed on his face. Natasha was thrilled to see him looking like that.”

  •  Limited Omniscient

From “To Build a Fire” by Jack London:

“…Once in a while the thought reiterated itself that it was very cold and that he had never experienced such cold. As he walked along he rubbed his cheek-bones and nose with the back of his mittened hand. He did this automatically, now and again changing hands. But rub as he would, the instant he stopped his cheek-bones went numb, and the following instant the end of his nose went numb. He was sure to frost his cheeks; he knew that, and experienced a pang of regret that he had not devised a nose-strap of the sort Bud wore in cold snaps. Such a strap passed across the cheeks, as well, and saved them. But it didn’t matter much, after all. What were frosted cheeks? A bit painful, that was all; they were never serious…”

  •   Diminishing First Person

From The Great Gatsby by Fitzgerald:

“…One autumn night, five years before, they [Gatsby & Daisy] had been walking down the street when the leaves were falling, and they came to a place where there were no trees and the sidewalk was white with moonlight. They stopped here and turned toward each other. Now it was a cool night with that mysterious excitement in it which comes at the two changes of the year. The quiet lights in the houses were humming out into the darkness and there was a stir and bustle among the stars. Out of the corner of his eye Gatsby saw that the blocks of the sidewalks really formed a ladder and mounted to a secret place above the trees—he could climb to it, if he climbed alone, and once there he could suck on the pap of life, gulp down the incomparable milk of wonder.

His heart beat faster and faster as Daisy’s white face came up to his own. He knew that when he kissed this girl, and forever wed his unutterable visions to her perishable breath, his mind would never romp again like the mind of God. So he waited, listening for a moment longer to the tuning-fork that had been struck upon a star. Then he kissed her. At his lips’ touch she blossomed for him like a flower and the incarnation was complete…”

Inside POV: Only Close-ups

  • First person: most fall into this internal
  • Third person: 2 kinds— A) Interior monologue:

From The Demon Lover by Elizabeth Bowen:

“She had to catch her train. As a woman whose utter dependability was the keystone of her family life she was not willing to return to the country, to her husband, her little boys, and her sister, without the objects she had come up to fetch. Resuming work at the chest she set about making up a number of parcels in a rapid, fumbling-decisive way. These, with her shopping parcels, would be too much to carry; these meant a taxi—at the thought of the taxi her heart went up and her normal breathing resumed. I will ring up the taxi now; the taxi cannot come too soon: I shall hear the taxi out there running its engine, till I walk calmly down to it through the hall. I’ll ring up—But no: the telephone is cut off . . . She tugged at a knot she had tied wrong.”

B) Stream of Consciousness:

From James Joyce Ulysses:

“He walked on. Where is my hat, by the way? Must have put it back on the peg. Or hanging up on the floor. Funny I don’t remember that. Hallstand too full. Four umbrellas, her raincloak. Picking up the letters. Drago’s shopbell ringing. Queer I was just thinking that moment…”

28 August 2017

Creating Lively Characters

The two main characters, the mother and the daughter, in the prose poem Girl by Jamaica Kincaid come alive and believable for me. Both of them have preferences, wants, conflicts, histories, flaws, and surprises. The mother wants her coming-of-age daughter to grow up as a proper and respectable woman based on her own life experiences and wisdom. From her long lists of advice and folk knowledge – how to make abortion-inducing medicine, how to deal with men and relationships, and how to fit into the community, I can sense a complicated life she has lived. Stemming from a deep love and natural motherly protection for her daughter, her advice nonetheless sounds smothering and oppressive, like many mothers do. Her worry and frustration about her daughter becoming a “slut” create conflicts within herself and with her rebellious daughter. The mother surprises me though as not just a typical caring, practical and suffocating mother when she tells her daughter: “this is how to spit up in the air if you feel like it, and this is how to move quick so that it doesn’t fall on you.” This suggests that the mother was once a spirited and rebellious young girl herself.

The daughter in the story defies her mother by interjecting objections to her non-stop worrying and scolding. The daughter’s raised voices, only twice and in italics in the text, catch me off-guard and let me see her nature of rebellion. I can imagine and see her life as living with such an over-bearing mother. She does not go to the church, and she wants to live on her own terms. I do not see the daughter’s flaws unless I count teenage angst and rebellion as such, which I do not as they are part of a growing up experience for most of us.

The story has a unique structure with no conventional beginning, middle and end, and this leads to no character change for both protagonists. After reading it, I wonder how the conflict between the mother and the daughter has evolved, and if either of them undergoes any transformation. I think there are opportunities for the lists to go on more to indicate such changes and to make the story to have a even more satisfying closure for readers.

16 March 2016

A Good Story

Guy de Maupassant’s short story The Necklace sparked my lifelong interest in literature after I read it in junior high. Its twisted and ironic ending has remained in my mind for many years later. I read it again this week and found myself still very much absorbed in its plot, setting and style (spoil alert thereafter. To read it, click the above red marked link). It tells a story of an unhappy middle-class married girl, Mathilde Loisel, who dreams of a much more glamorous existence. As the result of her vanity, Mathilde pays a heavy price when she borrows a diamond necklace from her wealthy friend for an once-in-a-lifetime event but loses it afterwards. The story hooks me because it opens with protagonist’s external and internal conflicts in the first couple of paragraphs: “She was one of those pretty and charming girls who are sometimes, as if by a mistake of destiny, born in a family of clerks”, “She dressed plainly because she could not dress well, but she was as unhappy as though she had really fallen from her proper station”, “She suffered ceaselessly, feeling herself born for all the delicacies and all the luxuries”. These conflicts are intensified as the story continues with the contrast of Mathilde’s environment and her dreamy inner world. Her home is full of wretched walls, worn-out chairs, ugly curtains… whereas she thinks of “antechambers hung with Oriental tapestry”, “tall bronze candelabra”, elegant footmen, silky salons etc. The setting deeply affects the character and propels the plot. I can’t stop turning the pages to find out how she would prepare for the extravagant party at the palace of the Ministry and what would happen to her at the party and if the conflicts would resolve. The plot takes several turns to keep me engaged with the story: she uses all her husband’s meager savings to buy a dress and borrows a diamond necklace; she fulfills her wildest dream and succeeds at the party; but then she loses the diamond; and then she has to work manual labor as a lowly working girl for the next decade to repay the debt of the replacement necklace; and then only to find out in the very end that the diamond necklace she borrows is fake and worthless.

The story is mainly plot-driven with precise language, fast pace and an anti-climatic ending. Other than the plot and the setting, the style the author employs such as irony and symbolism also contributes to the story’s timeless quality. The title, the center object of the story,  symbolizes the difference between surface and hidden value. The author’s lack of sympathy toward the protagonist creates a dramatic irony throughout the piece and this irony is punctuated by its shocking ending. For me, these elements stand out in this story and make it a rich and rewarding reading experience.

Happy reading and writing.