Generations Come Together

Book Review:
Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

When I read a novel, I often read the first half over a week or two—and then read the entire second half in a day. Reading Homegoing was no different, and that was part of what made it such a moving experience. This is a book best taken in all at once, comprehending some 250 years of stories as if they were a single moment.

Homegoing, published in 2016, is the first novel by Yaa Gyasi. The novel chronicles the seven generations birthed by Maame, an Asante woman who lived in present-day Ghana (Gyasi herself is American-Ghanaian). Each chapter centers on one of Maame’s descendants, alternating between the families of her two daughters: Effia, who marries a British slaver and stays in West Africa, and Esi, who survives being kidnapped and trafficked into slavery in the American South. Rather than a single sweeping tale, the reader is offered focused looks into the particulars of each descendant’s life. Symbols like fire and water, inheritances like heirlooms and stories, and recollections of previous characters pervade the chapters, and when taken as a whole, the book is both heartbreaking and beautiful.

The characters’ family history is a mystery that nags at many of their hearts, as they seek to understand who they each are. Some know well what happened to their ancestors and what their ancestors’ roles were in world events; others try to uncover (or push away) whatever scraps of story they can find. Readers get a glimpse into how each sees their place in genealogy and history.

My favorite passage—perhaps the one that also captures the book’s themes most succinctly—is spoken by one of the characters, a teacher, in the last quarter of the book. He says to his students:

So when you study history, you must always 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 begin to get a clearer, yet still imperfect, picture.

Gyasi, Yaa. Homegoing (p. 226). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

What I appreciated most about Homegoing is that each chapter feels unique because of the unique voice of its central character. Though it might feel like a collection of short stories at times, I did not experience the book that way. (In fact, just before beginning Homegoing I put down a book of short stories by an author I like because I couldn’t get into it. This book was enchanting.) A New Yorker review criticized Homegoing, saying its vignettes turned the characters into caricatures, but that was part of the magic for me, part of what allowed each voice to come forth on its own terms.

Over the course of the book, Gyasi gives readers a view on West Africa to see how tribal wars, religious beliefs, family ties, and colonialism and its remains affect individuals’ lives. In the American timeline, readers look in on sharecropping and convict leasing, unions and the Great Migration, housing segregation and heroin addiction. Though each chapter is a snapshot of a particular historical moment, they are all held together by the lineage the reader comes to care about deeply. The effect is to illustrate how history is not, in fact, a list of discrete events or periods, but rather a flowing stream (or a dancing fire) whose course for any one person is largely determined by chance.

This novel has been on my to-read list since its publication, so I’m four years late to the party in getting to it now. But in this particular moment, when many white people like myself are engaging in remedial education on the history of racism and racist systems, Homegoing feels all the more important. While Gyasi does attempt to portray each historical moment with as much research-based accuracy as possible, what makes her work even more powerful is that she successfully draws her readers into relationship with the families she portrays. That is the power of good fiction: it communicates truth to both the head and the heart. Read this book, and give yourself a clearer, yet still imperfect, picture.

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