I just finished Yaa Gyasi’s debut novel, Homegoing, for the second time. And, it still has me shook.
For those who haven’t read it yet – please note the following will contain some spoilers.
Haunting. Emotive. Lyrical. Searing. Critical. Gyasi’s novel is a gripping generational timeless yarn of colonialism, identity, human trafficking and body politics. And, perhaps book ancestrally wise – Homegoing is a direct descendent of Chinua Achebe’s acclaimed novel,Things Fall Apart.
Homegoing follows the stories of two half-sisters, Essie and Effia – unknown to each other- and the six generations which follow, their lineage broken from colonialism and slavery.
Each chapter, told from the perspective of a different character, evokes both the fantastical, depraved and the nightmarish while also evoking the nostalgic poetic motif, Ubi sunt qui ante nos fuerunt? (where are those whom have gone before?).
And, while the reader is kept to task recalling which character belongs to which family tree, characters emerge and re-emerge in dreams and retellings from their descendants. This combined with a genealogical map located at the beginning of the book and two sturdy symbols: fire and water, help to maintain ancestral clarity between the two lineages.
Centering the enduring narrative of generational trauma, Homegoing’s tale remains unflinchingly searing and critical. And, the attention to nuanced, even controversial, themes (many of which remain almost hidden in dog whistles), of colorism, body politics, identity politics, misogyny and misogynoir, wealth, housing and educational inequities, power and privilege are particularly crucial.
In Isabel Wilkerson’s review of Homegoing on the New York Times, she notes this:
The West African chapters are the heart of the book, a deep channeling of multilayered humanity. Gyasi evokes what was lost to those who were sold away — the sense of individual and collective identity, a wealth of rituals and customs they’d be whipped for trying to retain in America. In the mother country, life’s losses and turning points were a time of communal recognition: The death of an Asante king was mourned for 40 days, weeklong puberty rites celebrated a girl’s first menstrual cycle. Identity and intimacy were bound up in language; a servant girl in mid-20th-century Ghana is shown speaking labored English to her employer, until he tells her to speak their own language. “We hear enough English here,” he says, and she breaks into Twi with relief. Thus begins one of the book’s lovelier courtships. But on a slave plantation in Mississippi, Esi tries to teach her young daughter, Ness, their native tongue and is given five lashes for every Twi word the girl speaks. Later, little Ness is sold off without warning or ceremony or permission to grieve.
Homegoing invites its readers to take a closer look at systemic injustice through its careful generational juxtaposition of the effects of colonialism, both in West Africa and America.
And, indeed the almost magical realism of the first few chapters encourage a deeper investigation into themes of identity and belonging.
There are far better writers than I whom have offered outstanding reviews of this book, so I wanted to wrap up my review with some of the quotes I will be carrying with me.
- “We believe the one who has power. He is the one who gets to write the story. So when you study history, you must ask yourself, Whose story am I missing? Whose voice was suppressed so that this voice could come forth? Once you have figured that out, you must find that story too. From there you get a clearer, yet still imperfect, picture.”
- “The need to call this thing “good” and this thing “bad,” this thing “white” and this thing “black,” was an impulse that Effia did not understand. In her village, everything was everything. Everything bore the weight of everything else.”
- “You cannot stick a knife in a goat and then say, “now I will remove my knife slowly – so let things be easy and clean; let there be no mess.” There will always be blood.”
- “No one forgets that they were once captive, even if they are now free.”
- “They would just trade one type of shackles for another, trade physical ones that wrapped around wrists and ankles for the invisible ones that wrapped around the mind.”
- “…Tell a lie long enough and it will turn to truth.”
If you have read the book what are you carrying with you? As always, I welcome discussion.