Monday, January 23, 2017

Exploring Ancestry Through Fiction

Recently several members of my family and I decided to get our DNA tested through to find out just where our family's ethnic mix would lead us. I, like most people, am interested in my family's history, but feel overwhelmed when it comes to actually tackling putting together a family tree. Luckily there are many tools out there to help people who are interested in genealogy and are just getting started. It's going to be a long process, but one that will be well worth it. 

While I am digging I am going to be picking up both fiction and nonfiction books that are directly related to my own profile. When I received my results I was thrilled to be able to narrow down where my ancestors originated. I wasn't at all surprised by the regions of Africa that showed up, but there were a few surprises. My top ethnicity percentages came from Cameroon/Congo, Ghana, Benin, Scandinavia, and Spain/Portugal (Iberian Peninsula). Those last two regions were not even on my radar and were a surprise. I have to admit that I know little to nothing about any of the areas that my ancestors come from, but I will be correcting that over time. I am starting with attempting to read a single book of fiction from each country. For me, fiction is much less intimidating than diving into detailed books on the histories and politics of each country. I plan on researching those aspects of these countries as well, but that will be much slower going. I'm hoping that by reading novels about these regions written by authors who are native to the countries that are related to me, it will be a more enjoyable and engaging experience than only reading statistics and historical facts. 

It took me a little while to research authors and pick books for this project, but I have finally narrowed down my list. I still have not found a book to fit into the Benin area, but I haven't given up and will continue to search. Despite that one snag, I'm excited to get started! 

My book for Cameroon is  Houseboy by Ferdinand Oyono Toundi Ondoua, the rural African protagonist of Houseboy, encounters a world of prisms that cast beautiful but unobtainable glimmers, especially for a black youth in colonial Cameroon. Houseboy, written in the form of Toundi's captivating diary and translated from the original French, discloses his awe of the white world and a web of unpredictable experiences. Early on, he escapes his father's angry blows by seeking asylum with his benefactor, the local European priest who meets an untimely death. Toundi then becomes "the Chief European's 'boy'--the dog of the King." Toundi's attempt to fulfill a dream of advancement and improvement opens his eyes to troubling realities. Gradually, preconceptions of the Europeans come crashing down on him as he struggles with his identity, his place in society, and the changing culture. 

Updated 4/4/2017 #Review of Houseboy by Ferdinand Oyono

Houseboy, set in Cameroon, is the first book that I have read towards my Exploring Ancestry Through Fiction project. Toundi's story is troubling but engaging. The things that Toundi accepts as just a part of life as a black boy in Cameroon during this time period is sad and frustrating. The malice and pettiness that impacts Toundi's daily life from a young age made me want to grind my teeth just reading the descriptions. The story is told well, but the ending is pretty abrupt. There is more that I would have like to have gotten in order for the story to come full circle. I kind of understand why it ended the way it did because Toundi was unable to continue the diary, but man I would like to have gotten the last leg of the journey for Toundi. Yet, I am very glad to have read this story. 

My book for Congo is The Fire of Origins: A Novel by Emmanuel Dongala The whole of African history unfolds in this brilliant novel from one of the continent’s major writers. The story is unified by the actions of one man, Mankunku, a “destroyer,” who is born in mysterious circumstances in a banana plantation and whose identity is as variable as that of his land. This novel traces his development along with that of his unnamed country, from the precolonial era, through the horrors of European subjugation, to independence and the complexities of the postcolonial nation. Along the way, charlatans and saints, workers and bureaucrats, warriors and peacemakers are introduced in a moving mélange of laughter and terror.

**Updated 7/13/2017 Review of The Fire of Origins: 

The Fire of Origins is the second novel that I have read towards my Experiencing Ancestry through Fiction project. It is set in an unnamed country, but is written by an author from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, so that is where I imagine the story takes place. The story follows the life of Mandala Mankuku, who witnesses the fall of his people and country to colonialism, and the struggle of it's people to break free and reestablish itself as a sovereign nation. 

Mankuku arrives in the world under questionable circumstances because his birth wasn't witnessed by members of his parents' village. The place of his birth had to be tracked down and accepted before he could be deemed fully human, and not some spirit delivered to his mother. To top things off, Mankuku is also born with green eyes, which causes much debate among the villagers. They have to decide if this highly unusual occurrence is a good or bad omen. As things progress, Mankuku's birth heralds in many changes. 

Mankuku eventually follows the tradition of his father's family and becomes a blacksmith and nganga (healer), but colonization, western influences on religion, culture, and social standards leads Mankuku onto a completely different path than what he imagined for himself. Through Mankuku's experiences, Dongala reflects on the cost of colonization to the soul and cultural value of an entire nation. Not only are the people suffering from being subjugated by a foreign power that has no respect for them, but they also have to deal with their fellow citizens trying to profit off of other people's suffering and need for comfort. 

Although I enjoyed this story for the most part, it was not an easy book to read. The sentence structure is a bit choppy which made reading flow difficult. This is a translated work, so that may be part of the problem. The plot was good, Mankuku was an interesting and relatable character, but the secondary characters that represented all of the changes and problems were a bit one dimensional and predictable. 

My book for Ghana is Tail of the Blue Bird by Nii Ayikwei Parkes A woman spots a stunning blue-headed bird at the edge of a Ghanaian village follows it. Sonokrom is a place that has not changed for hundreds of years; the men and women speak the language of the forest, drink aphrodisiacs with their palm wine and commune with the spirits of their ancestors. However, the woman's intrusion and ensuing events lead to an invasion from Accra, the capital city, spearheaded by Kayo; a young forensic pathologist convinced that scientific logic can shatter even the most inexplicable of mysteries. But as events in the village become more and more incomprehensible, Kayo and his sidekick, Constable Garba are drawn into a world where storytelling is more powerful than any scientific explanation. Tail of the Blue Bird is a poetic fable, at once unsettling and heart-warmingly funny, that exemplifies the futility of trying to categorise Africa, reminding us that the boundaries of truth have never been clear cut.

My book for Scandinavia is The Unbroken Line of the Moon by Johanne HildebrandtIn this grand saga of love, war, and magic set in the tenth century, young Sigrid is destined to be the mother of the king of the Nordic lands that would become Sweden, Norway, Denmark, and England.

A devout believer in the old Nordic gods, Sigrid is visited regularly in her dreams by the goddess Freya, who whispers to her of the future. Though Sigrid is beautiful, rich, arrogant, and matchlessly clever, her uncanny ability to foresee the future and manipulate the present guides her through dangerous politics as a bloody war between Vikings and Christians rages on.

Sigrid’s father wants her to marry Erik, a local king, to secure the peace between the Goths and the Swedes. Thinking she is doing Freya’s will, she accepts the marriage offer, only to find that her destiny lies not with Erik but with Sweyn, a warrior who dreams of dethroning Harald Bluetooth, the legendary ruler of Denmark. Will Sigrid sacrifice her will for the greatest Viking kingdom of all time, or will she follow her heart at the risk of losing everything?

My book for Iberian Peninsula is Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me by Javier Marías. Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me is a riveting novel of infidelity and a man trapped by a terrible secret.

Marta has only just met Victor when she invites him to dinner at her Madrid apartment while her husband is away on business. When her two-year-old son finally falls asleep, Marta and Victor retreat to the bedroom. Undressing, she feels suddenly ill; and in his arms, inexplicably, she dies. What should Victor do? Remove the compromising tape from the answering machine? Leave food for the child for breakfast? These are just his first steps, but he soon takes matters further; unable to bear the shadows and the unknowing, Victor plunges into dark waters. And Javier Marías, Europe's master of secrets, of what lies reveal and truth may conceal, is on sure ground in this profound, quirky, and marvelous novel.


  1. This is an awesome idea! I know my great-grandparents immigrated to the US from Russia, but I don’t know very much about my family history. I’ve never even met the majority of my close relatives. Good luck with your reading and genealogy research.

    Aj @ Read All The Things!


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