In-Depth Review: Yaa Gyasi’s Debut Homegoing
I first found Yaa Gyasi by way of the 2017 Forbes 30 Under 30 list. I was amazed at the fact she received a $1 million dollar advance for her novel and that she was only 26 years old at the time this novel had been published. I began watching her religiously researching more about her following my discovery.
I knew I had to read this book especially after she revealed her creative process. I am always attracted to people who care about what they put forth into the world.
In her 2016 interview with Politics and Prose, she recalls her trip to Ghana’s Cape Coast castle in 2009 and the knowledge she gained on the trip that would inspire this book. She also said it took her 7 years to complete this book and says she studied many academic references which she cites at the end of the book to bring this novel to life and give it utmost accuracy, which is extremely impressive for a then 20-year-old Yaa Gyasi to conceptualize.
About The Book…
Yaa Gyasi’s debut novel Homegoing is a historical fiction novel that starts in the late 1700s during the apex of the Trans Atlantic Slave Trade and covers 7 generations of the unseen yet always felt Maame’s (also known as the “fire woman”), and her daughters Esi and Effia and their descendants separated by ethnic warfare, colonialism, and a diversity of other issues in both Ghana and America.
Homegoing resembles the movie Crash but much more resonant to the black experience. Rather than traditional chapter form, the chapters serve as a weaving of the descendant’s experiences and narratives. She allowed each character a chapter to give their own viewpoints and backstories that are not too short or too long. Each character left me longing for more of them but it was a necessary longing because had Gyasi not executed the chapters as quickly she did the book would have never ended.
The character I connected most with is Ness, short for Goodness, who is Esi’s daughter, and a first generation “African-American”. Though her story is a small piece of Homegoing’s pie, Ness reminds me a lot of myself and her chapter exposes a strong dynamic of how warped the human mind can be in certain conditions.
In her chapter, Ness finds herself the center of envy and gossip on her plantation which is quite ironic because I thought to myself “why exactly would slaves gossip and be envious of one another?” but I know it happened. Ness is a woman with full agency despite being in slavery. While the women on her plantation were consumed with a man named TimTam and gossip, she was strong minded, strong willed (at her own expense a lot of times) and never worried about the frivolous things.
“Everyone knew her as the woman who snubbed TimTam, and the ladies, angry when they thought she was the object of his desire, and even angrier when they realized she didn’t want to be that object.”…such a heavy hitting descriptive statement of Ness’ experience.
What Stands Out Most…
While reading this book, I felt like I was there inside the world of each and every character. I also really love the dialogue and narration, it corresponded with each era and region. Rather in the 1700s while in Africa, on the American cotton fields during the 1800s, Harlem during the 1920s renaissance or at Stanford University in California in the 2000s, the dialogue and references were spot on.
When H is in Jail in the late 1800s, a fellow inmate gives him the following warning:
“Don’t matter if you was or wasn’t. All they gotta do is say you was. That’s all they gotta do. You think cuz you all big and muscled up, you safe? Naw, dem white folks can’t stand the sight of you. Walkin’ round free as can be. Don’t nobody want to see a black man look like you walkin’ proud as a
Don’t nobody want to see a black man look like you walkin’ proud as a peacock. Like you ain’t got a lick of fear in you.”“Don’t matter if you was or wasn’t. All they gotta do is say you was. That’s all they gotta do. You think cuz you all big and muscled up, you safe? Naw, dem white folks can’t stand the sight of you. Walkin’ round free as can be. Don’t nobody want to see a black man look like you walkin’ proud as a peacock. Like you ain’t got a lick of fear in you.”
The many memorable aphorisms in this book are also riveting. One of my favorites is an encounter between Fiifi and Quey where he attempts to put a stop to Quey’s constant pestering about a trade agreement for the British government:
“Do you hear that?” Fiifi asked, pointing to the birds. Frustrated, Quey nodded.
“When one bird stops, the other one starts. Each time their song gets louder, shriller. Why do you think that is?”
“Uncle, trade is the only reason we’re here. If you want the British out of your village, you have to — ” “What you cannot hear, Quey, is the third bird. She is quiet, quiet, listening to the male birds get louder and louder and louder still. And when they have sung their voices out, then and only then will she speak up. Then and only then will she choose the man whose song she liked better.
For now, she sits, and lets them argue: who will be the better partner, who will give her better seed, who will fight for her when times are difficult. “Quey, this village must conduct its business like that female bird.
The rich descriptions and sensory details throughout this novel prove that Gyasi is an extraordinary writer. For example, a scene I loved in Kojo’s chapter:
“We’ll keep looking, Jo,” Mathison said, observing the empty space the boy had left behind. “This isn’t over. We’ll find her. I’ll go to court if I have to, Jo. I promise you that.” Jo couldn’t hear him anymore. The wind was coming in through the door the child had left ajar. It was moving around the big white pillars that held up the house, curving around them, bending until it fit into the thin space of Jo’s ear canal. It was there to tell him that fall had come to Baltimore and that he would have to spend it alone, taking care of his ailing Ma and his seven children without his Anna.
The wind delivering the premonition to Kojo was dramatic and brilliant.
The way she uses words to describe the cultural differences between James Collins, Effia’s grandson, born a Fante encounters the Asante woman who would become his wife for the second time is yet another passage that show’s Gyasi’s mastery as a writer:
You shouldn’t be doing this kind of work.” “Call me James.” “James,” she repeated, rolling the strange name around in her mouth, tasting it as though it were bitter melon hitting the back of her tongue.
I also loved the many historical references to places, topics and events that command further research such as Alabama’s long lost coal mining town Pratt City, Yaa Asantewaa’s war of the Golden Stool against the British, African Gods like Nyame and Chukwu and even West Africa’s harmattan season.
Gyasi seems to want to prompt us to question ourselves and our ancestor’s role in the fate of our lives. Prior to reading this book, I’ve always felt like the conditions of the black race globally are rooted much deeper than racism, slavery and subjugation. When discussing the plight of black people, the elephant in the room is always the role we, ourselves have played in this plight.
As a connoisseur of African history, it is important to me to be intellectually honest about why the African diaspora is in condition we’re in. The pitfalls of our foremothers and fathers are just as important as “feel good facts” such as they built pyramids and were Kings and Queens. Rather we like it or not, our people were not just kidnapped off the shores of Africa. The slave trade was a trade and Africans were eager participants in this tragedy. Homegoing highlights this in a very nuanced way with scenes and dialogue like this:
“Chief Abeeku,” another said. “We should not be doing this. Our Asante allies will be furious if they know we have worked with their enemies.”
The one called Chief threw up his hands. “Today their enemies pay more, Fiifi,” he said. “Tomorrow, if they pay more, we will work with them too. This is how you build a village. Do you understand?”
“Tomorrow, if they pay more, we will work with them too. This is how you build a village. Do you understand?”
The story ends perfectly with Majorie who is Maame’s 7th great-granddaughter (through Effia) and Marcus who is her 7th great-grandson (through Esi) in Ghana. Their entire exchange is both thought-provoking and healing. Majorie gifts Marcus a black stone necklace, her ancestral relic which is, unbeknownst to him, an ancestral relic of his own.
“Here,” Marjorie said. “Have it.” She lifted the stone from her neck, and placed it around Marcus’s. “Welcome home.”