Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing is a wonderful novel, with the story of a family echoing across continents and centuries. From the beginnings of the slave trade in the 1700s in Africa to jazz in Harlem in the mid-20th Century, we trace the lineage and evolution of a single family line, branching out, marching, reaching forward, defining themselves and their culture in the changing world.
Each chapter in this novel is named after a different person, chronologically following the descendants of a single Asante woman named Maame, from what is now Ghana. Starting with her two daughters from two neighbouring communities, the stories are told in a first person perspective, collating these individual connected experiences into a larger narrative of African identity.
Opening in Asante, and moving rapidly into the realities of the English slave trade off the coast, the detail is both fascinating and confronting. The lineages separate – one line stays in Ghana the other goes to America as a slave – allowing Gyasi to tell the parallel dual history. We can see this whole actualised world, interrupted by white business, forced into colonialism and slavery, and over the generations grappling to understand and integrate it.
“Effia had passed by Cape Coast Castle only once, when she and Baaba ventured out of their village and into the city, but she had never been in it before the day of her wedding. There was a chapel on the ground level, and she and James Collins were married by a clergyman who had asked Effia to repeat words she didn’t mean in a language she didn’t understand. There was no dancing, no feasting, no bright colours, slicked hair, or old ladies with wrinkled and bare breasts throwing coins and waving handkerchiefs.”
I loved this book. I appreciated how these snippets into a life wove together with all the other snippets already experienced. Gyasi intelligently manages the feeling of overall narrative while moving across so many perspectives and decades so that a consistent through line is established. She also very rapidly introduces characters at the beginning of their chapter and utilises such efficiency in language and feeling that you can very immediately connected with them. So much so that when a character from an earlier chapter appears in another character’s story, older and tangentially, it gives a brief joy.
But what the book is actually about hits the hardest. From language to song to literature to myth; from the very basics of citizenship to identity, freedom and emancipation, this book is about the self-determination of African and African-American identities. It feels so pertinent, utilising such personal stories to insightfully reflect a larger truth.
“It makes me sad to see my son a junkie after all the marchin’ I done…You keep doin’ what you doin’ and the white man don’t got to do it no more. He ain’t got to sell you or put you in a coal mine to own you. He’ll own you just as is, and he’ll say you the one who did it. He’ll say it’s your fault.”
The shocking, basic injustices our characters experience are so immediate and upsetting, but this is the lived reality of Afrians throughout the last few centuries. Gyasi’s book is a really good one with a well-told story, but is also an interesting, insightful, and important one too.