“We believe the one who has the power. He is the one who gets to write the story. So when you study history, you must always ask yourself, Whose story am I missing? Whose voice was suppressed so that this voice could come forth? Once you have figured that out, you must find that story too. From there, you begin to get a clearer, yet still imperfect, picture.”
Yaa Gyasi’s hugely successful debut novel, Homegoing, is an epic tale of a family tree splintered by the Gold Coast’s booming slave trade; one branch is sold into slavery while the other remains in war torn Ghana. Beautiful half-sisters, Effia and Esi, live in separate villages and are both unaware that the other exists. At fifteen, Effia is made to marry James Collins, an Englishman and slaver, and lives with him in the comfort of the Gold Coast castle. Esi’s fate takes a different turn when she is captured by Ghanaian warriors and sold into slavery; she lives in the dark, soiled, dungeon of Gold Coast castle, unknowingly under the footsteps of her half sister, until she and thousands of other slaves are shipped to the United States. Sweeping 200 years and several generations from 18th century Ghana to the plantations of the American South, the coal mines in Alabama to the Great Migration, to the heroin epidemic in Harlem, and up until today, Homegoing is a massive undertaking that explores relationships, religion, how our inherited history forms identity, and the search for home.
Like Gabriel Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, or more recently, Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Homegoing tells the heart wrenching story of multiple generations of one family, and does exceptionally well in only 300 pages. “How can I tell you the story of your scar without first telling you the story of my dreams? And how do I talk about my dreams without talking about my family?” one character says, setting us up for a plethora of family stories of separation and longing. The book reads like a series of interconnected short stories as chapters switch between Effia and Esi’s descendants, allowing for only a few pages for them to stand out, grab our attention, and tell their story, but Gyasi’s beautiful storytelling and ability to write deeply emotional scenes allows for that short span to be enough. There is a family tree at the beginning of the novel for reference, but it is seldom needed because Gyasi writes so clearly a character needs only to speak for a few lines before you’ve been placed in their shoes and know who their parents and grandparents are. Although the entire story is great, the first half of the book is particularly gripping because Gyasi spends more time establishing each character. As the story continues and the family get further away from Effia and Esi, the chapters shorten – there’s still a connection to the characters, but noticeably less.
Homegoing takes the slave narrative and gives it a much needed revamping by telling as much of the story as possible, focusing more on Africa (it’s involvement in slavery and the effects it had on the people still living there) than books of this sort usually do. Gyasi explores relationships between parents and their children, particularly mothers and daughter, and fathers and sons. There is a pattern of hard, unloving mothers, some through their own bitterness and others through slavery, and Gyasi writes about how this hardness trickles down their daughters. Esi, who used to smile and fill a room with her laughter, is broken down to the point that when her daughter Ness thinks of her, she only draws up the image of “the gray rock of her mother’s heart. She would always associate real love with a hardness of spirit.” This dovetails to the splintering of family in the United States, where Esi’s descendant Willie has raised her son alone, only to find that he’s grown to be as “absent as his own” father. Some of the most enjoyable parts of the book are seeing exactly how one thread leads to another; how one person’s actions affect the family down the line. Homegoing comes full circle with a character inspired by Gyasi’s life – Marjorie. Like Gyasi, Marjorie moves with her family from Ghana to Alabama and instantly realizes that although she has the same black skin as African Americans, she is “othered” because she is a different, far too distant to feel at home in the United States. Here is when we see a culmination of history, the people who made it, and how we are all children of that shared history.
Gyasi reached for the stars with this epic family story and she writes with confidence and clarity most authors only muster up after a few successful novels. Homegoing is a must read that will open eyes to a whole new spectrum of the slave narrative.
Have you read Homegoing? What did you think of it? Are you planning on reading it?