Read: October 2016
Publication Date: 5th January 2017 (UK hardcover)
Genre: Historical Fiction, Literary Fiction.
Synopsis: Effia and Esi: two sisters with two very different destinies. One sold into slavery; one a slave trader’s wife. The consequences of their fate reverberate through the generations that follow. Taking us from the Gold Coast of Africa to the cotton-picking plantations of Mississippi; from the missionary schools of Ghana to the dive bars of Harlem, spanning three continents and seven generations, Yaa Gyasi has written a miraculous novel – the intimate, gripping story of a brilliantly vivid cast of characters and through their lives the very story of America itself. Goodreads.
I received a copy of this book from Penguin UK via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.
Ever since first reading about Homegoing in, of all places, a Buzzfeed listicle, I’d been desperate to read it. Homegoing has an incredibly ambitious premise, spanning over 200 years in just 300 pages is no easy task, but Yaa Gyasi accomplishes it brilliantly. This book is astounding from start to finish, not in the least because this is Gyasi’s debut novel.
The novel begins with two sisters, Effia and Esi, who are unknown to one another. They are born to the same mother, but in different villages in Ghana. Effia is sent to be a slave trader’s wife, and Esi is sold into slavery. Each subsequent chapter alternately deals with the descendants of Effia and Esi, with Effia’s descendants mostly residing in Ghana, and Esi’s in the United States. Primarily, this novel is concerned with reverberating effects of slavery and colonialism throughout history.
‘That I should live to her my own daughter speak like this. You want to know what weakness is? Weakness is treating someone as though they belong to you. Strength is knowing that everyone belongs to themselves.’
One of the many things that’s so impressive about this book is how well-developed and rich each and every character is. There are twelve different perspectives in this book, and Gyasi’s ability to make each of them distinct and engaging is nothing short of masterful. More time is spent with Effia and Esi, I think, than their descendants, though this is necessary to lay out the main themes of the novel. Admittedly, I was surprised at how short these chapters were. Each chapter could read as its own separate short story, were it not for the bloodline that links all of them together. Sometimes I felt that they were a little abrupt, and it took me a moment to orientate myself. I did find that sometimes I wanted more from certain characters, which is not to say that these chapters were lacking in any way, it’s just that I admired the way Gyasi managed to capture some of the time periods she explores.
Because this novel is, essentially, a history, this is why the shorter chapters ended up working so well for me by the end. It should go without saying that this book is not an easy read, and with it being so short, Gyasi brings the history of slavery uncomfortably close. In having these periods of extreme violence so close to the insidious racism of the present day exposes the long legacy of the slave trade. Homegoing does not permit the distance that, for instance, academic study does. It forces a confrontation with parts of history that we’re uncomfortable with—perhaps, more specifically, that we white people are uncomfortable with. While, of course, progress has been made, Homegoing highlights what still needs to be done.
The British were no longer selling slaves to America, but slavery had not ended, and his father did not seem to think that it would end. They would just trade one type of shackles for another, physical ones that wrapped around wrists and ankles for the invisible ones that wrapped around the mind.
In this, Homegoing has the benefit of informing people who were perhaps previously undereducated in the injustices suffered by black people, particularly in the United States. I knew about some of the things Gyasi discusses in the novel, but I was never truly aware of the extent of it. For instance, one of the vignettes deals with forced labour in mines, and while the white men are sent there for crimes as awful as murder, black men are sent there for something as minor as not crossing the street as a white woman passed them. It’s an eye-opening read for many reasons, and Gyasi weaves history into her narrative effortlessly.
Homegoing is a novel that should leave you feeling heartbroken, but I think that, first and foremost, is should be a novel that inspires thought and discussion. Gyasi is giving voice to many suppressed or underdiscussed aspects of history. As Gyasi discusses in the novel itself, history is frequently a story that’s being told, and it’s important to consider who has control of the narrative. Homegoing, then, readdresses history, and discusses it from frequently marginalised perspectives.
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 supressed 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.
Gyasi is truly an incredible talent, and I really look forward to reading anything she writes in the future.