Review: Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

Knopf/ Cody Pickens for TIME

Knopf/ Cody Pickens for TIME

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi is a stunning novel. A mythologized family saga spanning 300 years, it follows the descendants of two half-sisters, Effia and Esi, born into the Fante and Asante tribes of 18th century Ghana, each unaware of the others’ existence. The story begins with Effia, the bastard child of a slave, spurned by the first wife of her father. Married off to a British governor in the slave trading business, Effia lives a life of luxury in the Cape Coast Castle. Meanwhile, her half-sister Esi, once the darling of her village and born to Effia’s mother and a once great warrior—The Big Man—is now imprisoned in the dungeons beneath her sister. She is beaten, starved, and raped all before being loaded onto a ship to be sold into slavery in the United States. And so the story begins as each chapter delves further into the parallel lineages of the sisters, moving towards the present, and providing a glimpse into the history of each era. Effia’s line follows her descendants through tribal conflicts exploited and exacerbated by the British, then war with the British, and imperialism. Esi’s line endures enslavement, emancipation, chain gangs, the Great Migration, and Jim Crow. Each of the sisters’ lines suffers through separation and loss. We see Esi’s child Ness sold away and beaten into silence for speaking their native Twi tongue. And later, one of her descendants, Willie, fail the paper bag test to become a jazz singer. We read about Effia’s grandson James, who leaves his family and his inheritance in the slave-trade business for the love of his life.

Among the book’s various themes, racism, colonization, and the separation between Africa and its diaspora are perhaps its strongest. The lasting scars of slavery and an initial betrayal are what divide the two sisters and their lineages, two halves of a whole separated by a now inevitable history of violence. One of Effia’s descendants Akua says to her son, “There are people who have done wrong because they could not see the result of the wrong. 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.” She goes on, “[slavery 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.”

As the narrative moves into the 20th century, it feels as though Gyasi cannot escape stereotype. At times, it is as if she is checking boxes of black historical experience —especially where the American half of the lineage is concerned. One character, Sonny, has an absent father, becomes one, and finds himself addicted to drugs. In her writing of Sonny and other Black Americans, Gyasi loses the nuance and care with which earlier chapters, and the African lineage stories, seem to have been written. By the end, I was left with the impression that the African American narratives were rushed and underappreciated.

Throughout the novel, Gyasi also proves to be one for strong symbolism, sometimes hitting you over the head with the meaning of a particular moment. For example, Yaw (one of Effia’s descendants) edifies his students saying, “when you study history, you must ask yourself … Whose voice was suppressed so that this voice could come forth? … you must find that story too. From there you get a clearer, yet still imperfect, picture.” Fitting, as the entire novel focuses on such stories left out of history. Despite this, I personally love a good motif, and Gyasi’s symbolic choices, contrived or no, work to compliment the mythologized form and style of the novel.

Homegoing is one of the best books that I’ve read in a long time. I have read many fictionalized stories of black people in America, among them Kindred and the formidable works of Toni Morrison. However, I feel that Gyasi accomplishes something really special in her novel that I’ve yet to find elsewhere. I remember the days in elementary school making family trees. I remember asking my parents about our nationality so I would have a good answer to share with my friends in third grade. I remember how my great aunt June traced as much as she could, only about as far back as the early 20th century. I remember my teen years spent soul searching for who I was and where I came from and having to accept the fact that I would never really know. And I remember feeling lost, because the place I call home, America, could never truly be, was never supposed to be mine—in more ways than one. And I knew the history of this country, and how I was excluded from its telling. With heartbreaking narratives, Gyasi debuts, skillfully weaving a story of 7 generations. Her language is impeccable, revealing all the tells of a talented writer, and her story speaks for itself. The novel is at once devastating and hopeful, thoughtful and resilient, powerful and tender. When I was reading this book, following Effia and Esi’s descendants and reading about Ness and Abena and H and Yaw, it felt like their stories belonged to me —like maybe, what I was reading were the stories of my own family. With Homegoing, Gyasi gave me the gift of my own past.