AUTHOR: Yaa Gyasi (Ghanaian)
GENRE: Historical Fiction
PUBLISHER/YEAR OF PUBLICATION: Viking (Inprint of Penguin)
NUMBER OF PAGES: 305 (my copy)
HOMEGOING is about the slave trade story like most you have probably read before, only it is different, very different, which is why it is so hard to try and review this book. I feel incapable of trying to review this genius of a body of work, but I’m going to try.
It is the story of two sisters that takes us from an Asante village in Ghana where one is sold to slavery – crossing the Atlantic into America and having descendants there, while and the other is married off to a British slave master, her descendants remain in Ghana, forever tainted with the evil and atrocities of the slave trade.
The brilliance of the story telling, the genius of interweaving the story of these two sisters, Effia and Esi, their parents and the 6 generations after them is incredible and it is the reason I do not know where to begin reviewing from. This book reinforces the fact that somehow we are all connected, are all from the same source. The ill treatment of others is ill treatment to one’s self. A quote from the book that explains this says –
“What I know now, my son: Evil begets evil. It grows, it transmutes, so that sometimes you cannot see that the evil in the world began as the evil in your home”
I began reading the novel without the knowledge that Yaa Gyasi would tell the story of one descendant in each generation and move to the next generation in another chapter such that while each chapter is a continuing story of a descendant in the family tree, it is chapters of short stories that can stand alone in the novel i.e each one can pass for a complete short story. So when I read the opening story of Effia and Esi, I was already so emotionally invested in them. I was drawn to them, desperately wanting to know if they made it in life, how they did, etc. I soon realised Gyasi did not write this book for any reader to have a feel good moment about life in the time of slavery. She wanted to open your eyes to the unique horror of slavery including the fact that Africans were involved in the enslavement of their own people.
I cannot imagine the hardwork and demands in terms of the amount of research that Gyasi pooled into making us feel very much like we were part of the lives of those who lived in 18th century Ghana, those who picked cotton and served white men on farms in Alabama, the civil war of America, the end of slavery by chains and the beginning of the one in the mind. She goes from generation to generation highlighting points and facts from the time with haunting characters who portray complex subjects at home (Africa) and in America. Because of how dense these portrayals are and how Gyasi takes on the lives of her characters, the family tree at the beginning of the novel is an important one that the reader must keep going back to to be able to keep up with Gyasi’s speed and buzzing mind.
I did a read along with two of my friends Bukola and Tuawa and we discussed the book as we all read. This helped largely to dispel some tension and intense headiness that this book caused while reading. You don’t know whether to be angry or sad or shocked or all. One thing that the three of us agreed on was that we would have liked closure for many more of the characters. We had to come to terms with the fact that this lack of closure did come with the terrain of slavery, and that’s fine.
We are introduced to two black stone neckpieces owned by each of the sisters at the beginning of the story, given to them directly and indirectly by their mother. Effia’s own survives till the last generation, in a particular descendant called Majorie Agyekum, whose parents are Ghanian immigrants to America. Unfortunately we do not have closure for Esi’s own as the necklace was never even passed down at all because it did not make it out of the Cape Coast Dungeon with her when she was shipped to America. If it did, Marcus who Marjorie met at an art exhibition in college and began dating would have been wearing the same thing on his neck or atleast carrying it in his wallet somewhere and they would have known that they were bound by blood from 6 lifetimes ago. Marjorie takes him on a visit to Ghana anyway and there his fear of water is destroyed and her fear of fire dispelled too.
I lived in Ghana for three years, and more than 3 times I visited the Cape Coast castle on a tour of it. I was told on all occasions that excavations were not made in the dungeons and they have left things as they were back in the day. This did not stop me from hoping that perhaps Esi’s black stone would be at some point of renovation works excavated from the pile of shit (that had now become solid ground) where she dug it to keep it safe from the British soldiers. Ofcourse this never happened.
Reading a book with that many characters, you can hardly avoid being asked who your favourite was. This is tough to do I tell you, obviously because each one is of a different generation and so of a new perspective and new story so no, I am unable to decide a favourite character. However, out of the12 descendants, six on each side, Effia, Ness and Akua’s story haunted me the most. Effia, for the last sentence in her chapter, also the last statement that Baaba made to her: “What can grow out of nothing?”
Ness, for the motherly grace to still be able to nurture even while embodying loss and grief and shame.
Akua, who (in my opinion was definitely critically mentally ill) couldn’t be helped because no one knew how to.
This book is a necessary read.
It is so well put together that mentioning any flaws will just simply be highlighting Gyasi’s humanity, nothing else.
Everyone should read it.