People have been talking about Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing, and for good reason. This beautifully written book is heartwrenching and emotional, but so important in its scope—especially given the current temperamental (to put it nicely) social and political climates in the United States as I write this.
This book isn’t, however, political. No, don’t listen to me. It is. It’s political in an important way, in revealing hypocrisies of political schemes and the human element, the way political movements can so drastically impact the people. Likewise, it’s racial and social. It examines the way socioeconomic conditions (and variations within then) can form not only a person but the future generations of their descendants.
Before I confuse you too much, a brief synopsis: this book explores two different family lines, both of which originate in Ghana, down through the centuries.
Doesn’t help? Okay, a longer one (there’s a spoiler here, but it happens early on in the book and isn’t much of a spoiler): Maame, a slave girl in one tribe in Ghana, is impregnated by the man who owns her. She gives birth, then sets a fire and flees the tribe, leaving her daughter behind. In a new village and different tribe, she marries and has another daughter. This book follows each of these daughters and their descendants forward across centuries and continents to reach present day.
In form, this book is anecdotal. It can almost be read as a series of short stories, each around 25 pages. The book is split into two parts and then further into chapters. Every chapter is titled eponymously with the character it reveals and follows. Each character only gets one chapter, though on occasion there are crossover cameos. This makes it difficult, at times, to become too emotionally attached to any one character; because we know as readers that this individual will only be with us for a brief time and then the book will move on to the next, it’s sometimes hard to truly feel aligned with a character.
In this, Yaa Gyasi excels. Because of the way this book is cumulative, I did end up caring for subsequent characters despite my knowledge that the characters weren’t here to stay. Though I was dropped into the middle of their life, sometimes seeing flashbacks (how Willie ended up alone with her son in Harlem, and why the two of them hate each other a bit) and sometimes just receiving straight narration of where they go from here (most, however, do have at least some backstory), their lives were the next step: because I cared about Willie’s father, I cared about Willie. When I first realized the form the book would take, the chapter-by-chapter character swap, I became hesitant and pulled away. But as I continued reading, I drew closer in; though I suspected that each character would eventually have a child who would make it long enough for me to get the next chapter, the hardships characters experienced were heartbreaking in and of themselves.
I don’t want to spoil much, so know this: I’ll do as much as I can not to spoil the book over all, and I’ll try not to spoil any individual’s story in whole. It is difficult to talk about this book without doing so at least in part, though, because of the format. To talk about H will necessarily reveal something of what happened to H’s father. I don’t think that “ruining it” is necessarily important to this book, though. As I said, there are expectations, often inevitable when reading any book but seemingly more cut-and-dried in a book containing a family tree before the narration begins. What is important, beyond plot spoilers, is the individual lives and their stories.
With that in mind, I’d like to offer a brief synopsis of the beginning circumstances for a few of the characters.
There is beautiful Effia, who has always longed to stay in her village but instead becomes a “wench,” or African wife of a married white European man, in a slave-trade hub. Ness is a slave who doesn’t quite fit in but who gains the respect of those around her even as they wonder about her past, marked on her body with fierce scars. Kojo lives with his family in Baltimore with forged papers in the time of the Fugitive Slave Act which decrees that any slave, no matter how long ago they ran away, can be sent back to their owners. Abena loves a man who cannot/will not marry her because of money and because superstition from the village isolates her. Yaw is a schoolteacher writing a book about freedom from colonialism whose appearance distances him from the world. Sonny becomes disappointed that his activism with the NAACP never seems to change anything for the better. Marjorie faces racism from both white and black children alike because her skin is one color but she embodies traits from the other.
These are only a sample. Each story touches on issues of belonging—the warring tribes and then colonial oppression in Ghana mean that characters find it difficult to build a place for themselves as their families had before, while slavery and then later issues of racial oppression in social and political arenas in the United States mean that characters are persecuted, treated as commodities, and generally treated as less than human or less than others. Not only does the book discuss belonging within the external world but also belonging within (and because of) family. Effia encounters the idea of family as being a person’s “people,” that family fundamentally changes a person and their position in the world. Without a family, one is viewed as lost or as an object of suspicion. While she determines that she will rely upon herself and create her own people, her descendants often struggle with issues of family.
James is hardly accepted in his village because people don’t know his family. Quey’s family forces him to marry based on politics. Kojo struggles with losing his family as they age and move away. H knows nothing but stories about his family. Families are broken and brought together, b
oth by the actions of the world around and the actions of the individuals themselves. It’s impossible to rely on family alone, this book seems to say, because even family members can fall prey to the influences of the surrounding world.
I’m already running long, so I’m going to attempt (!) to wrap this up for you, but know that I could talk about this book for pages and pages. It’s beautiful and difficult. Not to read—Gyasi’s writing is excellent and every story flows wonderfully. I picked up each chapter and couldn’t stop until I’d finished that character’s story. I read the entire book in two days, unable to stop my momentum. But because it is such brief anecdotes, you could pick it up and read a chapter then come back to the book to read the next a week later, if you’re not as addicted to binge-reading as I am. It’s not confusing or difficult to follow in any way. It’s difficult in that the some of the topics are hard to read. History has a way of erasing or glossing over unpleasant things, but we need to acknowledge and understand them, so we can be better in the future. This book does that.
Other topics it covers are questions of sexuality, duty, violence, reliance/self-reliance, drugs, parenthood, and more. This book is hugely vast and meaningful in its scope. While it is, in many ways, historical fiction, I wouldn’t treat it as such; it’s easy to fall into the political moments of each character. Gyasi does excellently at evoking each moment and the emotions running rampant at the time. A thorough background knowledge of a specific time or place isn’t necessary. This book is so deeply human that once you begin reading and all of the history begins building up and pressing on you as a reader, you don’t need to know dates or legal specifics. You just need to know that this is a person about whom you’re reading, and this is how they feel and this is how others are treating them.