TBBNQ Reads: Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

With Homegoing, Yaa Gyasi outdid all my expectations of a novel. Through the distilled and poignant stories of 9 families across 9 generations, it charts the course of history from 18th Century Ghana to present-day USA in two branches, rooted in Maame, and belonging to half sisters Effia Otcher and Esi Asare. Effia’s branch goes through the estate of the Cape Coast Castle to the years of Transatlantic Slave trade, the Asante-Fante and the Anglo-Asante wars, the introduction of Christianity to West Africa by the British, British colonisation, and African migration to the US in the late 20th century.

Esi’s branch of the story goes from the dungeons of the Cape Coast Castle to the plantations of the South, the American Civil War, the Great Migration, the coal mines of Pratt City, Alabama; to the jazz clubs and dope houses of late 20th century Harlem. A concise family tree is included at the beginning of the novel which makes it easy to follow this saga.

Storytelling As Travel

One of the fears with which I approached the novel was the fear that the storyteller would erase the agency of her characters and would, instead, impose her assumptions on the characters. When I approach such stories, I always wonder: “How do you know though? Are you just here to tell us what they looked like to you, as opposed to what they actually were, particularly to themselves?”.

It is a version of the mistrust that Willie, an African American cleaner working at a white men’s club in the novel, felt when she saw what was meant to be portrayal of the South, and could tell that none of the white men had ever stepped a foot in the South. However, in the case of Homegoing, the characters were so generously clothed in dignity that it made it hard for me, at any point, to doubt the integrity of Gyasi’s storytelling.

There were parts of the book that felt so real due to the depth and comprehensiveness of the storytelling. The narrator’s assertiveness made me wonder how the author could possibly have known the particulars of 15-year-old Fante women’s sexual desires in 1862. Are these facts archived or is she so in tune with her craft that her imagination could brilliantly break through centuries that existed before her?

I found myself in instances where I lived with and beside the characters in a way that felt so natural and showed me that one does not have to experience a certain thing to feel it: that good storytelling is effectively travel. This book, unlike most other books I have read, allowed me to connect with the pre-colonial African as human, and not an Other. The historical insight from it was deeply grounding as it echoed that famous quote by Terence: “I am human, nothing human is alien to me” - be it kindness, brutishness, genius or hubris.

Freedom, Bondage; Repeat

This multifaceted business of living and being as a human was explored in various ways with each story in the novel. On their own, each of them stands as a complete short story on blackness and relationships on all levels of human interaction. Collectively, they form a cohesive body of work that explore the cycles of freedom and bondage in both blackness and relationships simultaneously.

They explored a cocktail of issues on mental health (Akua), racism (Marjorie and Marcus), religion (Willie, Akua), homosexuality (Quey), migration and immigration (all characters, Yaw and Marjorie especially), colonialism and post-colonialism (all characters after Abena), - and my favourites to follow - beauty and the Other (both explored intricately in all the stories). For the first time ever, I encountered pre-colonial black West African girls that I could admire, respect and even envy.

It was not an envy born of a romantic view of their lives but from the realisation that this was an entire world with its own ideologies and culture that I have - until now - had no access to. I also loved following how different groups in different societies have othered each other, and used this othering as justification for dehumanising treatment.

This calls to home how easy it has always been for people to legitimise discrimination and oppression on grounds of race, wealth, gender, religion and nationality. Particularly in countries like Nigeria that have very little regard for its citizens - especially its poorer, female, non-heterosexual and uneducated citizens - the novel illustrates how systems of violence reproduce a culture of violence across generations, and continue to affect us individually and communally.

Slavery As Collective Responsibility

While my favourite themes in the novel were beauty and the Other, I found the exploration of mental illnesses and their intersection with colonialism and Christianity the most fascinating. Drawing from conversations recently had, most readers attest that the story of Akua, which encompasses these themes, is one that leaves the reader most entangled. I cried, cursed and screamed while reading her story in a coffee shop!

The lines come back to me: “She used to tell him that the more she learned about God from the missionary, the more questions she had.” It seems like an innocuous and even encouraging comment until we see what these questions did to Akua, and how the biblical metaphor of putting new wine in old wineskin came alive in West Africa’s colonial history.

In its political and intellectual endeavours, I found Homegoing to be ambitious, nuanced and deeply insightful. One of the characters remarked “Everyone was responsible. We all were, we all are…” and this summarises how the novel does not excuse the complicity of Africans in the slave trade. It also speaks to the collective responsibility I believe we always owe to humanity, and to the earth.

This duty we owe to our community and culture (used here to mean the product of all our social and artistic efforts) was exemplified when a character cried that “war was what they knew but if a white man took the Golden Stool, the spirit of the Asante would surely die, and that, they could not bear.” Reading that sentence in context opened my eyes even more to just how monumental and deeply violent diminishing of a people’s culture must have felt for those who experienced slavery and colonisation.

It is things like this that the book does to you the whole time you are reading it. It shows you how significant - and significantly connected - a lot of themes and events are, especially in the modern history of black people. By situating the novel around the transatlantic slavery, Gyasi showed how consequential slave trade has been in the lives of black people in the Americas and on the continent.

History: Dead Or Alive?

Telling the stories from the two branches alternately was very useful in contrasting the aftermath of that monumental period between West Africa and the diaspora. The most striking contrast was how significant slavery was to the African American while for the African there was a wide gap of ignorance. This gap is still seen today in how the common narrative of slavery absolves black people and denies their agency, if at all the History is even taught.

While she was at Daunt Books during her UK book tour in January 2017, Yaa Gyasi talked about how the novel was as much a learning process for her as it was for her mother who had grown up in Ghana. Today, for a young Nigerian like me with ties abroad (be it where I am schooling or what other passports I have), it appears that across the Atlantic, pandora’s box was just let open.

In the West (particularly the USA), it looks like a rise of ‘alternative facts’, fascism and political hyper-polarisation. In Nigeria, it looks like a bad recession and a series of unreliable leaders. On either side, the narratives appear grim and because there is only so much of our history and humanity we see regularly, it feels like it has never been grimmer. Homegoing reminded me that the world has been depressing all this while and I am just a little more woke.

It was a subtle reminder that amid the chaos of living, love (in its many forms) can and has always been found to help us deal with these harsh realities of life. That love is, in fact, the node from which all growth stems from. I mean, why else would the narrator choose to anchor this saga on the definitive points in generations where love gave birth to something new? Incidentally, the novel’s handling of romantic love was my least favourite part.

LIVING LESSON

Though some of the romantic relationships rang true (like Crazy Woman and Unlucky, H and Ethe), I found myself doubting the authenticity of few others (like Willie and Robert, Quey and Nana Yaa). This was mostly due to the fact that the characters themselves were not given as much space and time as I would have liked. I like to think that in this miracle of a novel, some things had to be brushed over, and this collateral damage happened to be on the individual level.

I left with the same feeling which must have motivated Rilke to write his poem ‘Archaic Torso of Apollo’ which he ended with “You must change your life.” You know, that baptism-like feeling you get when you have been ushered into a new world, illuminated, and you must do something, about something - about anything.

It is one of those novels from which you get more intelligent just by looking at the page. As a compilation of stories, Homegoing takes you through an experience of carrying a living lesson on the vastness of life, history and humanity. This book is so brilliant that I am positive it will take a canonical position in literary studies of black history, and studies of the development of black identity across continents.