How fortuitous that I chose Yaa Gyasi’s “Homegoing” (2016) as the first novel I would read in retirement — and, in fact, the first novel I’ve read in nearly a year.
During my first week as a new retiree, I settled into my favorite chair and promptly lost myself in a rich, multilayered story about slavery and its corrosive legacy through the centuries. Spanning eight generations on both sides of the Atlantic, the tale begins in the late 18th century on Africa’s Gold Coast, shifts to the United States, then returns to modern-day Ghana.
I could not have picked a better book to provide context for today’s political and societal convulsions unleashed by the videoed murder of George Floyd and given purpose by the Black Lives Matter movement.
The call for reparations to make amends for America’s racist past is wholly justified when you consider not just the evils of slavery itself, but the systemic second-class treatment of Black people which extended well into the post-World War II era and continues even today.
In “Homegoing,” Gyasi tells the story of two half-sisters who are born into different villages, unknown to each other, and whose lives — and those of their descendants — are defined by opposite sides of the slave trade.
Effia marries a British officer and moves into a life of privilege in the Cape Coast Castle while Esi is captured in a raid in her village and imprisoned in the very same castle, destined for the same, wretched existence as other men, women and children caught up in the evil trade of human trafficking As the story plays out over the next 200-plus years, Gyasi introduces us to their descendants, with one side of the family tree free to follow their pursuits, the other side shackled and deprived.
The book alternates between descendants of each matriarch, with each of 14 chapters devoted to telling one character’s story, initially rooted in the tribal villages of west Africa and then expanding to various locations in the United States.
We come to know these men and women as they fight to survive on a plantation in Mississippi, in the shipyards of Baltimore, the coal mines of Alabama, and the streets of Harlem during the Jazz Age. The last two chapters focus on Marjorie and Marcus, both college graduates living in Northern California but with different experiences and attitudes toward their ancestral homeland.
While the horrors and depravity of the slave trade are made painfully clear, the real impact of the book comes in exploring the psychological and emotional damage inflicted on the matriarchs’ children and the succeeding generations.
For some, those born into the side of the family with a white father and black mother, it’s white guilt and matters of conscience that they must deal with. For others, those descending from two black parents, it is coping with the anguish of separated families, the threat of real or implied violence, the limitations imposed by their skin color, the unfulfilled yearning for a better life. It’s no surprise when one character’s mental illness results in her own people calling her Crazy Woman.
“Homegoing’ is an ambitious work, especially considering it’s the debut novel by this talented young writer. The book won numerous awards, including the PEN/Hemingway Award and the National Book Critics Circle’s John Leonard Award for best first book.
Gyasi was born in Ghana, raised in Huntsville, Alabama, and educated at Stanford. She went on to get a MFA at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where so many famous authors have honed their craft.
Just 31 years old, she’s due to speak in Portland in December as part of the 2020-21 Portland Arts & Lectures series. Fingers crossed that I’ll be able to see her in an auditorium rather than on Zoom.
By that time, her second novel will have come out. “Transcendent Kingdom,” due out in September, is said to be a “a powerful, raw, intimate, deeply layered novel about a Ghanaian family in Alabama.”
“Homegoing” had been waiting for me since March 2019, when I bought it at a used bookstore during a visit to Ithaca, New York. What a perfect book to launch me into retirement.
Get to know Yaa Gyasi here, courtesy of The Vilcek Foundation, a New York City-based organization that raises awareness of immigrant contributions in the United States and fosters appreciation of the arts and sciences.