I don’t tell very many people this, but when I grow up, I want to be Toni Morrison or Octavia Butler. However, I could be equally content being Tayari Jones.
I still remember reading Beloved
for the first time and feeling as though every house on my street was 124. It’s been over a year since I read The Bluest Eye
, yet Pecola Breedlove is still moseying around my backyard. Butler’s Xenogenesis
series left me so heart sick I couldn’t muster up the courage to read Parable of the Sower
for a few months. Reading Silver Sparrow
felt like eavesdropping, and I don’t think Dana and Chaurisse have forgiven me for spying on them. I want to be like the writers I admire. I want to write words that linger, words that make you camp in your living room and build a pillow fort.
I want to write a book that acts like an old friend: it calls or emails every now and then just to see how your life is going. It wishes you the best but it doesn’t intrude. It doesn’t force or pry but offers advice, guidance, and honesty.
Even though I’ve had this dream for nearly thirty years, I still haven’t gotten around to writing the book.
I can blame several things for my lack of progress: the demands of a PhD program, teaching, mentoring, family responsibilities, and an armada of other things. However, I’m still hoping that one day I’ll grow up to be Toni Morrison or Octavia Butler. One day Gyasi will write a book that people will read. And Gyasi did write a book that people read. Unfortunately, I wasn’t the Gyasi that did it.
A few weeks ago, my aunt sent me a picture of Poets & Writers
with a woman named Yaa Gyasi on the cover. “Your namesake!” she wrote. “We got this magazine in the office today.”
Of course, I bought her book and read it. Homegoing
is the story of two half-sisters separated by slavery. While one is married to an Englishman, the other is sold into American chattel slavery. The novel follows the descendants of both sisters as one family continues to grow in Africa and the other navigates the early days of the United States. Homegoing
is beautifully crafted, wonderfully executed, and brutally honest. I enjoyed reading it, and I hope others will too. Though Yaa Gyasi’s novel will probably stick with me for a while (the character, H. Black, has been hanging out on my porch), what gave me pause when reading it were the reviews printed on the inside jacket.
Ta-Nehisi Coates writes, “Gyasi’s characters are so fully realized, so elegantly carved—very often I found myself longing to hear more.” Roxane Gay claimed that she “could not put this put this book down.” Finally, Megan O’Grady asserts, “[Gyasi] shares Morrison’s uncanny ability to crystalize, in a single event, slavery’s moral and emotional fallout.”
I’m not passing these reviews along in order to persuade you to read the book; rather, I just want to point out how these reviews confused, stung, and relieved my little writer’s heart. If you have an uncommon name, then you know that when you hear your name spoken or see it written, you assume the speaker or writer is referring to you.
I’ve always had a strained relationship with my name. Hearing it constantly mispronounced and having to correct people once, twice, and thrice irks the psyche. As my parents are fond of pointing out, yes, it does make me “unique;” I’ve never met another Gyasi. Consequently, you can imagine the out of body feeling I experienced reading about how wonderful Gyasi’s book was and how similar Gyasi is to Toni Morrison.
This is not to say that I begrudge Yaa Gyasi her success. Furthermore, I am not saying that I wanted to be the first Gyasi compared to Toni Morrison or even Octavia Butler. Instead, Yaa Gyasi’s achievement comforts me in an odd way. In knowing that Gyasi is capable of great things, I feel as though I’ve set down a heavy load.
Though my literary heroes prompt and influence my writing, I wonder if I have unconsciously put undue pressure on my writing. Rather than striving to write as Gyasi, have I been boxing my writing into some nebulous “Morrisonian,” “Butlerian,” or “Jonesian” type genre?
What could I potentially accomplish if I break down the camp? What if I told those lingering words and characters left behind my literary heroes that they can’t hang around today?
They have to go home.
I’ll see them some other time.
Gyasi S. Byng lives in Rochester, New York. She is PhD student at the University of Rochester where she teaches a writing course on robotics and human identity. She received her MA from Florida Atlantic University and her BA from Palm Beach Atlantic University. Her recent publications include “I Have Never Been Strong” in Open Minds Quarterly, “In the Waiting Line” in Apogee: Reclaiming the Margins, and “Beige Girl Problems” in Rivet: The Journal of Writing That Risks.
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