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.

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…”