“You ought to read it, your parents and kids ought to read it, and your racist neighbour? Shove it through the letterbox” – Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi (minor spoilers alert)
Gyasi’s debut novel has already been released in the US, where Time Magazine loves it, the NYT loves it, Oprah loves it, Buzzfeed loves it – well, you get the gist. Long story short: yeah, they’re pretty much on the money. You ought to read it, your parents and kids ought to read it, and your racist neighbour? Shove it through the letterbox.
[Minor spoilers alert…] Homegoing is a multigenerational epic, moving from Africa’s Gold Coast – a British colony in West Africa that became what we now know as Ghana in the late 1950s – to the United States, from the 1750s to the present day, following the diverse (read: grim) fortunes of two branches of a single family tree. Maame, slave to a Fante household, is raped by her mater, Cobbe Otcher, and bears a child. She flees the compound after her daughter’s birth, leaving the baby, Effia, to be raised unwillingly by Cobbe’s first wife, Baaba. When Maame reaches the Asante region, she becomes third wife to the local Big Man, warrior Kwame Asare, and has another child, Esi. After their village is attacked by a northern tribe, Esi is stolen and sold into slavery – she’s transported to the dungeon of the Cape Coast Castle, where the British, Dutch and American traders are waiting (and where, like her mother before her, she’s raped), and soon she’s sent on the boats to America. Meanwhile back in Fanteland, Cobbe Otcher is partnership with those same traders, and his wife, Baaba, arranges to have Effia married off to James Collins, an American Captain. Effia moves to the Castle as a ‘wench’ – the African wife of a foreigner during his tenure on the Gold Coast – and bears him a son, Quey. The book then tracks the fortunes of the descendants of both Effia and Esi, so that each chapter is the story of a different family member: there’s the mixed-race Quey, struggling with both his sexuality and his complicity with the slave trade; Kojo, whose parents died to extricate him from the US plantation system; Akua, whose visions of her ancestors leads to tragedy; Sonny, enraged by segregation and hooked on heroin; and Yaw, a middle-aged school-teacher, historian and writer in Takoradi, who can’t make peace with his own past.
There’s a whole host more, of course, because the book traces seven generations and so we’ve got fourteen protagonists, each with his/her own story to tell. Even if the stories weren’t individually and collectively compelling, and even if the book weren’t narrating the gruesome consequences of the slave trade and British colonialism in West Africa and the history of slavery in the USA, it would still be notable for the skill with which Gyasi juggles so many voices and such a complex chronology (the family tree at the start comes in very handy). But narrative skill aside, Homegoing is an important book: Gyasi uses a dynastic epic to remind us that slavery isn’t some barely imaginable horror story from the incomprehensibly distant past, but a very real experience that dates back only a handful of generations. She sketches out with great skill and clarity both the political complexities of the Gold Coast tribes and their interactions with white invaders, and the realities of slavery and segregation and the legacy of Jim Crow in the US. It’s a difficult book in terms of subject matter, but a very easy book in terms of readability, which should (we hope) ensure it a wide audience. While we’ve read other books that deal powerfully with the experienced of the enslaved in America (yo, Toni Morrison), Homegoing is the first we’ve seen that also gives equal airtime to the Africans involved and the history of the tribes from which they came. It’s not a perfect book – the ending is a little hokey (even as it seems to position Gyazi herself in relation to the histories told, a strategy which might be seen to lend the text an extra dollop of authenticity), and the necklace device (you’ll see) is likewise a little too slick – but it’s an excellent one. And in an era where a movement like Black Lives Matters is all too necessary, books like this really need to be read.
Any Cop?: Absolutely. Compelling, heartbreaking, mesmerising: all the big words. Give it a go. Pass it round.
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- February 1, 2017 / 9:00 am