Homegoing, by Yaa Gyasi.
Homegoing, by Yaa Gyasi. New York : Alfred A. Knopf, 2016.
5 stars — FAVORITE
A moving historical novel by a Ghanaian American woman which follows the descendants of two African women from the 1700s down to the present with powerful descriptions of ordinary incidents of African and African American peoples.
With imagination, knowledge and skill, Gyasi has opened up the black history of Africa and the United States to all her readers. Her characters are robust and complex, neither heroes or victims but life-like individuals with whom we can relate. The focus is on them, with the legal and political events structuring their lives always in the background. For me, this is the best kind of historical fiction, fleshing out what we can know with thoughtful visions of what might have been.
Effia and Esi were daughters of the same mother, but never knew each other. One married a British soldier in the infamous Cape Coast Castle in what is now Ghana; her descendants remained in Africa. Her sister was taken as a slave and confined in the dungeons of the Castle. Her descendants were slaves in the fields of North America and today’s African Americans. Each chapter follows someone in the ancestral chain, moving through generations and alternating between Africa and America. The book reads like a loosely connected collection of short stories, rather like Ancestor Stones, by Aminatta Forna. Themes of struggle and survival run through all the chapters.
Yaa Gyasi is a young woman born in Ghana whose family came to Alabama when she was nine. She was raised and educated in the United States, attending Stanford and the Iowa International Writing Program. She is a talented writer and fine storyteller; certainly she is an author to watch. Her stories enmesh us in African lives, the early slave trade and its escalation, Africans drawn into the sale of slaves and the confusion of those born of British and African parents. We see the ongoing wars between Fante and Asante and the British after the formal end of the slave trade and Africans’ attempts to be independent of European control. In America, we read of Africans in the “Hell’ of slavery in cotton fields and coal mines, the dangers for free blacks in cities, and the slavery of drugs in the ghettos.
In an interview, Gyasi explains how changes in colonialism and slavery over time are central to her book.
I wanted to talk about how the moments that we are dealing with in the present didn’t just appear out of nowhere. They are connected to every single moment in time that came before, tracing back to this huge thing in the 18th century.
Gyasi’s achievement is somewhat outside of western definitions of literary excellence. The novel has little unity and the theme of “homegoing” is not stressed. At times I became so engrossed in a particular story that I was annoyed to be pulled across the Atlantic and placed in yet another set of people and events. The stories, however, were so powerful that I quit caring. As she says of one of her characters who became a teacher, Gyasi is storyteller of her people “in the tradition of village dancers and storytellers,” passing on what she has learned about their shared past.
This book is an excellent choice for any reader interested in what Africans and African American have experienced in the past and the situations that continue to shape and restrict them. Those of us who are white particularly need to read this book. I recommend at as strongly as possible to all readers.