This epic-like novel offers a wealth of insight into 300 years of transatlantic Black history. The plot’s premise is simple enough: paternal half-sisters, Effia and Esi, are born to different mothers in different villages and face two very different, but connected, fates. While Effia is married off to the English soldier who mans modern day Ghana’s notorious Cape Coast Castle, her sister is chained in the dungeons beneath the floorboards in preparation for the transatlantic voyage to the plantations of the American South. As they go on to spawn a two estranged lineages, the stories of their descendants produce a braided narrative that zigzags between generations and continents.

“The breathtaking sweep and ambition of the novel’s project makes it an instant classic and fierce debut.”

While it was prominent African critic Adewale Maja-Pearce who said that “there is a want of detail and the writing is curiously opaque,” there are many others who also find Yaa Gyasi’s attempt to straddle a dizzying range of characters in countless narrative locations somewhat ambitious. The use of the flippant term narrative locations is wholly intentional: the novel often seems to prioritise the spatial over the human, where the simple invocation of a new location in a new time seems to replace animated characterisation.

When sketching the twentieth-century’s African Americans like Sonny and Marcus, Gyasi often resorts to slang-isms and stereotypes that glide over the surface of a rich community history. The effect is that people seem to be little more than products of their time and place. Shifting between characters who will never meet but seem to share a near-psychic connection, Homegoing presents individuality as an incidental matter. In a sense, it is: one of the novel’s underlying themes is how thoroughly history shapes us and our children.

Gyasi herself states that Homegoing is “among other things, about the afterlife of the transatlantic slave trade.” In it, she maps the spatial and temporal coordinates of the Black Atlantic by recognising the shared history that intimately connects the peoples and locations that border it. Homegoing bypasses the nation-state and instead represents the idea of nation as a mythical connection between transnationals. While true that some characters fail to jump off the page, it is important to recognise that Homegoing’s project is a communal one.

What sells many on Homegoing is how Gyasi provides meaning and explanation for a past bursting with so much pain it feels illogical. She insists upon something, palpable and yet elusive, that the ugly circumstances of history cannot lay claim to. Gyasi’s home nation of Ghana’s is one of the few African nations which has invited the African diaspora to return home, offering various citizenship and investment incentives. Three years after the publication of Gyasi’s debut, Ghana’s president announced the Year of Return, Ghana 2019, marking 400 years since the start of the slave trade. Homegoing beautifully anticipates that zeitgeist and speaks perfectly to the idea that we are all, at the end of the day, family.

“She insists upon something, palpable and yet elusive, that the ugly circumstances of history cannot lay claim to.”

The novel pivots and ends on the repatriation of two identical necklaces owned by the original sisters to the Ghanaian coast as a symbol of wrongs set right. This all’s well ends well approach leaves readers wondering whether a symbolic gesture, and indeed any such token ending, can ever satisfy considering the extent of history’s wrongs. Once again, the novel’s focus on linearity is a juggernaut-like force that charges through and flattens the three-dimensional stories of its many characters. But while Homegoing’s linear and generational focus sets itself up for an inevitably disappointing ending, the breathtaking sweep and ambition of the novel’s project makes it an instant classic and fierce debut.

By Jane Link

JANE LINK is a master’s student and an editor for Split Lip MagazineThe Publishing Post, and her own beloved bigblackbooks. When not trying to land her first job in publishing, Jane loves to read historical fiction, self-help, and everything by Black voices. She dreams of one day setting up an independent dedicated to publishing those voices. You can find her @verybookishjane on Twitter.

YAA GYASI was born in Ghana and raised in Huntsville, Alabama. Her debut novel, Homegoing, was awarded the National Book Critics Circle’s John Leonard Award for best first book, the PEN/Hemingway Award for a first book of fiction, the National Book Foundation’s “5 under 35” honours for 2016, and the American Book Award. She lives in Brooklyn. You can find her on Facebook.

Homegoing provides an African response to the transatlantic slave tradeHomegoing by Yaa Gyasi
Published by Alfred A. Knopf on 7 June 2016
Genres: Historical fiction, African American, African, Debut, Literary fiction
Pages: 304
Format: Paperback
Buy on New Beacon BooksBuy on Mahogany Books
Goodreads
four-half-stars

Two half-sisters, Effia and Esi, are born into different villages in eighteenth-century Ghana. Effia is married off to an Englishman and lives in comfort in the palatial rooms of Cape Coast Castle. Unbeknownst to Effia, her sister, Esi, is imprisoned beneath her in the castle's dungeons, sold with thousands of others into the Gold Coast's booming slave trade, and shipped off to America, where her children and grandchildren will be raised in slavery. One thread of Homegoing follows Effia's descendants through centuries of warfare in Ghana, as the Fante and Asante nations wrestle with the slave trade and British colonization. The other thread follows Esi and her children into America. From the plantations of the South to the Civil War and the Great Migration, from the coal mines of Pratt City, Alabama, to the jazz clubs and dope houses of twentieth-century Harlem, right up through the present day, Homegoing makes history visceral, and captures, with singular and stunning immediacy, how the memory of captivity came to be inscribed in the soul of a nation.