“The family is like a forest: if you are outside it is dense; if you are inside you see that each tree has its own position”.
Homegoing is a game changer. Yaa Gyasi’s debut novel will blow your emotions away. It’s easily my best read of 2017 and we’re only 3 months in. The title ‘Homegoing’ is taken from an old African-American belief that death allowed an enslaved person’s spirit to travel back to Africa.
It’s a raw story of the beginning of slavery and how its effects are still felt through the generations. Alongside capturing the history of how slavery started, it tackles the involvement of other Africans in this horrendous act. You often hear slavery apologists say “Even Africans were doing it”, and Gyasi captures this perfectly, but she does it in a way that makes us consider our morals, emotions and the tangled web that is history.
The structure of the book is a set of different stories that are explained by a family tree at the beginning. The story of Maame’s children; Effia and Esi and how branches on the same tree can have different endings (the family tree at the start of the novel, is something you’ll have to look at every once in a while to grasp how the story changes through the different generations). Each chapter is narrated by a descendant of either Effia or Esi and how the two branches grow through the times. Bits Ghanaian history are thrown in such as the exiled king and the warrior queen Yaa Asantewaa. Gyasi is also conscious by following the events of American history which keeps the story consistent.
The many generations and their different stories are told so effortlessly by Gyasi that you don’t feel lost, the novel is easy to follow. In a way it is a way of showing the development of African Americans and those Africans that stayed in the Motherland. One of the most important themes it tackles is the influence of family and how quarrels and mistakes can seep through generations and play a bigger role than is noticed, one of the characters is quoted saying “sometimes you cannot see that the evil in the world began as the evil in your home”. The recurring theme of fire from Maame setting the first fire after giving birth to Effia to Akua setting her house on fire whilst sleep walking and subsequently killing her two children. It has shown me that with some problems you need to get to the root of the problem; in this case the Fire woman explaining everything to Akua near the end of the novel.
From my research about her, I would liken Yaa Gyasi to Marjorie Agyekum who is one of the concluding characters of the novel. As someone who was born in Ghana but moved to America at a young age, Gyasi has ties to Ghana and America that enable her to write about both places so eloquently.
The later chapters that are set in America have more familiar events, events that we are still seeing in 2017 which in a way make them even more moving. News articles of young black men and women being killed for no apparent reason except their skin tone.
Ron Charles reiterated a good question in his review of the book by using a quote from a teacher in the novel, “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 suppressed so that this voice could come forth?” Gyasi has found several of those suppressed people and given them voices that are truly captivating’ . This book has definitely made me realise that I made a good decision by sticking to just BAME writers in 2017. During my school years I did not learn much about black history, only what I already knew from my primary school days in Zimbabwe and from the television.
If you feel like you do not know much about slavery and race relations, this is the perfect book to open your eyes. Never has a fictional book struck such a nerve within me. There’s a mixture of emotions throughout, happiness, sadness and longing for something you can’t quite place. For some of the black people who have no ties to Africa and do not know much about their history; this will truly be a Homegoing.
I will be reading this again soon.