A novel of breathtaking sweep and emotional power that traces three hundred years in Ghana and along the way also becomes a truly great American novel. Extraordinary for its exquisite language, its implacable sorrow, its soaring beauty, and for its monumental portrait of the forces that shape families and nations, Homegoing heralds the arrival of a major new voice in contemporary fiction.
Review – ★★★★★ (5 stars)
Published: 2016 | Publisher: A.A Knopf | Pages: 305
Yaa Gyasi’s debut – Homegoing, is historical fiction at its best. I honestly thought Chimamanda Adichie’s Americanah hit home for me back in 2013. But Homegoing IS home. Homegoing is about my home. I never thought I’d read book that perfectly articulates the dynamics of being Ghanaian-American. The only book I’ve read that somewhat touches on the identity complexities of being Ghanaian by blood and American (or British) by birth, was Powder Necklace by Nana Ekua Brew-Hammond (another awesome Ghanaian-American writer). I might have to re-read Powder Necklace and review it on this platform soon!
Homegoing was an emotional read – throughout! I started reading during the wake of the horrific Alton Sterling and Philando Castile police shootings of early July, so you can imagine how haunting these real life events paralleled with this particular historical fiction, which focuses on the legacy of slavery in America and Ghana. Homegoing follows two half sisters – Effia and Esi who live in 18th century Ghana and the generations after them, making Effia and Esi the matriarchs of dual lineages. Effia becomes the wench (not wife) of the British governor of Cape Coast Castle (a slave castle here in Ghana) and is the matriarch of the Ghanaian line of the family; while Esi, who is kept as a slave in the dungeons of this same Cape Coast Castle where Effia resides with the governor, is the matriarch of the American line of the family. Homegoing alternates between the descendants of the two sisters, chronologically from 18th century Ghana to present day (after the millennium), in both Ghana and the US. As with most books of the historical fiction genre, a family tree is provided on the first page of the novel which makes following the two lineages and the different family members pretty easy.
To be honest, I don’t think it’s possible to read Homegoing without harboring some resentment for the insanity white folks forced people of African descent to endure. From the events of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, to the injustice and discrimination black folks faced in the American south as slaves, to the Anglo-Ashanti wars in Ghana, to present day racial tensions and disregard for black bodies, are all legacies of slavery. I truly admire how Gyasi manages to personalize slavery and its effects through the use of character development in each chapter. In every chapter, readers witness how each generation got some inheritance of slavery – be it through mass incarceration, the need to pass as white, lynching, colorism, the fragmenting of families and so much more.
As much as the terrors white folks caused black people are highlighted in Homegoing, I appreciate Gyasi for not letting Africans off the hook for being complicit in the slave trade. Unfortunately, the role African nations played in enabling slavery are rarely addressed. All the ethnic wars, kidnapping of innocent people and trading of human beings in exchange for goods from the British, Dutch and Portuguese were all selfish, contributing factors to the slave trade and the inhumane effects they still manifest. While reading Homegoing, I kept thinking about Maya Angelou’s autobiography – All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes and her valid feelings of anger and disappointment she expressed after visiting the Elmina Castle (a Portuguese slave castle here in Ghana) in Cape Coast, Ghana back in the 1970’s. I understood her anger, as she was a descendent of our people who were captured and sold to the Europeans. As upsetting as the slave trade was, I applaud Gyasi for using Homegoing as a way for opening up conversations on the obscure relationship between Africans and African-Americans today, thanks to our disturbed past.
Gyasi’s ability to seamlessly weave Ghanaian and African-American histories into this story was very ambitious and exciting to read! I was impressed with the plethora of themes, actual historical events and icons that made realistic cameos in this novel. Don’t get me wrong – Homegoing is not rigid with historical facts. It’s very much a holistic novel with issues like interracial relationships, sharecropping, homosexuality, racial passing, lynching, homosexuality, mental illness, abelism, colorism and so much more, embedded into the storyline with respect to the times in which the characters live. Real historic icons and happenings like Yaa Asantewaa of Ejisu, The Asantehene, the civil rights movement & non-violent resistance headed by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, the Harlem heroin epidemic of the late 1960’s and others are all impressively packed into this novel of 305 pages!
I enjoyed most of the chapters and characters in Homegoing. But my favorite character was Marjorie. I like to believe Marjorie’s chapter is Yaa Gyasi – fictionalized. Marjorie was born in Ghana and raised in the US, just like Yaa Gyasi. In Marjorie’s chapter, I loved how the character articulates how she doesn’t identify fully as Ghanaian or ‘Black American’ which is sometimes used synonymously with the ambiguous term – ‘akata’ by some Africans. I especially loved that Marjorie found joy in reading books by writers of African descent,
Her work was in African and African American literature, and when Marcus asked her why she chose those subjects, she said that those were the books that she could feel inside her. (pg. 295)
Is Marjorie me? That quote is basically the essence of why I created African Book Addict! It was refreshing to read Majorie’s chapter, as I completely understood her identity struggles. While my life story is a little different from Majorie’s/Yaa Gyasi’s, reading a character with a similar background as yours is deeply gratifying. You begin to realize that there are others like you in the world; that you’re not alone in your confusion as to where you call home; that your convictions on your ever evolving identities are valid.
While discussing Homegoing with other book lovers here in Accra, I realized there were some minor inaccuracies in the novel. But I didn’t mind the minor inaccuracies others felt the need to point out. I did however find the ending of this phenomenal book a bit corny. Marcus’s chapter should have ended with a bang – as all the other chapters did! Regardless, Homegoing was emotional and heartbreaking, yet exhilarating to read. I hope Yaa Gyasi makes a trip to Ghana soon or adds Accra to her book tour. I’d love a good ole’ chat with a fellow Ghanaian-American and of course, for my copy of the book to be graced with her signature!
I’d like to extend a special thank you to my new friend – Trish Tchume and publishers A. A Knopf for my copy of the book. Homegoing is definitely one of my top 5 favorite books of this year. Don’t be surprised when it is required reading in schools soon.
Purchase Homegoing on Amazon.
Darkowaa (@AwoDeee) is an American born Ghanaian, currently living where her heart feels most at home – Accra, Ghana. She doesn’t consider herself a writer or a bookworm… She prefers to call herself an African Book Addict! Books written by people of African descent / from the African diaspora excite her the most, and hopefully they’ll excite you too!
Review originally posted on AfricanBookAddict.com
Related country: Ghana