Review: Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

Photo: Goodreads

“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?

Review: The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma

fishermenThe things my brother read shaped him; they became his visions. He believed in them. I have now come to know that what one believes often becomes permanent, and what becomes permanent can be indestructible.

Chigozie Obioma’s debut novel, The Fishermen, is the tragic story of four young brothers, Benjamin, Obembe, Boja, and Ikenna living in Akure, a village in Nigeria. When their father travels indefinitely for work, their boisterous mother is left to care for the four boys and their two baby siblings on her own. No longer fearing the iron rod of discipline when their father’s visits home grow more distant, the boys take to skipping school and fishing at a nearby river many people believe is cursed. One evening while the boys are fishing, they are approached by a madman, Abulu, who has a violent prophesy that Ikenna will be killed by one of his brothers.

Benjamin, the youngest sibling, is the voice and narrator of the story-a timid, unsure voice that speaks up only to affirm something his older brothers have said. Viewing the dismantling of relationships, their attempts to hide trips to the river from their parents, and the aftermath of Abulu’s poisonous words through Benjamin’s perspective is powerful and agonizing.

After that night on the river fifteen year old Ikenna changes. Growing more and more secluded, paranoid, and vengeful, he drives a wedge between the once close knit brotherhood that eventually swallows his entire family. Ikenna morphs from a loving older brother to a defiant fiend wrought with suspicion and anger, threatening his siblings and even his mother with beatings whenever they try to convince him the prophecy will not come true. There are short lived moments of clarity when Ikenna seems to know his actions are driving himself mad, but he is unable to control the roots of destruction that have taken residence in his mind.

When their father finally returns home it is long overdue and only after the damage is done. The face of his family has been beaten beyond recognition, and the comfort of familial trust has abandoned them.

He used to be a stronger man; an impregnable man who defended fathering so many children by saying he wanted us to be many so that there could be diversity of success in the family… And for many years, he’d carried this bag of dreams. He did not know that what he bore all those days was a bag of maggoty dreams; long decayed, and which, now, had become dead weight.

This is one of the best books I’ve read this year and last year. In this debut novel Chigozie Obioma manages to remind African literature lovers of fellow acclaimed Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe (Things Fall Apart), which is no small feat, being shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2015. His characters are shaped with tremendous care, making each moment of their undoing all the more heartbreaking. Obioma’s use of imagery, metaphor, and cultural idioms paint a visceral picture of 1990s Nigeria, referencing events like MKO Abiola’s run for presidency and the remnants of the Biafran War. The Fishermen takes a close look at the superstitious nature, fate, religion, and politics in Nigeria, giving light to a great story in a palpable setting that makes you feel as if you’re rolling in the colorful market streets with these young boys, through their terrible coming of age story.