This reading group guide for These Ghosts Are Family includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Maisy Card. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.Introduction
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Stanford Solomon has a shocking thirty-year-old secret. And it’s about to change the lives of everyone around him. Stanford Solomon is actually Abel Paisley, a man who faked his own death and stole the identity of his best friend.
And now, nearing the end of his life, Stanford is about to meet his firstborn daughter, Irene Paisley, a home health aide who has unwittingly shown up for her first day of work to tend to the father she thought was dead.These Ghosts Are Family
revolves around the consequences of Abel’s decision and tells the story of the Paisley family from colonial Jamaica to present-day Harlem. There is Vera, whose widowhood forced her into the role of single mother. There are two daughters and a granddaughter who have never known they are related. And there are others, like the houseboy who loved Vera, whose lives might have taken different courses if not for Abel Paisley’s actions.These Ghosts Are Family
explores the ways each character wrestles with their ghosts and struggles to forge independent identities outside of the family and their trauma. The result is an engrossing portrait of a family and individuals caught in the sweep of history, slavery, migration, and the more personal dramas of infidelity, lost love, and regret. This electric and luminous family saga announces the arrival of a new American talent.Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. In These Ghosts Are Family,
two families are created by an unexpected accident when Abel Paisley decides to fake his own death and assume the identity of his friend Stanford Solomon. How do you think the two families would have been different if Abel hadn’t faked his death, moved to New York, and started a second family? Would Irene have been protected from her mother’s wrath? Would Vera have been protected from the condemnation of her neighbors? Was Abel justified in running away from his life in Jamaica?
2. Describe Abel. How does the captain in England see him, which is the cause for his new life? How do the women in his life see him, his wives and his daughters? How does Vera see him? How does Estelle see him? Are these judgments of him fair?
3. Consider the title of the book. Why do you think the author chose it? Who—or what—do you think are the ghosts that the title refers to?
4. The book flips between life in Jamaica and New York, with a short stint in London. How important is place and that place’s history to the experiences of its characters? Why do Irene and Victor move to New York? Why does Debbie decide to visit Jamaica? What binds these places together—the people currently living? Or the painful history that connects the three places?
5. What do the Rastafarians represent in the context of the book? And what does their ideology threaten—especially in regards to women like Vera’s mother, who value whiteness and believe that it is “partly a state of mind, part manipulation of the body” (26)?
6. At the beginning of the book, Caren thinks that “perhaps, a life does not belong exclusively to one person” (10). What do you think of this statement, in light of all the lives represented in the novel? Does considering slavery impact your interpretation? And what does it mean in the case of the present-day characters (Abel, Estelle, Irene) distancing themselves from their familial obligations?
7. Abel and Vera’s marriage is a key relationship in the book, though their marriage devolves quickly into infighting and infidelity. Abel says that he loves Adele, his second wife, because she did not try to “remake and remold” him as Vera tried to. What are some of the ways that Vera prods Abel into change? What is the result of this prodding? Early on in Vera and Abel’s marriage, Vera thinks “she never thought he was the of man to hit a woman, but she’s not sure anymore. She never thought she was the kind of woman to cheat on a man. They don’t know each other at all” (39). How much do you think a married couple can ever really know each other?
8. While Abel is the patriarch of the two modern families in the book, the early family history is traced through its mothers. Discuss how this shaped the storytelling. What does the book have to say about the role that women play in a family? What brings women in these families together? What drives them apart?
9. Irene works as a home health aide and one of her patients, Betty, is “obsessed with the dead” (85). What do you think of Betty’s desire to commune with the dead and to inhabit past lives? Irene seems to think it’s foolish, but in what ways does her family history affect her life in the present? To what extent do the past events in our lives affect our present?
10. There’s a dramatic scene in the middle of the book, where Debbie decides to destroy the journal of her ancestor, Harold Fowler, in order to drown out his voice in her head. What did you make of Debbie’s decision?
11. Louise grows up thinking that she’s white, and is shocked when she learns that her mother, Florence, was a slave. How does this knowledge change how she sees herself? How does it change how others see her?
12. In the same chapter as above, Peta-Gay says “[Louise] knew little about the world and the deceit that humans are inherently capable of” (214). What are some of the other secrets kept by the Fowler and Paisley families? Why do they lie (or omit the truth)? What effect do these secrets have on the generations that succeed them?
13. When Vincent and Irene are children, the women of the neighborhood perform an exorcism on their mother, Vera. In response, Vera says “You nuh know what free woman look like, so you say is demon” (144). Discuss the things that happen to Vera during this exorcism. How do these echo the traumas undergone by Abel’s ancestors on the plantation at Warm Manor? Are any of the women in Abel’s family truly free? What does it mean to be free under the law versus acting like it? What are the repercussions for women who pursue their freedom in this book?
14. When Abe, Irene’s son, is in the hospital, hoping his sister will emerge from a coma, he recites the names of his ancestors like an incantation. He says “If anything is left of the real Abel Paisley, even a thimbleful of ash, he’ll wear him proudly around his neck as a poultice. He’ll exalt him, like the rest of his ancestors, even if he isn’t worthy” (251). What does Abe mean by “worthy” and how is it valued? How much should we own of our ancestors successes or failures? How do we determine if they’re worthy of our praise or our scorn?
15. Why do you think the novel ends with the story of the three girls who were kidnapped at Vera’s funeral? What are these girls hungry for? How does this fit into the other themes throughout the novel?Enhance Your Book Club
1. Debbie learns about her family history from taking an online DNA test. DNA tests have become very popular in recent years, but there are inherent risks in the information they provide, like learning about family history you or other family members would rather not know. Discuss if anyone in your group has taken a DNA test. What did you learn about yourself? If you haven’t yet, would you? Why or why not?
2. Though slavery was abolished in Jamaica over one hundred and eighty years ago and in the United States over a hundred and fifty years ago, slavery is more of a pressing global issue than ever before. It is estimated that there are currently at least 40 million men, women, and children in slavery around the world. As a group, look into the work being done by the International Justice Mission (www.ijm.org/our-work) and consider supporting their efforts.
3. If you’re curious for another multigenerational novel for your next book club, consider picking Red at the Bone
by Jacqueline Woodson or Homegoing
by Yaa Gyasi. Compare and contrast the families in these stories with These Ghosts Are Family
and discuss the intergenerational effects of the various characters’ decisions. Also discuss how black characters are able to function in the different spaces they find themselves, depending on their country of origin and their family’s history.
4. If you’re close by, consider visiting a museum, memorial, or educational center that focuses on the history of slavery or black history in America. Some examples are the Whitney Plantation (Wallace, LA), the Ozarks Afro-American Heritage Museum (Ash Grove, MO), the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History (Detroit, MI), the Lest We Forget Museum of Slavery (Philadelphia, PA), the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center (Cincinnati, OH), the National Memorial for Peace and Justice (Montgomery, AL) or the National Museum of African American History and Culture (Washington, DC).A Conversation with Maisy CardQ: Congratulations on publishing your debut novel, These Ghosts Are Family! What has the experience of publishing this book been like? How much different is it from experience of writing the book?
A: It’s exciting to see how a book actually makes its way into the world and how different people interpret it. I love the cover and have loved witnessing that process and how it evolved to the final version. What really surprised me is how much work other people are putting into the book. When you’re writing the book, it’s not really a collaborative process. But now I see all the people who play a role in getting that final version out there—editors, the editorial assistant, copywriters, marketing and publicity, etc. People besides me are working so hard on this and it really makes me want to be more thoughtful of that labor when I read and consider other people’s work.Q: Much like the Paisley/Solomon family, you grew up with a big family. What are the best things about being part of a big family? What are some of the difficulties?
A: The best part of being a part of a big family is that you feel like you will always have someone to turn to in difficult times. It can feel like a security blanket. The drawback is that when people are not getting along you have to choose sides and that choice can alienate yourself from dozens of other members of your family.Q: You’re a public librarian, as is one of the characters in your book, and books must be a large part of your life. What books inspired you as you were writing These Ghosts Are Family? What types of books did you love as a child? Do you see touches of any of them in your book?
A: Many books inspired me in different ways. Some of the books I reread as I was writing this book were The Dew Breaker
by Edwidge Danticat, Homegoing
by Yaa Gyasi, White Teeth
by Zadie Smith, No Telephone to Heaven
by Michelle Cliff, A Mercy
by Toni Morrison, The Dragon Can’t Dance
by Earl Lovelace, Brother Man
by Roger Mais, and The Twelve Tribes of Hattie
by Ayana Mathis. Structurally, it was really inspired by Danticat, Gyasi, and Mathis. I am always inspired by Toni Morrison, especially the way she writes about memory, the supernatural, and women’s trauma.
As a child, I was kind of a misanthrope, but I hid it very well. I liked books that were about people or animals living in isolation. I loved Julie of the Wolves
and Island of the Blue Dolphins
. My favorite picture book was The Story of Ferdinand
about a bull who didn’t want to fight in the arena like the other bulls, instead he just wanted to sit under his favorite tree alone and smell flowers. When I was in middle school, my favorite book for some time was The Catcher in the Rye
. I was always drawn to characters who seemed complicated, who were liked and accepted by some and rejected and disliked by others. I think those kinds of characters are still present in my work.Q: Kirkus Reviews gave a glowing review of your book, noting that one of the themes is that “we all hunger for something . . . love, acceptance, freedom, an understanding of the past to know who we are, because our lives are never just our own.” How did you approach writing characters that feel so realized that we can understand what they hunger for? How did you consider what would motivate each character?
A: I tried to draw from my own experience when writing certain characters. I tried to recall a time when I had felt a similar emotion. Many times I asked myself, if I could say something to my parents, what would I say? I feel like both my parents had experienced difficult times with their own parents when they were young, so I tried to imagine what they would say to their own parents if they had the chance. They never really liked to talk about their feelings, so sometimes I tried to imagine I was them, how I’d feel. I guess it’s like being an actor, getting into character. I had to keep writing and revising until I knew those emotions and motivations intimately.Q: You moved to the United States from Jamaica when you were only five years old. What was it like to move from the Caribbean to New York City? What was your experience like growing up in the city? What parts of your experience would feel familiar to readers of your book?
A: When I first moved to the US we lived in Richmond Hill, Queens. That neighborhood is very West Indian—its nickname is Little Guyana—but also filled with people from over the world. Most of my friends were from the Caribbean. All of them were immigrants or the children of immigrants. It was a perfect first entry point into life in the United States. No one belonged, so everyone belonged. Up until sixth grade, all my friends really understood me, my life, and my family in a way I would probably never find again until college. In seventh grade, I was accepted to a magnet school on the Upper East side of Manhattan, which I attended through high school. Black and brown kids were a minority there, unlike in the rest of the city. That was a real culture shock to me. It showed me that there are different worlds in one city. That we are not all living in the same reality.Q: These Ghosts Are Family is told from alternating perspectives of eight generations of a family. Were there any challenges in writing the book with so many voices? Or was it helpful to have those voices provide different perspectives in order to tell a more cohesive and complete story?
A: I wanted to show how the same trauma was still visible across generations but warped itself as it moved through time and jumped from character to character. It really isn’t any one character’s story, it’s the story of a family, so it felt necessary to include as many voices as possible.Q: These Ghosts Are Family covers more than two hundred years of history, spanning colonialism in Jamaica to life in Harlem in the present day. What did your research process look like? Did anything in your research surprise you?
A: In the beginning, I read nonfiction books on the history of Jamaica. I hadn’t exactly pinpointed the historical time periods I wanted to include. Then, as I narrowed it down, I read historical newspapers, specifically old editions of the Jamaica Gleaner
to understand how people spoke, what the mood was, the culture of that period in time. I don’t think the research itself surprised me, as much as how so little of the research actually ended up in the book. I was very focused on getting details right, so I read and read, but sometimes I’d look at the version I wrote before I started researching and realize that I didn’t need to change much. The voices were similar to what I had imagined.Q: You’ve mentioned that this book took you a number of years to write, and that it went through a number of drafts. What kept you working on this project? Were there any key moments that helped you move forward to the next phase of writing?
A: I had some outside motivation from other writers I was working with. Sometimes when I had put it aside for a long time and had to come back to it, I’d make a very drastic change. That way it felt like I was writing something new and I felt reinvested in it again.Q: You write the speech of the characters who live or were raised in Jamaica in a beautiful and evocative patois. Was that an intentional choice? Can you tell us more about the history of Jamaican patois? How did you feel about using language as part of a character’s self-expression?
A: It felt natural to write in patois. I was raised hearing it, and even though I no longer speak it fluidly myself, it’s still how my family speaks to me when we talk. I can’t imagine writing a book about Jamaican people without having them speak in patois, but I did realize as I wrote that I was looking at it from my own class position. I was taught not to speak it outside our home, but inside was fine. I did know other Jamaican people who were upper class who had not been raised speaking patois at all. To them it was seen as a language of the middle class and the poor. I tried to change the dialect a bit depending on the character’s age and class; that was the most challenging part. I’m not sure if I fully accomplished that goal.
Concerning the history, I recently read a really fantastic essay called “How I Learned to Embrace Jamaican Patois, the Language of my Youth,” by Donna Hemans for Electric Literature,
so I’ll just quote her. She writes:
To get here as a writer, I had to learn that our patois is the language of survivors, a pidgin language that originated as the common language among the enslaved Africans who spoke a multitude of languages and who, in order to survive and work together, fashioned our pidgin language to communicate. I had to unlearn the idea that these were broken, misspoken English words, as I had been taught, and learn instead the truth: that they were Akan, Igbo, and Yoruba words that, centuries later, are still part of our everyday dialect.Q: What do you hope readers take away from These Ghosts Are Family? How would you hope they consider their own family history in light of what they’ve read in your pages?
A: Even though the subject is dark at times, I did hope to convey a message of hope and survival. Our ancestors have gotten through worse, and even with the baggage we’re born with and the baggage we acquire, we can thrive and make life a little bit easier for someone else.