Book of the Month: Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

This book is ah-mazing! I had heard a lot about it so I was very excited to dig in, and I'm excited to tell you that it surpasses the hype for sure. Homegoing is a historical fiction novel by a Ghanaian-American author, Yaa Gyasi. First of all, it has a unique attribute: each chapter follows a different descendant of an Asante woman named Maame. We start with her two daughters, half-sisters Effi and Esi who are separated by fate and never actually met each other. Effi marries James Collins, the British governor in charge of Cape Coast Castle, whereas her half-sister, Esi is held captive in the dungeons below where Effi lived. Thereafter, each chapter follows their children and following generations: such that each chapter is narrated from the perspective of a descendant of either Effi or Esi, representing each generation.



The book opens in mid eighteenth century, when slave trade was at its peak up to the present day. So in following these descendants, the author explores a variety of very important themes like exportation of slaves from Africa, introduction of cacao as a crop in Ghana, and segregation and racism in America. These are very heavy themes and I think the author handles them excellently. Somehow, Gyasi narrates a a very familiar story of slavery and oppression in an unfamiliar style of personal triumphs and failures. The book is extremely ambitious, but also clearly lays out the place and participation of Africans in the slave trade.

This book is extraordinary in so many ways and I was in awe of how she thought about such a brilliant idea for a novel. But even beyond this, the way she tells the story draws you to the intricacies of these characters. In some way, you follow each character and get to witness the fate that life brings them, and particularly how they handle it. And if you squint, their main ancestors are the similar thread across many generations.

There are some critiques of the book that mention how the unique style makes it hard to follow through. I can see how someone would think that, but in the front of the book is a nice family tree which she drew, and I found myself turning back there a lot so I could know who I was about to read about. For me, the one downside was that we didn't get to know each character enough. They each seemed to have such complex backgrounds and stories, and she writes them so well that you want to know more about this person and what makes them tick or what makes them make certain decisions, and just as fast as you start to learn about them, you have to let them go. In that sense, a lot of the stories just did not feel complete. I guess the implication of this is that our ancestors have more effects on us than we think? I don't know. The most amazing part is that this book truly personifies the quote, "we are our ancestors wildest dreams".

Before now, I used to not pay a lot of mind to my ancestors/progenitors. I mean yes, grandparents, and great grandparents, but I have never been curious enough to want to go beyond that. I have the luxury and privilege of knowing where I am exactly from so I guess ancestry does not matter as much to me. I always joke that people (ahem our white counterparts) spend so much time learning about ancestors that were probably terrible people lol. Anyway, this book created a renewed sense of curiosity in me to know my earlier progenitors. Where did it start? Who were they? Heck, am I related the random stranger on the road somehow? I will never know.

Each character from each chapter could be a book on its own. And if that's what Gyasi spends her entire career doing (maybe making a series of some sort with each book based on each character), she would retire successful. I suspect she is much more ambitious than that though and too creative for that. But yeah, that was my problem, I wanted more.

Don't get me wrong, there were some things wrong with the book, as there is no perfect piece of art. But the narration, the dialogue, the symbolism were astute, with each just suitable with whatever generation we found ourselves. The facts of the themes, and the immense research that must have be conducted to produce this body of work must not be underrated.

I hope you read it, and when you do, let me know what you think about it.

Love,

I

Seven Differences Between Getting a PhD and Going to Medical School

As I mentioned in a now deleted post, I'm currently getting a PhD. It's something I never used to like to talk about on this blog, and really in real life too. But more recently, and mostly inspired by the amazing Ijeoma Kola, I've been more inclined to talk about my experiences. The main reason is because over the course of my own journey, I've had sooo many questions and not enough people to ask. I usually sometimes resort to Google but frankly most questions go unanswered and I just figure stuff out as I go. Not to mention, there is sooo much to say about academia and while I can't quite go all in yet because ahem, I'm not fully anonymous, I can at least be a resource person, right?

So I thought to create a [grad school and academia] series addressing such questions, and this will mostly be for black girls like me or someone that belongs to a minority group (So really anyone that isn't white) as academia was not created for us.  And if you have any question, feel free to ask. Especially if you're just about to start (you need to know what you are getting into before you begin, please). That's not to say if you are white, you can't read any of this; certainly not, but you might not relate to any of what I say. And for my non-academia friends and readers, don't worry,  I will still be blogging about regular life stuff and all. This is definitely not a academic blog (yuck). Plus who knows, you may be able to apply some of these principles to your life too. I'm excited about this, yay!

the view from my sister's apartment is breathtaking

Now on to the very first post in the series. Last week was my sister's White Coat Ceremony for medical school (Yay! Still so hyped). Anyway, all through the event, I noticed some things about medical school that differ extensively from grad school (getting your PhD), and thought about writing about those differences. Now of course, substantively, they are vastly different. An MD is a medical degree and medical students are being trained to become physicians. On the other hand, a PhD can be obtained in a vast array of fields: from the humanities to STEM fields, you can get a PhD in numerous degrees. In a nutshell, a PhD from a reputable program (not those online nonsense, sorry if you're a recipient of one of those!) is mainly research. In the U.S., after taking a few years of classes, taking comprehensive exams, defending a qualifier, defending a dissertation proposal, giving your sanity, giving your kidney, giving your eyes, giving your heart and your liver (kidding for the last four points, or am I?!), you are expected to produce original research and contribute to your field. So in that sense, of course they differ. But I'm talking of something else, and you'll see below. Here goes:

1.) Collegiality: There seems to be a more collegial atmosphere among medical students. I think they are more likely to support each other and work together as colleagues than grad students are. By its nature, a PhD is very isolating and so it's less likely that grad students are close friends. There is also the fact that the entry classes of medical programs are notoriously larger than PhD programs. At most, a PhD cohort might be, what, 30? And it's usually less than that, with some cohorts having only 5 students. Meanwhile, MD cohorts can be as large as 200. So of course, there is more opportunity for nurturing friendships in medical school. Interestingly, I think in both, it can be cutthroat with too much competition among students, so this depends largely on context and school. Also PhD programs have a lot of attrition rates: fifty percent of doctoral students leave without finishing. Medical schools on the other hand, have an attrition rate of about 5%. I'm not saying collegiality solves anything, I'm saying there is something medical schools are doing that PhD programs aren't.

2.) Concern for students' wellbeing: my family and I were somewhat late for my sister's White Coat Ceremony. Right as we were walking in, the person giving a speech (might have been their dean?) was imploring new medical students to not only focus on school and academics. He said they needed to diversify their time; that if they like movies, they must keep watching films; if it's writing; if it's art; if it's getting manicures and pedicures; that they needed to still exercise; eat well; whatever it was they liked to do, they must do, otherwise they would be on a fast track to burning out. I was so impressed that someone that high up on the food chain showed concern for the most basic welfare of their students. But is it really basic though? The problem is, in academia, it's the opposite. No one cares about your life outside of your dissertation and publishing, or if they do, they never show it. In fact, the trope is that if you are not doing work for 80 hours a week, you are doing it wrong and you are already a failure. It is expected that getting the PhD should consume your entire life. Case in point: there are soooo many medical students and doctors who blog or who are social media influencers. They always have this picture perfect life on Instagram and perfectly curated timelines on Instagram. I used to always wonder how the hell these women have the time to even post. I sometimes forget I even have an Instagram account. I struggle to even keep up on this blog or to focus on my numerous other hobbies. It's not that medical students/doctors are not busy (they take some of the toughest tests and exams in the world), it's that they prioritize doing fun stuff. They prioritize doing things that bring them joy. That is basically nonexistent in academia.

3.) Work life balance: given my last point, it is no surprise a lot of people in medicine talk a lot about the need for achieving a work-life balance. I don't want it to look like I'm romanticizing the medicine profession because I'm not, but at least they are having the conversation. You see a lot of mamas in medicine (there is literally a hashtag like this that exists!) struggling, but trying nonetheless to achieve some semblance of balance. In academia, there is  literally an active discussion to keep you from having kids either in grad school or even when you're on the tenure track. In fact, if you mention not wanting to do something work related because it might be detrimental to your family, they look at you like you're crazy. This recently happened to me. It's like how dare you? And no one really takes you seriously if you are factoring your romantic life or family life into a work decision in grad school. But I have read about medical students who chose resident spots based on where their partners can live or where is close to their family. In fact, they know they need the support system. My sister's school had a completely separate orientation for families, because they believe the support system in necessary. The dean of student affairs personally told my family that we needed to support my sister. No on cares about that in academia. And the truth is we will never be better doctors without our families. I could never have survived these past grueling years without my family. I know this without a doubt.

5). Your identity: by this I mean, the idea that you are more than a doctor. Basically, the sense that there is more to you than what you do; than being a doctor. This is  somewhat related to the above too. I find that it looks like many medical doctors try to be more than doctors.  In academia, there is a weird fixation on the PhD itself. A lot of grad students have their identities wrapped around getting a PhD. Because of this, failure is often personal since it is hard to disentangle who you are from what you do. This thing is so destructive.

6.) Duration of study: This part is tricky. Yes, a medical degree takes four years, whereas a PhD can take anywhere from 4 to 10 years in the United States, with an average of 8 years. This means getting a PhD can translate to losing a lot of opportunity to build wealth, save for retirement, and well live a good life, only to graduate and not get a job because there are no jobs in academia. However,  while a medical degree is just 4 years technically, their training usually takes longer, depending on the field. Residency can take anywhere from 3 to maybe even 7 years. But the different is, once you finish your  medical degree, I believe Residents actually earn a salary, albeit not much. And of course, when they are done, you earn a whole lot to cover for lost years. So go figure.

7.) Support: there is an inherent kindness I noticed, either among medical students or between medical students and their teachers, which was surprising because I had always heard of lots of bullying in medicine. But it's worse in academia: the hazing, just because; the caustic, toxic way of providing  feedback is so prevalent, it's worrisome.  Due to some of the aforementioned problems, it is no surprise we have an alarming rate of suicide among graduate students.

Okay I know I said seven, but I will give one bonus, which is ranking. When it comes to prestige of medical schools, I do not think it matters so much. In other words, I can't imagine a medical doctor not getting hired because they did not go to Harvard Medical School. As long as you go to a good medical school (that is accredited, this should be needless to say but hey, you never know), you will be fine. A PhD on the other hand, erm rankings matter A LOT. Whether your school is top 15 or top 20 might determine where you end up post-PhD. This is particularly important if you want a job in academia. You have to pay real attention to which type of school you go.

So that's it...for NOW. The truth is a lot of this depends on individual contexts, personal circumstances, and your program. I don't think this should sway your decision to go for one instead of the other haha.  I mean deciding to go for either is a huge decision by itself, but these were just some differences I noticed. What about you, ever noticed any difference I missed here? Or did I overstate anything here? In the meantime, let me know if you have any questions or anything you want me to address in this series.


Love,

I

Life is Meaningless but How to Live Your Best Life Anyway

There is a video by Patricia Bright, where she talks about how she spent 40,000 British Pounds on frivolities and things that really don't matter at all, and how she has learnt her lesson. That's not exactly why I'm writing this post, but it seems like a good preface for this post and what I'm about to blog about. P.S: Spend your money on whatever you like. That's your business haha.

Around the same time I watched that video, I was reading Ecclesiastes. Ecclesiastes is a book of the bible written by King Solomon. If there is one thing we all know about Solomon, it's his wisdom. He was the dude God gave a blank check and told him to ask for anything, and my guy asked for wisdom. Not money, not wealth, not cars. Just wisdom. So God gave him all of that in abundance.  When you are royalty, and rich, and wise, you know you would always have something to say. Boy, did Solomon have a lot to say in Ecclesiastes? But honestly all of it is so practical and relatable to real life. I decided to write about it. Maybe perhaps some of them can be imparted upon you.



You know how we always feel like life can be really repetitive and mundane. Well, Solomon addresses this in Ecclesiastes. This sole thing has caused people a lot of sadness. Solomon really wanted folks to understand that that's exactly life. That life truly has no meaning. Generations come and go, but the earth does not really change.

the sun rises
the sun sets
then hurries around to rise again
the wind blows south and then turns north
around and around it goes, blowing in circles
rivers run into the sea, but the sea is never full
then the water returns again to the rivers and flows out
again to the sea

He continues on to say everything is wearisome, even beyond description. History just repeats itself and nothing is new under the sun. I don't know about you, but this provides some relief. I think we can often be very tunnel visioned, and I hate to trivialize anyone's problem. However, we are notorious for often thinking our problems are the worst and we are the only ones going through challenges in life. Meanwhile a.) people are going through worse, and b.) no matter how bad it is, it has happened to someone before.

This man was the wisest ever, but he didn't stop there. He sought out even more knowledge than you can imagine, and then learned it's all meaningless. At first, this might come across as hopeless, but it's not. What it should do is provide some humility.

Then he said, aight, it's time to chase pleasure. Now, if there is one thing you need to know about Solomon, it's that he epitomized enjoyment. He was the original Minister of Enjoyment. The man liked the finer things of life and was not very timid about it. He had about 700 wives, and a few hundred concubines. To put it simply, my guy overdid it. All that being said, surely we can all agree he is a trusted voice when it comes to enjoyment, because been there done that. Amright? No? Okay. He built HUGE homes for himself. He planted beautiful vineyards and filled them with all kinds of fruit trees. He even built reservoirs to collect the water to irrigate his flourishing groves. He bought slaves (side eye). He owned large flocks and herd, MORE than any of the kings before him. He had silver, gold, he hired singers, and had everything a man could desire.  Anything he wanted, he would take. And his wisdom never failed him. Yes, I am right. No one personified enjoyment like King Solomon. Yet this man looked at all of it—all  of what he worked incredibly hard to accomplish, and he described them as meaningless, like chasing the wind. It's shocking that this same man referred to everything as "boring". But should't that tell you all you need to know about material things?

The unattractive truth is that, success and prosperity do not last long. All human accomplishments will one day disappear and if people actually lived with this on their minds, they will experience more peace. Because without this knowledge, you are left chasing after the next big thing. Happiness then, becomes something you always seem to pursue but can never quite attain. Because you have attached it to the next promotion, the next raise, the bigger house, the bigger and finer car, the nicer wrist watch, and yes  the newer iPhone model. But Solomon's main goal in Ecclesiastes was to  demonstrate that earthly possessions and accomplishments can be very meaningless. I don't think Solomon meant to say don't enjoy life. That would be hypocritical coming from him. I think he meant to say the opposite—enjoy life. I think he was saying, in reality we need much less than we think to enjoy life and have a good life.

The "chase" of the next high is why many people feel restless and unsatisfied. An inability or unwillingness to enjoy what you have is why even when you can afford the finer things of life, your inexplicable restlessness would further create bigger holes in your heart, so to speak. People seek to feel this empty hollow in so many ways. You can party from sun up till sun down, date the dateable and undateable, be on social media 24/7 without blinking, pour your misery on someone else as much as you like, buy the most expensive car, have all the power you can amass, and still be in great despair. Because those are the wrong things to fill that hollow with. So many people are tired and unfulfilled and wonder what life even means. I'm convinced life is meaningless without something more divine than the aforementioned. For me, that's God. Without God, life is meaningless. And even if you don't agree with me regarding God, surely you must know that using things to fill that restlessness and despair you feel is not helping. Chasing popularity, fame, prestige is  really a a waste of time. Money and wealth will never bring this happiness.

While writing this post, I randomly stumbled on this post about how this man sort of suddenly became a millionaire. He also reiterates the fact that once you have your basic needs met, the fallacy that hitting millions would somehow make your life complete is just that: a fallacy. if anything it reveals the emptiness even more. An emptiness that buying a Lamborghini or buying a a purse worth $16, 000  (Christ Jesus! what is wrong with you people?) would not solve. Sorry, I had to judge for a second. Moving on. This is why it is never worth it to give up your "integrity, dignity, humanity to gain all kinds of money all to have it do more harm than good." Sure, all that money is good and worthwhile but it rarely solves everything. If you don't believe me, then surely you will believe an actual millionaire. And of course, this does not apply to someone struggling to feed their children or to clothe their kids, or to take care of their sick family. Because in the life of someone like that, money would absofreakinglutely change EVERYTHING.

Knowing how useless most things are, isn't it beneficial to think about what you consider worthwhile? The implication of Solomon's words is that we invest our time, energy, and money in what we value, what we consider worthwhile. In some sense, everything Mark Manson said in his book—to spend your time on only what is truly important and immediate—has been said in the bible. Of course Manson may not be  a Christian and probably doesn't know that part.

In essence Solomon implores us  to enjoy life. To not worry too about things. In the end, it all matters so little so don't be so consumed with chasing happiness. Solomon tried that after all, and found how useless they all are since he found no self-worth or fulfillment in any of these, and I know so many people can relate to this. The one thing I feel Ecclesiastes teaches us is to not get worked up over things at all. Life ain't that serious. which is why Solomon recommends there is nothing  better than to be happy and enjoy ourselves as long as we can.

So go ahead
eat your food with joy
and drink your wine with a happy heart
for God approves of this

I love those words. This is especially for my Christian brothers and sisters. We think a life for God is one that is miserable. Scratch that, Christian dudes are the most notorious for thinking to be a Christian is to weird, have no sense of fashion, or to be incredibly corny. Please no.  Dress up nicely, eat good food, laugh, party, celebrate and rejoice with your loved ones. What you should not do is to let these consume you so much that you can't do without all of it.

There is a lot to obviously unpack in Ecclesiastes, that I can't quite fit into one blogpost. Solomon also asks one of my biggest questions as a Christian and person of faith: how can there be so much injustice in the world if God's plan is perfect? How can there be so much evil?  The truth though, as this and other passages in the Bible say is that, God does NOT ignore injustice (no matter how much it looks like it). He will bring an end to it at his appointed time. And best believe there is a time for everything under heaven. There is a time to rise up in anger against that injustice around you. There is a time to chill and be quiet.

What makes all these even more staggering and powerful is that they come from a man who had it all.  When you feel burnt out, when you have many unanswered questions, remember that someone as profound as Solomon felt all that too. I gotta tell you, no matter what you believe, you have to know that wisdom is accepting there is a mystery to this world we will never understand. And sometimes, it's okay to bask in that ignorance.

Love,
I

P.S: Thanks to my sister who somehow remembered that it's been SIX years since I started blogging. Maybe I should write something on that. Or maybe not: no wisdom to impart here. What people would want to hear is how to make money through blogging, and sorry hun, but I can't tell you that because I don't know how. In any case, HURRAY to this blog, you, the reader (thanks!), and me.