Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi – A Powerful & Ambitious Debut in 300 pages
22nd August, 2017
The story of two sisters, one sold into slavery and one a slave trader’s wife, whose lives reflect the consequences of being displaced, horrors of slavery and the idea of home.
Homegoing is the story of the lineages of two half sisters, Effia and Esi, born into Fante and Asante tribes . One grows up in a prosperous family and is promised in marriage to a powerful man while the other is captured and forced into slavery. These women fight the fate thrust upon their heads to pave their way in life. And so does the subsequent generations, unaware that their actions results in consequences that have to be borne by their children.
A generation in one chapter
Each chapter tells the story of one character. We start the novel in the 18th century and end it in the present day. So we skip many years as we move on to the next chapter. Each chapter (character) completes the story of the previous character in the bloodline and gives a glimpse of the next character (child) who will later on take up the mantle to complete the half told story.
The story gives a distinct place to each of the places mentioned; be it the he Gold Coast of Africa or the cotton picking plantations of Mississippi or bars of Harlem or missionary schools or America through the eyes of a black person.
Well done characters
Telling the story of so many characters, displaced in space and time is not an easy job. This is where Yaa Gyasi’s brilliance is revealed. The narrative does not become confusing or redundant or repetitive. She captures the essence of life in Ghana and America equally well. As one of the characters says,
“You must always 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.”
All the voices find an equally prominent place in the book.
Big things; Small things
This is a major theme of the novel. Like Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things, this novel too emphasizes on how the smallest of our actions can alter the future (not only ours but also that of future generations) significantly.
The authoritativeness of the white man, the naïve African tribesmen, the boon and bane of being a light skinned African man, the idea of home and the choice between a better life for oneself or a sacrifice for a better life of the whole community are some of the many themes successfully explored in the book.
History told well
The book starts with the problems and wars between the Fante and Asante tribes. I could not help thinking ‘What if they resolved their problems? Would the white man have found a way to infiltrate into the communities?’
The castle (one of the forty erected on the Gold Coast) where the potential slaves were held captive was equally horrifying. Those who lived on the upper decks (such as Effia and her British husband) led a life of luxury, with ‘fine furniture made of wood and silk hangings’ while underneath their feet was the ‘cargo’ which comprised slaves (including Esi) stacked one on top of the other, lying in their own faeces and urine, locked up. This contrast between the lifestyles is heart breaking . What makes it even worse is that the fate of the two sisters could have been reversed if some events had occurred differently. This is frightening to read about and I had to fight hard to suppress my tears. I loved that the author was able to convey the historical aspects in an effective way through the personal stories of the characters.
Folklores and superstitions
Yes! Isn’t that a nice surprise? I have loved books set in the African continent because of the surplus folk tales they weave into the main plot. Homegoing is no different. A handful of surreal stories are masterfully woven into the realistic narrative. African beliefs narrated along side the terrors of slavery; bouts of lyrical prose that does not overpower the atrocities of white-man-domination give a delicately balanced powerful debut.
There were few clichés that made me cringe. One character in the story (not naming so that it would not be a spoiler) goes in the path of drugs and irresponsibility which is your stereotypical African American man. Since Homegoing is such a powerful book, I could not help thinking why the author portrayed him that way. Personally I felt a book as this could have erased a lot of misconceptions had the character been shaped in a different manner.
It was interesting to read about different perspectives from readers about Homegoing. While the book is widely celebrated as a masterpiece, I came upon various conversations from readers of African origin about the many things that are not written well in the book. Since I am not from Africa, I was not able to find such problems with the book. Here is a wonderfully written post by Nana Akyempo – The Unseen Nuances Of Identity And The Danger Of Not Telling Our Stories Rightly: A Case Of Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing that gave me a new angle of looking at the novel.
Final Verdict :
Read it! This book is a fine blend of history and story telling. I could not put this down after I began the first chapter and finished it late at night. But the sleep deprived me was a very happy reader the next day. Conveying the history of slave trade in such an engrossing tale within 300 pages is a feat in itself.
Title : Homegoing
Author : Yaa Gyasi
Publisher : Viking
Publication: 2017 (Originally published in 2016)
Language : English
Pages : 300
Rating : 4.5/5
Have you read this book? Have you read about slave trade either in fiction or non fiction?