Yaa Gyasi’s debut novel Homegoing (published in 2016) has been on my TBR for a while, but a recent recommendation from a friend encouraged me to finally pick it up. And wow, do I regret not picking this one up sooner.
About the book: One African family morphs into two in the aftermath of a destructive fire. Two women and the descending generations of their families run parallel to each other as both branches continue to grow–unaware of each other– in the midst of the African slave trade. Some characters spend their entire lives in Africa, others in America– some see both. All are affected by the slave trade, even those who are never claimed as slaves or are born after its abolishment. Homegoing is an exploration of culture on a grand scale, weaving a large story whose ends won’t meet again for about 250 years.
“This was how they lived there, in the bush: eat or be eaten. Capture or be captured. Marry for protection. […] He would not be weak. He was in the business of slavery, and sacrifices had to be made.”
About the structure: each chapter is a vignette of a different character’s life; the two families alternate for narrative prominence, but each chapter is entirely different. Long plot arc lines are visible between the stories, but each chapter is essentially complete in itself, though each character’s story leans on the shoulders of the others. Homegoing is masterfully constructed, and the family tree provided at the start of the novel is an effective tool for navigating it if you can’t read the entire novel at once.
“Hell was a place of remembering, each beautiful moment passed through the mind’s eye until it fell to the ground like a rotten mango, perfectly useless, uselessly perfect.”
Though many of the facets of African slavery that this book explores are already familiar– the British colonizers instigating tribal wars to turn Africans against each other, the inhumane conditions of the American cotton plantations, the fact that the legal abolition of slavery did not end unjust laws and racist treatment of African Americans, etc.– the focus of the book is not on any of these details individually. It’s about the accumulation of every tragedy and horror, and they way these hardships link Gyasi’s characters.
“…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, that he, and everyone else, existed in it– not apart from it, but inside of it.”
About the characters: each chapter’s main character (and each important side character) is utterly unique. There are so many perspectives woven into this story, and though I did have favorites, there was not a single character’s chapter that I disliked. I was sadder to see some chapters end than others, but I found Gyasi’s writing so compelling that each new chapter drew my attention as fully as the last.
About Gyasi’s writing: she pinpoints injustice, racism, and unchecked power without a moralizing or sentimental eye toward the consequences. Homegoing is a sort of history, not a blind accusation. Blame falls where it should, but never on the reader, no matter their color. Each character has their own particular flaws and desires, losses and successes. There is no general line drawn between “these people” who are right and “these people” who are wrong; even the villains of these stories are unique individuals with their own motives, and their faults are laid on them individually (or as a group based on their time and social station) rather than the entire white race through eternity. Gyasi does not sensationalize or sentimentalize any detail of this story, and the objective voice that shines through as a result is Homegoing‘s greatest strength.
“When someone does wrong, whether it is you or me, whether it is mother or father, whether it is the Gold Coast man or the white man, it is like a fisherman casting a net into the water. He keeps only the one or two fish that he needs to feed himself and puts the rest in the water, thinking that their lives will go back to normal. No one forgets that they were once captive, even if they are now free.”
My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. I absolutely loved this book from the very first chapter. I am anxiously awaiting whatever Gyasi will publish next, and I will definitely be buying my own copy of this book when I return the borrowed copy to my friend. I don’t need to wait another 5 months to know this book will be on my favorites list this year.
- Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi. This is a book that covers some modern social issues of gender and perspective, filtered through a specific aspect of African culture– the ogbanje, evil spirits born into a troubled child, creating a fractured self. If, like me, you finish Homegoing wanting more African literature in your life, this is a great choice that challenges Western perspectives.
- The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead. This one features a magical realism twist, and addresses African slavery in America as it has never been done before. If you like Homegoing (or not) and want a fresh perspective on the African slave trade, don’t miss this book.
I haven’t read a lot of African literature, and I feel like I need some more. Any suggestions for me?
The Literary Elephant