Each month, our resident book club reviews a new must-read volume that will help to educate, inform, entertain, and thrill you. This week, Kwabena Gyane reviews Ghanaian-American Yaa Gyasi’s 2016 debut novel, Homegoing.
“…we have a saying about separated sisters. They are like a woman and her reflection, doomed to stay on opposite sides of the pond.”
Yaa Gyasi opens her debut historical fiction novel Homegoing with an Akan proverb about family:
The family is like the forest: if you are outside, it is dense; if you are inside, you see that each tree has its own position.
She immediately establishes that the essence of the book, Homegoing, is a story that centres on family, and it does so exceptionally.
The first two chapters focus on Effia and Esi, sisters who find themselves in starkly different situations. Effia becomes the wife of slave trader James Collins while Esi, kidnapped from her home, is enslaved to be shipped to America. The following chapters alternate between their descendants, never missing a generation.
The reader meets several colourful characters – like Ness, Esi’s daughter who gets taken away from her and learns to embody her mother’s hardness of spirit. Then there’s Yaw, Effia’s great-great-great-grandson who is scarred as a baby when his mother sets fire to their home. Each branch faces challenges that are distinct, based on their location, from the Fugitive Slave Act and the heroin epidemic in America to the tribal wars and missionaries in Ghana.
Through it all, Gyasi shows the power of family. It is a rock and whether this acts as a steady source of strength or a barrier depends on a character’s perception.
The characters are the strongest aspect of Homegoing. Gyasi gives them nuance, moulding them with such care that they ultimately come alive, breathed into existence with her words. In a saga that spans seven generations, it was bound to be a challenge to get readers invested in characters we would only focus on for a brief period. To prevent disjointedness and establish coherency, predecessors appear in the current protagonist’s chapter, whether physically or in flashbacks. This could have easily been a failure if Gyasi did not establish how and why characters we previously followed end up in their current situation when the point of view shifts.
An excellent example is Esi. In her chapter, Esi experiences several traumatic events that scar her, with the final ones being her rape and losing her mother’s stone just as she is taken to a slave ship. When we are reintroduced to her again, albeit as a memory from her daughter Ness, we understand why she is extremely different from the sweet girl at the beginning of her own chapter.
Effia’s lineage produces the most intriguing moments, perhaps due to the novelty of their points of view. Not many literary works focus on Ghana and the events shaped it. This, however, does not take away from the intensity of the chapters that focus on Esi’s descendants, which present situations that are more recognisable to a Western audience.
Gyasi does not shy away from the dehumanisation and brutality tribes displayed towards one another prior to Europeans stepping foot onto the sandy beaches of the country. In Esi’s chapter, she had witnessed an elder say, “Northerners…are not even people. They are the dirt that begs for spit”. Gyasi expertly pairs dehumanising language with an elder, someone who is respected in the community, to highlight just how pervasive the situation was.
In James’ chapter, Nana Yaa talks of how Europeans contributed to this violence using a captivating analogy: “…the Gold Coast was like a pot of groundnut soup…the Asantes, were the broth…the Fantes, were the groundnuts, and the many other nations…made up the meat and pepper and vegetables. This pot was already full to the brim before the white men came and added fire”. Throughout Homegoing, the wrongdoings of compatriots and colonisers invade the lives of Maame’s descendants and Gyasi never lets the reader forget them.
Loss, love, and longing: a key triumvirate that Gyasi expertly weaves into all 14 chapters of Homegoing. She merges the three in such a manner it becomes nigh impossible to encounter one without the other two not a sentence or paragraph away.
To lose something you love means you will long for it and each character is submerged into these themes, none coming out as they were prior. This can be seen as a blessing or a curse.
Loss is evidently the most potent driving force in Homegoing. Even when loss occurs because of one’s own volition, as we see with James’ abnegation of the throne, there are still adverse outcomes. This we bear witness to when Gyasi transitions to his daughter Abena’s point of view.
The theme of loss is made more profound when interlocked with love. This is, after all, not just a story about family – hence familial love – but also people coming together in some chapters to pursue romantic love and produce descendants that we as readers will soon follow. Gyasi illustrates how love can sometimes battle the sense of loss beautifully when Abena talks about how James stares at her mother and whispers, “Akosua, you are my one and only”.
Longing is the glue that brings the triad together. Gyasi utilises flashbacks to allow the characters to long for their love and their loss whether it be Quey’s attraction to Cudjo or Ness’s loss of her husband, Sam, and her son, Kojo.
The motifs of fire and water, with their elemental polarity, are presented as effective tools in Gyasi’s literary arsenal, allowing her to touch on an array of themes. These motifs are found in all chapters; however, Gyasi skilfully avoids repetition, making sure that whenever the reader meets these motifs once more, they feel familiar yet fresh.
Fire with all its connotations in Homegoing is presented primarily as a destructive force, be it the burning of yams that brings turmoil to a household or the unpleasant memory of a former plantation. Gyasi continuously places fire in this light. It is the source of trauma for many characters and two (Akua and Yaw) wear it in the form of scars.
Gyasi does no such thing with water; it is allowed to exist in its duality. It is the North Atlantic Ocean, which is the literal barrier that separates Esi from her homeland, and the forced baptism Abena experiences. It is the South Atlantic Ocean Marjorie and Marcus briefly swim in when they visit Ghana. Water, unlike fire, is presented as being both tragic and hopeful. It is what separated the family tree and what brings the last descendants together.
Homegoing, at its root, is about family and generational trauma, how the burdens and pains of predecessors latch onto their successors, an inheritance that they pass on to their children whether mammoth or minute.
Akua says it best when she talks to Yaw about the suffering she caused, which ultimately cast a shadow over his life and “the children [he has] yet to have”. Marjorie and Marcus, who suffer from pyrophobia and aquaphobia, respectively, take steps in the final chapter to overcome the elements that have plagued their lineage for generations in one form or another. This is excellent imagery used by Gyasi to illustrate that these two descendants are starting to break free from the trauma they did not ask to bear, showing a bright future is in store for their successors. Their trauma finally starts to erode in the very place it shackled their ancestors: home.
Page-Turner: 4/5 STARS
Complexity: 4/5 STARS
Storyline: 5/5 STARS
You can read more of Kwabena’s work at clippings.me/users/kwabenagyane , whereifoundmyeyes.com/ and @whereifoundmyeyes on Instagram.