The Changing Attitude on Race
Ghanaian American writer Yaa Gyasi broke into the writing scene with her masterful debut work, Homegoing. Even before its publication in 2016, it already generated massive interest from top-notch publishers. This pre-publication hype translated well in the published text. It was met with sensational response from literary pundits. It also earned several accolades and encomiums from various literary organizations, including the PEN/Hemingway award for best first work.
Her first trip to Ghana in 2009 since leaving it with her family in 1991 greatly motivated Gyasi into starting to work on her first novel. The result is a sprawling and epic literary masterpiece which transports readers to 18th century Ghana. The narrative begun with half-sisters Effia and Esi, daughters of an Asante woman named Maame. They grew apart, unaware of each other’s existence. With the arrival of British slave traders, the course of Ghanaian history was forever and inevitably altered; it was the dawn of a new era.
To establish pact, Effia’s chieftain-father married her off to James Collins, the governor in charge of Cape Coast castle. Effia lived in the comforts of the stately castle but her grand home hosts a secret. The subterranean level of the castle houses a dungeon where the cries of captured slaves reverberated. They lived in unspeakably inhumane conditions and among them is Esi. The narrative then follows, in alternating chapters, the descendants of Effia and Esi over the generations, culminating in pre-millennium United States.
“We believe the one who has power. He is the one who gets to write the story. So when you study history, you must 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. From there you get a clearer, yet still imperfect, picture.” ~ Yaa Gyasi, Homegoing
Gyasi’s masterpiece has been woven with intricate and vivid details. Sewn into its rich tapestry are several seminal subjects. At the onset, the novel touched on several notable historical events. Primary of this is the British colonialism and the disagreement between and among the different Ghanaian tribes were among the recurring themes. Bereft of unity, the discord that prevailed among the warring African tribes is one of the reasons behind the Brit’s success in colonizing vast African lands. The Brits capitalized on this, undermining the system and making pacts with tribes they deemed powerful enough to help them in furthering their goal. Effia and James’ marriage is a vivid allegory, one of many instances cited in the story. This eventually led to the Anglo-Asante wars.
As the narrative progresses, more notable historical events start to surface. The story then shifts between Ghana and the United States. Suffused with historical details, the stories of Effia and Esi’s descendants related the history of slavery and segregation in the United States. Slavery, as we all know it, is an open wound that provided a wealthy pool of materials for storytellers. From this deep pool surfaces Homegoing, Gyasi’s rich depiction of west Africa’s role in the transatlantic slave trade.
The subjects encapsulated in the premises of the narrative, such as racism and segregation, remain relevant today. This holds especially true in light of the Black Lives Matter movement which has lately swept the United States and the world, with people from all walks of life taking to the streets and social media to express their discontent and their search for equality and justice. “I’m already 60 years old and I am still dealing with this shit,” read one placard. Maybe the wounds of the past will never fully heal.
Homegoing touched on heavy and complex subjects but what it made it effective is how Gyasi constructed the story around the idea of home. This was portrayed perpendicularly with each sister’s bloodline. On one side of the spectrum are Effia’s descendants have a strong sense of belonging. Never forced out of Ghana, they built strong ties with their ancestral, and cultural histories. Esi’s descendants were their antithesis. Estranged, they grew up without any iota on their roots, forced to survive atrocities of a life rife with whippings in a continent not their own. They were survivors subtly imbued with tenacity and power. The threads came full circle as the novel concluded. In a way, it was vision of the elation Gyasi felt when she returned to her native country.
“This is the problem of history. We cannot know that which we were not there to see and hear and experience for ourselves. We must rely upon the words of others. Those who were there in the olden days, they told stories to the children so that the children would know, so that the children could tell stories to their children. And so on, and so on.” ~ Yaa Gyasi, Homegoing
A work of historical fiction, Homegoing, underlined the shortcomings of history. In perfectly engineered conversations, she subtly underscored how history was written by the people who held power. A lot of history remains murky because it was told through the perspective of the victors. Its credibility is in question. Relating to, and understanding, the experiences of people who had gone before us is also a challenge as we must rely on stories written by others.
In 300 pages, Gyasi walked readers through history of not one, not two, but seven generations. The scope of history it covered is expansive and it was complimented with her rich characterization. At the center of each chapter is a clearly defined and complex protagonist whose story rivets spectators and readers alike. Their stories captured the cultural changes in both Ghana and the United States. It was an enormous, and to some extent, ambitious feat which new writers would baulk up to. Gyasi is no ordinary writer; she rose to the challenge.
Gyasi made a very confident and assured debut with Homegoing. Her rich characterization was further supplemented by her powerful storytelling. Her writing sustained the narrative Each chapter was carefully constructed, with vivid and measured strokes. This enabled her to pack a three-hundred pager with so much heavy punch, taking on several relevant themes subjects along the way. Rich in details, her masterpiece captured both horror and humanity. In the process, she painted the story of a country rarely heard of or encountered in mainstream literature.
The novel’s structure was one of its strongest and most interesting facets. It is, easily, also one of the narrative’s undoing, limiting the impact of some of the stories. With every turn a new character, it was a challenge establishing some sort of literary rapport with the characters. Readers were not afforded the luxury to scrutinize each character before the story pushed towards another decade. In a way, Homegoing is a novel related through short stories – each chapter can stand on its own, But while the output can feel disjointed, Gyasi managed to capture life.
“When someone does wrong, whether it is you or me, whether it is mother or father, whether it is the Gold Coast man or the white man, it 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 back 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. But still, Yaw, you have to let yourself be free.” ~ Yaa Gyasi, Homegoing
Homegoing is an ambitious and a massive undertaking, an impressive debut that encompasses a vast scope. To say that Gyasi accomplished a lot with her debut work is an understatement. She pulled off the right stops and she came up with a powerful narrative that dips into history and slowly trickles into the present. The exploration of the attitude vis-à-vis slavery and racism was one of the novel’s most defining aspects. However, it is no mundane slavery narrative. Through the powerful backstories, Gyasi managed to capture life, growth, and man’s ability to overcome changes. It is also about drawing the invisible threads of time and weaving one’s tale. Once these invisible threads are linked together, everything comes full circle.
Characters (30%) – 28%
Plot (30%) – 30%
Writing (25%) – 24%
Overall Impact (15%) – 14%
And that is one impressive feat. Homegoing is a necessary read, especially today when there is so much going on. It maybe a debut novel but it was one helluva debut novel. Gyasi should pat her back as she did herself and her country proud. Race and the sense of home are profound subjects but she put her own twist into the narrative. To reiterate, it is no ordinary story. It is a timeless tale that is relevant today and will remain relevant into the future. I heard her second work is to be published this year. I am already looking forward to it. I hope it is equally, if not more, powerful than Homegoing.
Author: Yaa Gyasi
Publisher: Vintage Books
Publishing Date: April 017
Number of Pages: 300
Genre: Historical, Family Saga
Ghana, eighteenth century: two half sisters are born into different villages, each unaware of the other. One will marry an Englishman and lead a life of comfort in the palatial rooms of the Cape Coast Castle. The other will be captures in a raid of her village, imprisoned in the very same castle, and sold into slavery.
Homegoing follows the parallel paths of these sisters and their descendants through eight generations: from the Gold Coast to the plantations of Mississippi, from the American Civil War to Jazz Age Harlem, Yaa Gyasi’s extraordinary novel illuminates slavery’s troubled legacy both for those who were taken and those who stayed – and shows how the memory of captivity has been inscribed on the soul of our nation.
About the Author
Yaa Gyasi was born in 1989 in Mampong, Ghana to a professor-father and a nurse-mother. In 1991, her family moved to the United States as his father was completing his doctorate degree at Ohio State University. From the age of 10, Gyasi was raised in Huntsville, Alabama where her father teaches French at the University of Alabama in Huntsville.
Gyasi was a shy child and found comfort in the company of books which she referred to as her friends. After submitting the first story she wrote to the Reading Rainbow Young Writers and Illustrators Contest, she received a certificate of achievement signed by LeVar Burton. This encouraged her to write. Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon, which she read while attending Grissom High School at the age of 17, further inspired her to pursue a career of writing.
She earned her Bachelor of Arts in English from Stanford University. She also earned a Master of Fine Arts from the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, a creative writing program at the University of Iowa. While working for a startup company in San Francisco, she started writing her debut novel. Homegoing, her first novel, was inspired by her 2009 trip to Ghana, her first since leaving with her family while she was still an infant. It was completed in 2015 and received several offers from publishers. It won several awards and accolades, including being chosen as one of the National Book Foundation’s “5 under 35”. Her second novel, Transcendent Kingdom is to be published this year.
She currently lives in New York City.