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Breaking Down Barriers Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing

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Breaking Down Barriers: Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing

Yaa Gyasi’s debut novel, Homegoing, is a lean epic that spans two continents and some 250 years of history, delving into the transatlantic slave trade, the Anglo-Ashanti wars, the convict leasing system, and Harlem’s heroin epidemic, to name just a few of its paths of historical inquiry. Gyasi, who wrote the novel over the course of seven years, condenses an overwhelming amount of incident into just over 300 pages. The result is a book that’s dense yet accessible, precisely structured yet refreshingly open-ended, intellectually rigorous yet grandly emotional.

Homegoing opens with Effia, a beautiful but “cursed” girl born in the mid 1700s to a noble family in a Fante village. Though her beauty makes her a prime candidate to become one of the wives of Abeeku Bade, next in line to be chief, she’s instead married off to a white British soldier who takes her away to the Castle, a British fortress on the Gold Coast of Africa (now Ghana), which, unbeknown to Effia and the other Ghanaian “wenches” married to British soldiers, serves as a major outpost for the slave trade. Women and men, among them Effia’s half-sister, Esi—most of them prisoners captured by warring tribes and sold off to the British—are kept in the Castle’s dungeon, waiting to be transported to America where they’ll be sold into slavery.

The novel proceeds chronologically from there, ping-ponging back and forth between Effia’s descendants, who remain in Ghana, and Esi’s own, who survive in America estranged from their African roots. Gyasi interweaves incidents from her characters’ lives with the histories of Ghana and the United States, providing personalized dramatizations of abstract historical flashpoints like the Fugitive Slave Act or the War of the Golden Stool. All in all, Homegoing is composed of 14 chapters, each one told from the point of view of a different character, each one an impeccably crafted character study with its own narrative arc and thematic unity.

It’s the accumulation of history—the painfully slow progress from slavery to something like freedom, the gradual drive toward a reunion of Effia and Esi, of Africa and America—that gives Homegoing its dramatic charge. Gyasi brilliantly tracks the gradual shifts in history and the way these historical oppressions have ruptured black families, wrenching individuals from their ancestral home and splitting each generation from the last with new forms of cultural terror. There’s a reason Time magazine’s Roxane Gay called Homegoing “the strongest case for reparations and black rage I’ve read in a long time.” The wrongs done to one generation do not simply fade away; they reverberate across time, echoing even into the present.

Gyasi is particularly adept at filling in the gaps in our collective memory, placing her characters in the forgotten, in-between spaces of history. The novel invokes not the slave ships, but the Castle’s holding pen; not just white slavers, but black ones as well; not sharecropping, but the convict leasing system, by which Southern prisoners—most of them black, picked up for minor violations of apartheid Jim Crow laws—were sold to private companies to perform backbreaking manual labor. In the Ghana-set chapters, Gyasi complicates and demystifies popular images of Africa. A “witch,” for example, turns out to be more like a psychologist than the shamans of lore. Some African peoples were willing participants in the colonization and enslavement of others. There are no perfect victims, no clean hands. As one character says of the slave trade, “Everyone was responsible. We all were…we all are.”

Homegoing operates on a series of dualisms: Effia and Esi, Africa and America, Asante and Fante, black and white, slavery and freedom, history and the present, fire and water. (The last of these is echoed in the book’s striking cover, designed by Peter Mendelsund.) The point isn’t to set these concepts in opposition to each other, but to break down the barrier between them altogether. Effia and Esi’s familial lines are “black,” but both have significant white blood. In one scene, a mother tells her son that his father was a white man. In fact, he was a light-skinned black man who discovered he could “pass” in Manhattan and chose life as a white man over his wife and son.

Each character bears the scars of previous generations (sometimes literally; Gyasi’s symbology can be blunt), but each one makes his or her own path. History defines the terms by which they live, but it doesn’t dictate how they must act. Some choose to acquiesce, others to run, a few to fight, and many to simply survive. This is why, for all its pedagogical potential, Homegoing is fundamentally and absolutely a work of fiction, not history. The novel allows us to experience history as a totality, decade upon decade in the proverbial blink of an eye. We come to know a character deeply in one chapter, then see them through the eyes of their child or grandchild, and eventually we watch as they recede into historical myth. They become just another story.

As one character, a writer, says, “This is the problem of history. We cannot know that which we were not there to see and hear and experience for ourselves.” Gyasi, on the other hand, allows us to inhabit the sweep of history, to see and hear and experience both the moment and its effects, to watch the transfiguration of “the present” into “the past.” The past is a part of us whether we acknowledge it or not. For Gyasi, the only way to truly progress is to reckon with our history, to fill in the blank spaces in our past, to go home.

Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing is now available from Knopf; to purchase it, click here.