Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

homegoing-yaa-gyasiAstonishing, a work of art, an interwoven tapestry of stories that weave across the generations to create something so beautiful, so heartfelt, the thing that connects them is so strong, even when it isn’t known by its characters, somehow Yaa Gyasi conveys that to the reader, so that by the end when something quite magical happens, there is a feeling of grieving for all that has passed and of relief that something new has been found.

I love, love, loved this novel and I am in awe of its structure and storytelling, the authenticity of the stories, the three-dimensional characters, the inheritance and reinvention of trauma, and the rounding of all those stories into the healing return. I never saw that ending coming and the build up of sadness from the stories of the last few characters made the last story all the more moving, I couldn’t stop the tears rolling down my face.

How to give it justice in a review, it is so much more than story, we are so much more than our own personal experience and the place(s) we have lived.

Just as Han Kang, the South Korean author of the novel Human Acts wrote in consideration of two fundamental questions about humanity, Yaa Gyasi tells us in an article for the New York Times (referenced below) that she too began to write with a vague but important question that she put at the top of her blank screen: What does it mean to be black in America?

She further explains her inspiration in an article for the Observer (also below)

I began Homegoing in 2009 after a trip to Ghana’s Cape Coast Castle [where slaves were incarcerated]. The tour guide told us that British soldiers who lived and worked in the castle often married local women – something I didn’t know. I wanted to juxtapose two women – a soldier’s wife with a slave. I thought the novel would be traditionally structured, set in the present, with flashbacks to the 18th century. But the longer I worked, the more interested I became in being able to watch time as it moved, watch slavery and colonialism and their effects – I wanted to see the through-line.

Homegoing begins with the image of a partial family tree, with two strands and the novel will follow just one family member down each strand, the first two characters who begin these family lines are the daughters of Maame, Effia and Esi.

Effia, whom the villagers said was a baby born of the fire, believed she would marry the village chief, but would be married to a British slave trader and live upstairs in the Cape Coast Castle.

‘The night Effia Otcher was born into the musky heat of Fanteland, a fire raged through the woods just outside her father’s compound. It moved quickly, tearing a path for days. It lived off the air; it slept in caves and hid in trees; it burned, up and through, unconcerned with what wreckage it left behind, until it reached an Asante village. There, it disappeared, becoming one with the night.’

Effia’s father, Cobbe would lose his crop of yams that night, a precious crop known to sustain families far and wide and with it, through his mind would flit a premonition that would reverberate through subsequent generations:

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.’

Cape Coast Castle (a slave trading castle), Ghana

Cape Coast Castle (a slave trading castle), Ghana

Esi, whose father was a Big Man, in expressing her empathy for their house girl, would precipitate events that lead her to be captured and chained in the dungeons beneath that same castle, awaiting the slave trading ships that would transport them to their slave masters in America.

‘They took them out into the light. The scent of ocean water hit her nose. The taste of salt clung to her throat. The soldiers marched them down to an open door that led to sand and water, and they all began to walk out on to it.’

In these first two chapters of Effia and Esi, the recurring twin symbols of fire and water are introduced, something that each generation subconsciously carries with them and passes on, they will reappear through fears, dreams, experiences, a kind of deep primal scar they don’t even know requires healing, its origins so far back, so removed from anything that can be easily articulated.

Fire (yang) is like the curse of the slave trade, raging through the lives of each generation, even when they appear to have escaped it, as with Kojo’s story, a baby passed to the arms of a woman who helped slaves escape, whose parents are captured, but he will live freely, only to have one member of the family cruelly snatched, perpetuating the cycle yet again, orphaning another child, who must start over and scrape together a life from nothing.

‘They didn’t now about Jo’s fear of people in uniform, didn’t know what it was like to lie silent and barely breathing under the floorboards of a Quaker house, listening to the sound of a catcher’s boot heel stomp above you. Jo had worked so hard so his children wouldn’t have to inherit his fear, but now he wished they had just the tiniest morsel of it.’

Water (yin) to me is the endless expanse, the rootlessness, floating on the surface, feet never able to get a grip, efforts floundering. This symbol is carried throughout Essi’s family line, a cast of characters whose wheels are turning, who work hard, but suffer one setback after another.

The novel is structured around one chapter for each character, alternately between the twin sides of the family, the narrative perspective changing to focus on the new generation, through whom we learn something of what happened to the character in the previous generation, who’ve we left two chapters ago. Importantly, because Yaa Gyasi decides not to write in the present with flashbacks, but writes from the perspective of each character in their present, the novel never falters, it doesn’t suffer from the idling effect of flashbacks, it keeps up the pace by putting the reader at the centre of the drama in every chapter. We must live all of it.

The irony of the structure is that we read an entire family history and see how the events of the past affect the future, how patterns repeat, how fears are carried forward, how strong feelings are connected to roots and origins, we see it, while they experience the loss, the frustration, the inability to comprehend that it is not just the actions of one life that affect that life’s outcome.

This book is like a legacy, a long legacy that revolves between the sadness of loss and the human struggle to move forward, to survive, to do better, to improve. And also a legacy of the feeling of not belonging that is carried within those who have been uprooted, who no longer belong to one place or another, who if they are lucky might find someone to whom they can ignite or perhaps even extinguish that yearning ‘to belong’.

‘We can’t go back to something we ain’t never been to in the first place. It ain’t ours anymore. This is.’ She swept her hand in front of her, as though she were trying to catch all of Harlem in it, all of New York, all of America.’

And in writing this novel, Yaa Gyasi perhaps achieves something of what her final character Marcus is unable to articulate to Marjorie as to why his research feels futile, spurning his grandmother’s suggestion that he perhaps had the gift of visions, trying to find answers in a more tangible way, through research and study.

“What is the point Marcus?”
She stopped walking. For all they knew, they were standing on top of what used to be a coal mine for all the black convicts who had been conscripted to work there. It was one thing to research something, another thing entirely to have lived it. To have felt it. How could he explain to Marjorie that what he wanted to capture with his project was the feeling of time, of having been a part of something that stretched so far back, was so impossibly large, that it was easy to forget that she, and he, and everyone else, existed in it – not apart from it, but inside it.

Yes, she achieves it through literature, through fiction. And this is literature at its most powerful and best.

This novel is going to win awards in 2017, undoubtedly.

*****

Yaa Gyasi was born in Ghana in 1989 and raised in the US, moving around in early childhood but living in Huntsville, Alabama from the age of 10. She is the daughter of a francophone African literature professor and a nurse and completed her MFA at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, University of Iowa. She wrote this, her debut novel at the age of 26.

Further Reading

New York Times, Sunday Review – Opinion, June 18, 2016 – I’m Ghanaian-American. Am I Black?

Review, The Observer, January 8, 2017 – Yaa Gyasi: ‘Slavery is on people’s minds. It affects us still’

 

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43 thoughts on “Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

  1. Wonderful to read about your heartfelt response to this novel. “we are so much more than our own personal experience and the place(s) we have lived.” So true!
    It’s great to find out about Gyasi’s original inspiration for the novel and how it changed in structure! I think you’re right that the pace wouldn’t have been right if she had written it with flashbacks.
    I hope it does win a lot of awards!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Eric and for sharing those words in your tweet, they resonate for many I am sure.

      Yes, when I learned after reading about her decision to change the structure and perspective, I had to include it as I think it definitely makes for a more engaging read, and particularly as I think it was one of the reasons that the previous book I read, The Good People, had something of a lull mid-section, as the story flashed back to one the character’s childhoods. Keeping us in the present and seeing through the eyes of all these characters embeds something important in the mind of the reader, that continues to build throughout the narrative.

      It’s so deserving of literary recognition, I hope it does well, the people’s choice for sure.

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  2. I LOVE your description of the fire and ice (yin and yang) and how this metaphor continues to affect the lives of the characters down the line. I, too, LOVED that last chapter where it all sort of came down to an “um” or an interrupted silence. To tell a story of this expanse in that few pages, is art, you’re completely right. When I read Ngasi’s initial question starting out from your review, this book felt even more heavy to me (not in a bad way just heavier and sturdier I guess). Thank you for including that.

    Liked by 1 person

    • To be honest, I take a more universal message from the book, for it doesn’t read to me as just about what it means to be black in America, that may have been her starting point, but I read it, having already read another historical novel and masterpiece ‘Segu’ by Maryse Condé, who was born and raised in French speaking Guadeloupe, more at home in Paris than in Africa, but who’s own personal journey will lead her back to ancestral roots, she grew up knowing nothing about. Segu has some similarities and it speaks for so many people from so many different countries, whose origins began on the continent of Africa and lead them to many places, not just America.

      I’ve read stories of people who survived the holocaust, changing identities, trying to remove the effect of that trauma from the lives of subsequent generations, and it turns out that keeping secrets, withholding truths doesn’t help anyone.

      Wow, this book is going to be studied and so much more will be able to be discussed and perhaps understood by doing so. For me, it is giant, beautiful tapestry, in words. Thanks for your thoughtful comment Cassie.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I, obviously, because I’m a selfish American and the current state of America’s race relations read it more from a standpoint of an American, but I’ve read so much that fights that as the “single story” as well. Edwidge Danticant is a great, great example of that and all the stories from the Carribbean, particularly Haiti and Dominican Republic have always resonated with me so much. I think this is the great thing about books though is that I’m going to read it from that perspective because I’m living that perspective daily and you can broaden that perspective to make it so much more whole. It meant A LOT to me to read it from that American standpoint though, and I kind of wish it would be taught in high school curriculum because I think it really needs to be dissected. It reminded me of a project my students are doing with podcasting. They’re tracing a current “revolution” (for lack of a better word) throughout history and podcasting about it. A lot of them chose Black Lives Matter and it’s been SO interesting to see the different narratives from all over the globe that they are turning to, each group has a completely different path. Talks definitely about what you were saying.

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  3. I’ve only rarely seen you be quite so effusive in your praise for a book so this must have been pretty special. Oddly I read of it elsewhere and didn’t like the sound of it – but if you loved it this much then I guess I got it wrong initially. Will move it out of the forget it list and back to the forefront of the buy it list!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Oh yes Col, I’m predicting this will be my outstanding read of 2017, you’ll be wanting to get a physical copy of this one. I wasn’t sure about it at first due to the hype, but this is totally up my reading book alley and an author to keep an eye on, what a talent, I just hope she doesn’t get too distracted by all the attention, given this was her debut. But clearly a very experienced writer and storyteller and one who took on a hug challenge in this sweep of 300 years.

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    • That’s great to hear Nella, I’ve yet to see any interviews, but I look forward to doing so, she seems like an interesting writer and thinker and certainly a fabulous storyteller. Enjoy the novel, I look forward to hearing your thoughts on it too.

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    • This was really my kind of book Susan and though I’ve wanted to read it since first spotting it, I wasn’t able to get a copy and so was waiting for the paperback to come out and then was a little concerned about the hype, but not at all disappointed, it’s an extraordinary accomplishment in my opinion.

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    • I did read a few reviews by people who weren’t as enamoured by it, mostly because of the change of characters, which is a little more of a challenging structure to absorb, requiring the reader to have to think back. It’s become so widely read and talked about that its bound to get more criticism now I guess. I want to see it pick up those literary awards, its so deserving of it!

      Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, it will be interesting to see what she writes next, I’m looking forward to following her work, she reminds me a lot of the writer Maryse Condé, whose novels are written in French, but she’s a writer who discovered her origins through literature and it’s a fascinating journey to follow.

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  4. Your review does good justice to the book Claire. I can see how much you have loved it. Reviews of this kind, that speak straight from the heart, always make me so happy. What better gift can a reader give to a writer who has worked hard and succeeded. Just one thing – you need to correct the spelling in the title and in the beginning of your post.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. What a wonderful review and so useful for me becaue I was tempted to read it but not sure it would live up to my expectations. I’m pretty sure it will. I’m particularly interested in the way she tells the story, the structure.

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  6. I’ve seen this book mentioned several times lately. No doubt because I’m rather behind of reading posts and having to skim through much more often than I’d choose, I hadn’t picked up much about it beyond the title. Something made me save your review until I had a little more time, Claire, and I’m so pleased I did. Firstly, a great review – thank you. And a book that sounds glorious! Straight onto the ‘must read’ list!

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  7. Pingback: Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien – Word by Word

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