I think a lot of the books I choose to read I choose because they look important and/or like they’re going to be good for me and/or because I ought to. Books by Doris Lessing and Gloria Steinem come to mind by way of example of this. And I usually end up enjoying these books and feeling glad that I read them. Still, they might not be the kind of books that I would recommend to everybody I know. Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi is a novel that began to receive critical acclaim in the weeks preceding its publication, so it definitely was going to be one of those books I ought to read. Having finished it, I can say that it is also one of those books that I would recommend to just about anyone both because of the subject matter and the extraordinary writing.
Homegoing is the stunning debut novel by Yaa Gyasi, who was born in Ghana and raised in Huntsville, Alabama. It is the story of two women who share the same mother but never know each other and of the descendants of each. The story begins in mid-18th century Africa, on the Gold Coast, and expands across the ocean to America and through time to the modern day. Slavery, family, and history form the core themes around which each generation’s story revolves. By telling each generation’s story, in both Africa and America, parallel to each other, the reader sees the devastating impact of the slave trade and European dominance on both sides of the Atlantic, an impact that leaves deep scars on cultures, families, and individuals.
Gyasi begins the novel with the stories of Effia and Esi, the half-sisters who never meet. They share the same mother, Maame, whose own story is harrowing and fraught with pain although neither girl knows it until later. Effia, known for her beauty, is married off to a white colonial officer and lives at the Castle on the coast. Esi also winds up at the Castle, but in its dungeon as a slave to be shipped to America. Throughout the novel, Gyasi shows the complicated relationships between the Europeans and native peoples as well as among native peoples, in particular the Fante and Asante. The Europeans pay for slaves and aim to own and control the land and people. The Fante and Asante participate in the slave trade themselves, sometimes as allies, sometimes as competitors who betray one another, but always trading with the Europeans. While the Fante and Asante can hold their own against the British at first, over time the British consolidate their power and colonize the coast. Later generations will occupy themselves with the independence movement.
Much of the novel focuses on the importance of family ties and belonging. Effia never fit in with her own family for reasons she did not understand until later, and Effia’s descendants never quite fit in with the Fante (her father’s tribe) or Asante. They are lighter skinned and aligned with Europeans, or at least they are perceived that way. Effia’s descendants are often outsiders among the Fante and Asante, even though their local ties are known, and they certainly are not seen as equals with whites. Some of her descendants feel shame about the “family business” and attempt to divorce themselves from it, running away, moving away, and even seeking out a white missionary in one case. Effia’s line includes individuals known as being unlucky and crazy, but they also seem to be the ones who see clearly what has happened to their land and people and why it has happened.
Esi’s story and the stories of her descendants are often painful to read. Gyasi provides vivid descriptions of life in the Castle dungeon and of slavery in America: rape, filth, whippings, attempts to runaway and the repercussions, the effects of the fugitive slave law in the “free” north. And once the Civil War ends, the injustices and horrors do not: unjust incarceration of men based on their color, being sold as convict labor to the mines, the migration north, unemployment, the phenomenon of passing as white, drug abuse and so on. The stories of Esi’s descendants can be painfully short; sometimes that is due to death but often it is because slavery broke up families while children were mere babies. As a result, we don’t get to know much about Esi or her tough and brave daughter Ness. And of course, the children of this line are unable to trace their lineage backwards to larger families and native lands. They are far more alienated than Effia’s children. Esi’s great-great-great-great-great grandson Marcus, who lives in modern day California, feels this disconnect profoundly and it is what guides his own research, but his research only serves to frustrate him in its limitations. His research will never give him the answers he seeks, of who his people were and where they came from. A chance meeting with another student, however, will help him make another sort of connection. I’ll just say that the end of this novel is very moving, beautifully conceived and written.
Gyasi’s characters are unforgettable. It is amazing how in a few short pages (the novel is only about 300 pages long and includes 14 chapters, each centered on one particular character), the reader can get to know and care about individuals whose personal stories are often cut short. While focusing on fictional families, Gyasi is telling a much broader story about African history, African American history, and American history. This is, I think, an important book, but it is also a really well written book, a book that engages the reader. I think anyone who picks it up would be drawn into it and moved. Homegoing would make an excellent addition to the high school curriculum in the US, and it would be a great choice for book groups. Discussion questions are provided at the end.