Homegoing: A Novel by Yaa Gyasi (New York: Knopf, 2016. 320 pp)
Yaa Gyasi was born in Ghana and raised in Huntsville, Alabama. She holds a BA in English from Stanford University and an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where she held a Dean’s Graduate Research Fellowship. She lives in Berkley, California.
There’s a scene from the year’s best new television series that sticks with me. Atlanta is amazing. Take my word for it. Anyway, Earn (Donald Glover), the protagonist—if we can accurately label such a character in this series—visits a party in a well-to-do neighborhood. The husband and wife operate in the elite stratosphere of Atlanta culture. The white husband considers himself a connoisseur of African culture, a white ally gone overboard.
In an awkward conversation, this white ally asks Earn about his heritage. He earnestly wants to know the part of Africa from which Earn’s ancestors herald. In a dry, biting tone, Earn declares is agnosticism because, you know, slavery.
The poignant undertone of this comedic scene emerges in its unambiguous tone. Many communities in America have no ancestral rooting. There’s a general knowledge of origination, but no familial story. I think of my recent review on Brooklyn and I’m ashamed at how stark a contrast between the stories of my heritage and the lack of narrative heritage in Donald Glover’s character.
An Inventive Approach
Given the blight of slavery on this nation, Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing provides an inventive approach to outlining family lineage for a historically marginalized group of people.
Spanning centuries, Yaa Gyasi situates the story through a pair of sisters forever separated as war and the slave trade ravage Fanteland, the region now known as Ghana. One sister captures the eye of a slave trader, becoming a “wench,” an African wife with which to share a bed while the European family waits back home.
“Effia had heard him say this before. Christian. That was why they had been married in the chapel by the stern man in black who shook his head every time he looked at her. He’d spoken before, too, of the ‘voodoo’ he thought all Africans participated in. She could not tell him the fables of Anansi the spider or stories that the old people from her village used to tell her without his growing wary. Since moving to the Castle, she’d discovered that only the white men talked of ‘black magic.’ As though magic had a color” (23).
The other sister encounters the bleak dungeons of the Castle, awaiting shipment to the American colonies.
“It was one of those days. Esi was kicked to the ground by one of the soldiers, his foot at the base of her neck so that she couldn’t turn her head to breath anything but the dust and detritus from the ground. The new women were brought in, and some were wailing so hard that the soldiers smacked then unconscious. They were piled on top of the other women, their bodies deadweight” (30).
Chapter by chapter, Gyasi outlines the lineage of this family. Each successive chapter tells the story of a new generation of family members, separated by an ocean and by the oppression of circumstance. As one side of the family encounters the horrors and dehumanization of slavery, Jim Crow, and systemic racism, the other side struggles with white opulence, the value of education, and the ability to fit within a culture you have irrevocably harmed.
With an unparalleled combination beauty and pain, Gyasi outlines and humanizes generations of family, with vibrant internal lives, seeking to make something of their lives, no matter the systemic forces pushing against them.
Given the structure of the novel, one would imagine the plot would head toward an impossible resolution. Yet, Gyasi fights against that easy approach in unique ways, providing satisfaction without vast implausibility.
Homegoing has earned all its critical acclaim and is a novel everyone should read.
Verdict: 5 out of 5