‘“We believe the one who has the power. He is the one who gets to write the story. 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.”’
‘“The white man’s god is just like the white man. He thinks he is the only god, just like the white man thinks he is the only man. But the only reason he is god instead of Nyame or Chukwu or whoever is because we let him be. We do not fight him. We do not even question him. The white man told us he was the way, and we said yes, but when has the white man ever told us something was good for us and that the thing was really good? They say you are an African witch, and so what? So what? Who told them what a witch was?”’
Spoiler alert: this post contains minor spoilers.
Disclaimer: I am not claiming to be an expert on this book or the writer. If external sources were used in this post, they are referenced. These are my own thoughts and no one else’s.
I’ve been wanting to write about Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing for ages because it might just be the best book I read in the past year or more. It’s definitely one of my favourite books, it’s a book that kind of just overwhelmed me, if you know what I mean. I loved everything about it, from Gyasi’s language to her characters and the way she structures her story. One of the characters in the book, Marjorie, is searching for books that she loves, that she can ‘feel inside of her’. Homegoing is certainly a book like that for me.
The book is divided into two parts, and each chapter is told from the perspective of one specific character. The story starts with Effia in Fanteland (Fanteland is the central coastal region of present-day Ghana). Effia marries the British governor of Cape Coast Castle. Before she leaves her village with him, she receives a golden-black stone pendant which once belonged to her mother. The second chapter tells the story of Esi, who is born in Asanteland (also in present-day Ghana) and becomes a slave when her village is overrun by a rival one. Esi is Effia’s half-sister, even though neither of them knows, and Esi receives a similar golden-black stone pendant from her mother before she is taken away. Esi’s pendant is left in the dungeons at Cape Coast Castle when she is moved to the ships to be taken to the US as a slave. Esi’s chapter includes the following quote:
‘… in my village we have a saying about separated sisters. They are like a woman and her reflection, doomed to stay on opposite sides of the pond.‘
It is thus how the story continues: the following chapters are about Effia’s and Esi’s descendants up to the present day, one family line in Ghana and the other in the US. The story is told in alternating chapters, hence the next chapter is about Quey, Effia’s son, the one after that about Ness, Esi’s daughter, a slave on a plantation in the US, the one after that about Quey’s son James, and so on. The story takes us from 18th century Ghana to different times and places in both countries – like the Fugitive Slave Act, the British-Asante wars, Ghanaian independence or the civil rights movement. Yet while each chapter is separate and has its own story, the book always flows. In fact, I love how interconnected everything is – something I generally love in a book. I love reading about a fact or an aspect in one chapter, with it then reappearing ten chapters later. So it is with Homegoing. And I also love following a story over different generations (a reason why I like One Hundred Years of Solitude so much). It’s a difficult way to tell a story but Gyasi masters it perfectly.
The great thing about Homegoing is its detail. Even though each character, for example, only gets one chapter, we still get to know their stories, thoughts and opinions. Moreover, the stories are rich in historical detail – whether that’s the British role in what is now Ghana (James), plantation life (Ness), Ghanaian independence (Yaw), racism (Willie) and segregation (Sonny) in the US or the heroin crisis in Harlem in the 1950s and 1960s (Sonny). We really feel that we are in these places – we get a true sense of the events that are happening and, more importantly, of what the characters are going through. We understand their thoughts and situations, we feel with them and can imagine what it’s like to be them. The book truly brings its characters and events to life and this is, I think, one of the greatest strengths of Homegoing.
‘For Sonny, the problem with America wasn’t segregation but the fact that you could not, in fact, segregate. Sonny had been trying to get away from white people for as long as he could remember, but, big as this country was, there was nowhere to go. Not even Harlem, where white folks owned just about everything an eye could see or a hand could touch. What Sonny wanted was Africa. … The practice of segregation still meant that Sonny had to see white people sitting at the front of every bus he took, that he got called “boy” by every other snot-nosed white kid in sight. The practice of segregation meant that he had to feel his separateness as inequality, and that was what he could not take.’
‘Harlem and heroin. Heroin and Harlem. Sonny could no longer think of one without thinking of the other.’
There are, of course, many themes and topics discussed in this book. I may have a tendency (if you haven’t noticed) to look at everything in historical terms but my overall interpretation – what I think Gyasi wants to tell us – is that everything is interconnected and that we are all affected by what happened to the generations before us. Effia, for example, is born during fire and it is fire that haunts her descendants – the fire would haunt Effia’s father, ‘his children, and his children’s children for as long as the line continued’. Then there is the ocean, in which so many slaves died during their passage to the Americas. The Old Lady can still hear voices in the ocean and Marcus is scared of it – because the ocean doesn’t have an end – at the very end of the book. Gyasi, of course, discusses the effect of British involvement and colonialism as well as slave trade and slavery on present-day Ghana. Esi’s and Ness’s chapters paint a vivid picture of what the slave trade and slavery in the US meant. It is acknowledged that everyone played a role in the slave trade and again, I think her point is to show that the slave trade and slavery has affected and still affects the generations after, for example:
‘“I know what you are thinking,” she finally said. “Everyone is a part of this. Asante, Fante, Ga. British, Dutch, and American. And you are not wrong to think like this. It is how we are all taught to think. But I do not want to think this way. …”’
‘“… Besides, if we go to the white man for school, we will just learn the way the white man wants us to learn. We will come back and build the country the white man wants us to build. One that continues to serve them. We will never be free.”’
‘”You keep doin’ what you doin’ and the white man don’t got to do it no more. He ain’t got to sell you or put you in a coal mine to own you. He’ll own you just as is, and he’ll say you the one who did it. He’ll say it’s your fault.”’
Gyasi also deals with racism in the US and elsewhere. It is brought up in different ways – for example, by demonstrating how the use of language affects us all:
‘Since moving to the Castle, she’d discovered that only white men talked of “black magic”. As though magic had a color’.
‘The need to call this thing “good” and this thing “bad”, this thing “white” and this thing “black”, was an impulse that Effia did not understand. In her village, everything was everything. Everything bore the weight of everything else.‘
‘… white men smiling just meant more evil was coming with the next wave …’
‘… Marjorie was made aware, yet again, that here “white” could be the way a person talked; “black”, the music a person listened to.’
Cape Coast Castle is a reappearing theme in the book and, I believe, illustrates best how history still affects us, especially that of the slave trade, slavery and racism. For anyone who doesn’t know Ghanaian history or the history of the transatlantic slave trade, Cape Coast Castle was originally built by the Portuguese as a trading post but became one of the countless “slave castles” along the Cold Coast of Africa (now Ghana). Cape Coast Castle was one of the largest such castles. Essentially, it was the place where Europeans “kept” the slaves before “shipping them off” to the Americas. The “door of no return” was the last place the slaves stepped through before crossing the Atlantic. I visited Cape Coast Castle while on holiday in Ghana and it reminds me of the Nazi concentration camps I’ve visited in Europe (and I’ve been to a few – Dachau, Mauthausen and Sachsenhausen). It’s history we rarely hear about, which, in my opinion, is shocking and disgraceful. I’d recommend anyone to read up on it and visit one of the castles while on a trip to Ghana. The Castle is, of course, essential in the beginning of the story – it is where Effia lives with her husband and where Esi is imprisoned. But it reappears throughout the book (e.g. in Abena’s chapter) right up until the very last two chapters (Marjorie and Marcus). But the book ends on a positive note and perhaps what Gyasi actually wants to tell us that while history is always there, even in the present, it doesn’t always have to negatively affect us.
I’m not sure I’ve given Homegoing the recognition it deserves – my post is rather short, as I didn’t want to give away too much. Just know that Homegoing simply is a fantastic book and that I would highly recommend it to anyone.
About Yaa Gyasi
Yaa Gyasi is a Ghanaian-American writer. Born in Ghana, she moved to the US in 1991 and mostly grew up in Alabama. She has a Bachelor in English from Stanford University and holds a Master’s Degree from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, a creative writing programme from the University of Iowa. Homegoing is her debut novel and was published in 2016, when she was just 26. The book has been nominated for and received several awards, including the National Book Critics Circle’s John Leonard Award for best first book, the PEN/Hemingway Award for a first book of fiction and the American Book Award.