Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

photo from amazon.com

Marcus, one of the characters in this sweeping work of historical fiction, is doing graduate research on the convict leasing system that his grandfather took part in after being arrested in his youth. “The deeper into the research he got, the bigger the project got,” author Yaa Gyasi writes. Marcus grows overwhelmed by everything that it means to be black in the United States, by how impossible it is to explore one aspect of the black experience without delving into another: how can you touch on the convict leasing system without talking about the Great Migration, without talking about Harlem and heroin addiction, without talking about the racial disparity in drug arrests, without talking about the cruelty of the prison system, and on and on and on. 

It’s easy to imagine, at that late point in Homegoing, that perhaps Yaa Gyasi may have encountered a similar sense of overwhelm when she began work on this novel. That telling the story of one Ghanaian descendant was impossible without telling the stories of the people who came before or after her. That there is no single black experience; there is a sprawling spectrum radiating out in all directions. Her solution – a book of individual stories of people descended from two half-sisters – results in a book that is elegant and heartbreaking, deeply specific and intensely personal, while simultaneously far-reaching and massive. Her stories are grounded in the everyday… but they also ring with the kind of universal truth of allegory or fable.  

I am not qualified to do an in-depth literary analysis of this book, and that feels like doing it a disservice. Perhaps all my superficial little what-I-liked/what-I-didn’t-like reviews do all the books I cover a disservice; after all, every book is worth really looking at, really interrogating what the author has achieved. But I feel it more acutely here, because this book has such breadth and gravity. So I trust that you will look to other experts if you are looking for a more nuanced explication of this novel. This quick video of Yaa Gyasi discussing Homegoing might be a good starting place.

Mini Plot SummaryHomegoing follows two branches of the same family tree, beginning with two half-sisters, born in Ghana to the same mother but raised under wildly different circumstances in two opposing states: the Fante Confederacy and the Asante (Ashanti) Kingdom. Effia, the Fante sister, is sold to a white man, to be his wife; he is governor of the Cape Coast Castle, which held enslaved Africans before they were shipped to the Americas. Esi, the Asante sister, is captured by the Fante during a raid on her village and sold into enslavement. Each subsequent chapter follows a descendant of these two women, tracing seven generations from the mid-1700s to modern times.  

What I Liked About this Book: There is so much to love about Gyasi’s epic novel. I was captivated by the writing style, which is somehow simultaneously plain and straightforward while also being very beautiful. Her descriptive language made the stories – and their horrors – so vivid and lush. “The lattice of her clasped fingers.” “The rope around her wrists held her palms out in supplication.” “His legs and arms rippled, so that sweat flowing down them looked like cresting wave.” “…white smoke formed little roofs above the pipe’s bowl.” “[Her] skin was no longer skin really, more like the ghost of her past made seeable, physical.” “…the metronome of fear that keeps her heart’s drumbeat moving quickly.” But the language was also simple, enabling the events unfolding around each chapter to feel very real and present.

I also loved getting a snapshot the Fante and Asante people – their customs and disputes and their roles in the slave trade. It was fascinating and layered – to show a people’s complicity in the immediate and enduring enslavement of members of their own country, and to do so in an unwavering, forthright way, with also so much love and tenderness. I found it incredibly moving. 

The structure of the novel really worked for me, too. Each chapter is told from the perspective of some new character, known to the reader only through her relationship with that character’s ancestor, who featured in a previous chapter. I loved that Gyasi used the thread of the past to tie each of the stories together. She did it so skillfully that it took me several chapters to realize that this wasn’t a traditional narrative – that the scope was much larger. But it felt more intimate because of how narrowly each chapter zoomed-in on the characters’ lives and experiences. 

The structure of the book also lent itself well to showing fragments of what it means – what it has meant – to be black in the United States. It serves as a striking reminder of the horrors so many black people have endured – and continue to endure. And because the book focuses so narrowly on specific people, the reader can never forget that this is just a slice of one person’s life, one person’s experience – and that there is a huge array of experiences that we aren’t getting to glimpse.

The book’s structure also allowed for Gyasi to play with some recurring imagery and themes. Dreams and premonitions. The color grey. Fire and water. The power of love. The ever-present danger of being abducted, displaced, enslaved, or killed. These repetitions helped reinforce the feeling that these stories weren’t as separate as they may seem – that, instead, they are all stones on the same necklace. But they also added to the fable/fairy tale nature of the story-telling, which I loved. 

Fairy-tale, fable, parable: I came away feeling as though there was some message or takeaway hiding within each chapter, each character. The lessons themselves weren’t always clear to me – and I don’t think Gyasi was necessarily trying to tie things up in neat little packages the way fables do – although it was pleasing to try to tease them out. And sometimes Gyasi would toss in statements that had the weight and gravity of morals: “He was in the business of slavery, and sacrifices had to be made.” “Even the Northern Star was a hoax.” “We are all weak most of the time.” “Tell a lie long enough and it will turn to truth.” If I try to reduce the whole novel to one lesson, it might be that love lives on. Love of country, love of self. Parental love, romantic love. Love gives strength, love breaks hearts, love keeps people alive, it injures, it brings people together and keeps them apart. Love is not infallible: it makes grave errors of judgement, it cannot overcome poverty or racism, it can’t resolve slavery or addiction, it cannot bring people back from the dead. But even so, love it magical, it can transcend oceans and walk through fire. Each story, no matter how heartbreaking, had at least one element of love woven in.

Gyasi herself, in the video I linked above, says that one thing she hopes her readers come away with is a sense that there is no single black experience. There is no faceless mass. There are real individuals who have real individual experiences. She achieved that goal for me so well. Her characters are morally complicated, just trying to make the best choices, in the moment, for themselves and their families. Their experiences feel specific and vivid and real. Now, even days after finishing the book, many of the individual characters stay with me. I anticipate thinking about this book for a long, long time.

What I Didn’t Like About This Book: Can I say that what I didn’t like was that the book ended? That seems unfair. And yet… The book’s strength of structure is also, for me, its main weakness. Each story necessarily had to end. Each story could only contain so much. And when tackling a whole history of oppression and enslavement and prejudice, and trying to touch on multiple facets of the incredibly complex and wide-ranging black experience, as Gyasi does, it is impossible to fully scrutinize each generation’s triumphs and struggles. Some characters edged closer to feeling more like symbols (or folk heroes) than fully-fleshed people – never so much that I lost the enjoyment of the book or the language, but it was still noticeable. Honestly, I don’t know how you resolve that without giving each character his or her own entire novel. 

Should You Read This Book? This book came out in 2016, it won tons of awards, and I may be the last person on the planet to finally pick it up. But if you have not yet read it, you should, you should, you should. I found it to be beautiful and illuminating and full of strong, vivid characters and infused with so much love from the writer. You will not regret picking it up. 

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