Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi
Genre: Historical fiction
Content warning: depictions of violence, non-graphic descriptions of sexual assault
Homegoing (2016, 320 pages) is the remarkable debut novel of Yaa Gyasi, a Ghanaian-American novelist. Gyasi won several awards for Homegoing including the National Book Critics Circle’s John Leonard Award for best first book, the PEN/Hemingway Award for a first book of fiction and the American Book Award. Homegoing is set in the Gold Coast (modern-day Ghana) and the U.S and spans over 300 years, or seven generations, of a family that have been split apart by the transatlantic slave trade. The novel is told as a series of vignettes and starts in the 18th century Gold Coast with Esi and Effia, two half sisters who share the same mother, but are raised in different villages and have never met each other. After Esi is kidnapped from her village in Asanteland and enslaved on a cotton plantation in the American South, the novel follows Esi’s descendants as they survive enslavement, Jim Crow, the Great Migration and the Civil Right movement. In alternating chapters, the novel follows Effia and her descendants who have remained in Ghana, as they deal with British colonialization, the Anglo-Asante wars and the independence movement in Ghana. The novel ends in the present day, with two of the sisters’ descendants returning to the slave trading post in Ghana, where Esi, and millions more just like her, were forcibly transported to the Americas, never to return home again.
Homegoing begins on the night that Effia was born and a devastating fire tears through her father’s compound: “It moved quickly, tearing a path for days”. The fire was set by Effia’s mother, Maame, an Asante woman who was enslaved by Effia’s father, Cobbe, who is Fante. After setting the fire, Maame fled to her home in Asanteland and left Effia behind with Cobbe: “He knew then that the memory of the fire that burned, then fled, would haunt him, his children, and his children’s children for as long as the line continued”. Years later Effia is given in marriage to James, the British governor of the Cape Coast Castle, and as a wedding gift, Effia is gifted a black stone pendant that Maame had left behind. After their wedding, James gives Effia a tour of the castle where they will liv and Effia hears faint crying in the dungeons below and asks James what is held there. James' reply is “cargo” but when Effia presses him, asking if there are people down there, James replies “yes”. Effia becomes angry at James’ reply and demands to return home but James reminds Effia, “Your home is no better”.
After her escape from Effia’s father, Maame remarried and has another daughter named Esi. One week before Esi’s marriage, their village is attacked and in the mayhem, Maame gives Esi a black stone pendant that she meant to gift Esi as a wedding present. Unfortunately, Esi is captured by warriors from the rival village and marched from the bush to the coast, “the first few days were not so bad, but by the tenth the calluses on Esi’s feet split open and blood seeped out, painting the leaves she left behind”. Eventually, Esi arrives at the Cape Coast Castle dungeon where “there was no sunlight[and] sometimes there were so many bodies stacked into the women’s dungeon that they all had to lie, stomach down, so that women could be stacked on top of them.” Because of the unsanitary conditions in the dungeon, “the waste on the dungeon floor was up to Esi’s ankles”, Esi buries the stone pendant in a mud wall, “marking the spot on the wall so that she would remember when the time came”. One day, James enters the dungeon to inspect the women and clear them for transport to the New World where they will be sold as slaves, but when he sees Esi: “He looked at her carefully, then blinked his eyes and shook his head. He looked at her again, and then began checking her body as he had the others”. As soon as the inspection is complete, Esi and the other women are dragged from the dungeon before Esi is able to retrieve her stone pendant, her only connection to her family and her former happy life.
The novel then follows subsequent generations of Esi’s family in America. There is Ness, Esi’s daughter, who “picked cotton under the punishing eye of the southern sun”. By the time Ness is born, easy-going and frivlous Esi has developed a hard heart and is nicknamed “Frownie” by the other enslaved people because she never smiled. And when Ness is sold by the slaveholder, “Esi’s lips had stood in that same thin line. Ness could remember reaching out for her mother…fighting against the body of the man who’d come to take her away. And still Esi’s lips had not moved, her hands had not reached out.” Ness is taken to a series of especially hellish plantations in Alabama including one where she is whipped so often “the scarred skin was like another body in and of itself, shaped like a man hugging her from behind with his arms hanging around her neck”. Esi’s other descendants include H, a sharecropper, who is arrested for the crime of “studyin’ a white woman” and then hired out by the state of Alabama to work in a dangerous coal mine for ten years without pay. Other descendants are Willie, who leaves the South for Harlem during the Great Migration, and Sonny, who becomes involved in the Civil Rights movement before becoming addicted to heroin in 1960s Harlem.
The novel also follows Effia and her descendants who remained in the Gold Coast. There is Quey, Effia and James’ son, who is educated in England but struggles with same-sex attraction for his best friend. Another descendant is James, who fled his home in order to marry the woman he loves and to escape his family’s business as slave traders. And there is also Akua, who is haunted by fire – which killed her mother – and ends up using fire with devastating results, reminiscent of the destruction caused by the fire set by her great-great-grandmother Maame. The novel then ends with Effia’s descendant, Marjorie, and Esi’s descendant, Marcus, meeting each other at a party in San Francisco in the early 2000s and striking up a friendship that takes them from California to the Cape Coast Castle in Ghana, a trip that serves as a Homegoing for both of them.
Gyasi accomplishes a rare feat in Homegoing, she writes about 14 different characters scattered across hundreds of years in a little over 300 pages. Even more impressive is that she manages to tie in important historical events including slavery, colonialization, the Fugitive Slave Act and the Great Migration, while maintaining her character-driven story and not getting lost in historical details. For example, Gyasi uses the history of African involvement in the slave trade to explain James' desire to escape his family's legacy, “Asante traders would bring in their captives. Fante, Ewe, or Ga middlemen would hold them, then sell them to the British or the Dutch of whoever was paying the most at the time. Everyone was responsible. We all were…we all are”. In telling James’ story, Gyasi illustrates the extent of different ethnic groups’ involvement in the slave trade, while also showing how the slave trade negatively affected the families that remained in the Gold Coast.
Equally interesting were the parts of history that Gyasi chose to skip, for instance, Gyasi largely ignores the American Civil War and instead focuses on what NPR reviewer Maureen Corrigan refers to as “less familiar historical episodes”, for example, the Fugitive Slave Act, which criminalized helping Black people suspected of being runaway slaves. In one memorable scene, Esi’s grandson Kojo has his children “practice showing their papers” to white authorities in order to prove that they are not runaway slaves. Kojo would “play the federal marshal, hands on hips, walking up to each of them […] in a voice as stern as he could muster, ‘where you goin’?’“ Unfortunately, Kojo’s warning to his children – that they should show white authorities their papers “without any backtalk, always silently” – will sound very familiar to Black parents today, who are still giving their children the same talk about how to interact with the police. Gyasi also writes about another lesser discussed historical institution of Black oppression in the American South, the convict leasing system, where Black men were given excessively punitive prison sentences for “crimes” such as not crossing “the street when a white woman walk by” and then the state would lease these Black men to private industry, such as coal mines, for a fee. These men were never paid for their work and many would die from either overwork or dangerous working conditions within a few months. In short, Gyasi’s deft engagement with history is primary reason she is able to cover such a long time period in so few pages without the reader feeling overwhelmed.
Because Homegoing is organized as a series of short stories, I was worried that the novel would lack a coherent narrative, but Gyasi achieves continuity through the successive generations in two ways. One source of continuity is the Black pendant that Maame gives to each of her daughters. In Effia’s family, the Black stone is passed on through the generations even after some descendants cut ties with their family (like James) or leave Ghana entirely (like Marjorie’s parents), the pendant is tangible piece of family’s history that is passed down through the generations. But for Esi’s family, the loss of the Black stone serves as a metaphor of slavery's impact on millions of people and how it untethered so many from their history, their homes and their families. In the novel, Gyasi hints at how this untethering also affects how West Africans perceive Black Americans (or Black people from the Americas). In one scene, Marjorie tells her Black American teacher, “I’m not African American” and thinks to herself “that at home [in Ghana], they had a different word for African Americans. Akata. That akata people were different from Ghanaians, too long gone from the mother continent to continue calling it the mother continent”.
Another source of continuity in Homegoing is Effia and Esi's legacy of fire and water, respectively. From the day Effia is born through several generations of her family, fire plays an important role in the downfall of many of her descendants, just like Cobbe predicted. Similarly, water is Esi’s legacy. Reviewer Mike Broida explains the long-lasting effect of water on generations of Esi's family, “water... is the all-surrounding, suffocating totality of slavery and the vast deadly Atlantic Ocean during the Middle Passage”. It is only when Marcus and Marjorie overcome their fear of these two destructive (yet purifying) elements that they can begin to heal and come to terms with the weight of their respective family legacies.
Although I loved Homegoing, the novel had a couple weaknesses that bothered me. One weakness is the unequal character development between Gyasi’s Ghanaian versus American characters. The Ghanaian characters were more nuanced and exerted more agency than the American characters, which I took as an indicator of Gyasi’s level of comfort and/or confidence in writing these two different narrative arcs. Gyasi falls into a lot of tropes when writing about her Black American characters, for example, Laura Miller correctly pinpoints Sonny, as the least coherent character, who “is overshadowed by a litany of experiences and traits that the novel takes to be emblematic of the male Africa-American experience in the late twentieth century”. Sonny is a walking, breathing stereotype of Black men in America – multiple children with different women whom he never visits? Check. Involved in the Jazz scene in Harlem, the NAACP/Civil Rights movement and is addicted to heroin? Again, check, check, check. Although it is inevitable that Gyasi would make some characters’ lives representative of the zeitgeist of each era, Sonny's character development was uninspired and weak and as a result, he was one of my least favorite characters.
In another chapter, Gyasi employs another litany of stereotypes when Marjorie’s Black American classmates call her “white girl” because of the way she talks and teases Marjorie for reading the classic novel Lord of the Flies. As Isabel Wilkerson astutely points out, “it is dispiriting to encounter such a worn-out cliché – that African-Americans are hostile to reading and education – in such a work of beauty”. Gyasi's writing in this scene is all the more confounding after reading the speech that one of her characters, Yaw, gives earlier in the novel about being skeptical of history written by others, “ You must always ask yourself, whose story am I missing? Whose voice was suppressed so that this voice could come forth?” It made me think, which history are you drawing on to create these Black American characters Ms. Gyasi?
With its split storyline that follows the lives of two sisters, Homegoing reminded me of Brit Bennett’s The Vanishing Half but that is where the similarities between these two novels end. Instead, other reviewers have compared Homegoing to family sagas such Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, a multi-generational family saga about the Buendiá family and its patriarch José who founded the fictitious town of Macondo. Homegoing is also comparable to Alex Haley’s Roots: The Saga of an American Family, another multi-generational family saga about a young man named Kunta Kinte from his capture in Africa and enslavement on a southern plantation, and his descendants stories’ as they experience major historic events in America.
I give Homegoing 4.5 out of 5 stars because it is a very ambitious debut novel that provides a unique insight into the effect of the transatlantic slave trade, and slavery in general, on an ordinary family. Homegoing is an excellent work of historical fiction because it accomplishes something that is very difficult to do, it takes big important events and personalizes them. In Homegoing, the transatlantic slave trade wasn’t just the kidnapping and enslavement of millions of unknown people, it was the kidnapping and enslavement of Esi, a young, happy girl, one week before her wedding. Homegoing made me very emotional because I felt as if this could have been the story about my own family and it reminded of one of slavery's most cruel and enduring legacies, the break up of families and the effect it still has centuries later. I took off a half star because of the weakness of some of Gyasi’s Black American characters and her use of outdated tropes of Black American men. But despite these serious flaws, I really enjoyed reading Homegoing and I highly recommend it!