By David Nilsen
“When she wanted to forget the Castle, she thought of these things, but she did not expect joy. Hell was a place of remembering, each beautiful moment passed through her mind’s eye until it fell to the ground like a rotten mango, perfectly useless, uselessly perfect.”
Yaa Gyasi’s debut novel Homegoing is about, more than anything else, memory. About the refusal to forget, and putting work into unearthing what is lost when we do forget. It is about family, which is a living, branching memory itself, and about migration and home, the way pain and joy can be invisible breadcrumbs the birds never eat, leading us back to a place we have never seen but always known. And it is here I will excuse myself from the collective “we,” because I’m a white man, and Homegoing is a testament to black voices, black strength, black memory, and stained with black sweat, black tears, black blood. It is brutal, and it is beautiful.
Homegoing tells the stories of two sisters in 18th century Ghana, at the height of the British slave trade, and their descendants. Effia and Esi have different fathers in different villages, and never know each other. Effia marries a British officer and stays in Ghana, living in a slaver’s castle in relative comfort. Esi is sold into slavery, stored in the dungeon beneath the very floors Effia walks, and ends up in the American south. We follow their family lines through the next six generations, ending up in the late 20th century.
Each chapter shows us the life of one family member in one generation, alternating between Effia’s and Esi’s family lines. We spend no more than a couple dozen pages with each character, jumping decades from one pair of chapters to the next. This could easily have resulted in an unbalanced book, one that lost sight of the family narratives for those of the individuals, or vice versa, or one that felt disjointed or directionless. It is no easy feat to create a cohesive narrative spanning two and a half centuries while placing fully formed characters within it, allowing each to be their own person while still serving the work of the novel as a whole. Gyasi is more than up the task. The level of craft at work in Homegoing should be humbling for any fiction writer who reads it.
Beginning as it does in midst of the African slave trade, continuing through ongoing European colonialism in Ghana and slavery in America, followed by Jim Crow-era pseudo-slavery in the post-Emancipation south, and the racial inequality of twentieth century America (which continues today, though the book stops before the turn of the new millennium), Homegoing is necessarily concerned with racial injustice. To tell a story of Africans, both those who stayed in Africa and those who found themselves on a new continent, is to tell a story stained with racial crime and carved by white greed. Gyasi paints these details faithfully, but does so while keeping her eyes solely on Effia’s and Esi’s descendants and not on the white individuals perpetrating these wrongs. The few white characters who are actually named in the book are little more than ghosts, even those who aren’t actively evil. This isn’t their story.
That said, Gyasi doesn’t gloss over the internal violence in Ghana during the time of the slave trade, and the role of Ghanaians in selling captives to the British and Dutch slavers. Even in this, however, it is easy to see the influence the presence of European forces and interests had in escalating pressures between tribes and people groups, inflaming much of the turmoil that led to these transactions. Almost nowhere in the history of relations between white Europeans or Americans and Africans have white hands been clean, on the African continent or elsewhere.
Gyasi also does an excellent job of housing her descriptions of the black situation in America within the context of individual characters. She never devolves into out-of-character historical exposition, never uses the mouth of a character as a vessel for rhetoric. We learn all we need to about the changing faces and methods of racism over the centuries, but we learn it in the direct context of her characters. In one chapter we follow H Black, the great-grandson of Esi. He is a freed slave a few years after the end of the Civil War, and he is arrested for looking at a white woman and is sentenced to hard labor. He is sold to a coal mine near Birmingham, Alabama, and works for a decade for no pay in this new, legal iteration of slavery. When he is released, he stays in the mines, now as a paid laborer. When he and his fellow miners–some white, some black–have a meeting to discuss a possible strike, he has the following exchange with a white miner:
“‘Whachu done wrong?’ H asked, returning his gaze to the white man.
“At first, the man wouldn’t speak. He kept his head lowered, and cleared his throat so many times, H wondered if there was anything left in his mouth at all. Finally the words came out. ‘I killed a man.’
‘Killed a man, huh? You know what they got my friend Joecy over there for? He ain’t cross the street when a white woman walk by. For that they gave him nine years. For killin’ a man they give you the same. We ain’t cons like you.'”
You see how much Gyasi tells us about the conditions and situations in the South during this time without ever pausing her story to Tell Us? These lines are perfectly within the context of the conversation being had. We already know H and Joecy, and know what they’ve been through. This information isn’t pulled out of thin air, and yet it serves as so much more than just a point in the argument with the other miner. This is a perfect snapshot of what Gyasi achieves with her novel as a whole.
Homegoing is an astonishing novel, and–even more rare–an important one. It is intimate and yet expensive, seamlessly interweaving the personal with the political. We are devastated, and we are uplifted. Read this book as soon as you can.
Homegoing is available now at Greenville Public Library.