Image Credit: Penguin Random House USA, 2016
Yaa Gyasi’s debut novel Homegoing tells the compelling and heartbreaking story of one family, spanning across three centuries and two continents. Unusually, rather than being one coherent narrative, the novel is split into fourteen unique short stories. Each focuses on a different descendant of Asante woman, Maame. While this is the story of one Ghanaian-American family, it is also the story of the dark history of America.
Framed through important historical events, Gyasi’s novel blends the factual and the fictional cleverly, reminding us that individuals are inevitably bound to the social, political and economic circumstances in which they find themselves. The historical element of the novel, touching upon the Anglo-Asante wars, the American Civil War, and the US Civil Rights Movement, also allows Gyasi to quickly establish that each new chapter is a flash-forward in time.
Homegoing opens with Maame’s daughters Effia and Esi. Effia remains in Ghana, marrying British slave trader James Collins and raising a mixed-race son named Quey. Maame’s other daughter Esi is cruelly torn away from her family and sold into the transatlantic slave trade. The subsequent chapters relay the stories of their children, grandchildren and other descendants.
Gyasi herself was born in Ghana and grew up in Alabama. Her understanding of the African-American experience gives her characters more credibility. Through exploring these locations, Gyasi is also exploring her own origins.
The preoccupation with ancestry in the novel provokes us to think about our own ancestry. What we know and do not know about our family background. With only noblemen and gentry properly accounted for in the past, how many of us can track our families back three centuries? And for those who are the descendants of slaves, who were treated as property rather than people, it is almost impossible to trace family origins.
Gyasi relies on us becoming invested in following this family tree, as there is no central character for us to form an attachment to. However, we become invested in all their stories. Despite different social and political backgrounds, every character experiences moments of love, loss, despair and hope. Gyasi’s careful crafting of each individual means that we join the characters in experiencing these raw emotions which are so fundamental to the human experience, regardless of time or place.
While the novel is unusual in some ways, there are moments in Homegoing which seem hauntingly familiar. For example, Esi’s great-grandson H is imprisoned after being falsely accused of propositioning a white woman. When George Floyd was murdered at the hands of police officers in May 2020, it showed that this kind of systemic racism is still very much present in the twenty-first century. This harrowing moment of injustice in H’s story encourages us to consider how the US criminal justice system vilifies people for the colour of their skin, not just historically, but in the present day.
The novel offers a panoramic view of the family’s history. Marcus, the focus of the last chapter of the novel, has no knowledge whatsoever of his ancestor Esi and the struggles of his great-great-grandparents. Gyasi shows us how, although we may not realise it, we are all inextricably tangled with our own family past, affected by both our ancestors’ personal choices as well as the larger circumstances out of their control.
Significantly, Marcus’ PHD proposal encapsulates the purpose of Gyasi’s novel: “what he wanted to capture with his project was the feeling of time, of having been a part of something that stretched so far back, was so impossibly large, that it was easy to forget that she, and he, and everyone else, existed in it - not apart from it, but inside of it.”
While all of us must live our lives impacted by the unknown and irrevocable actions of our ancestors, many must also live with the implications of race, gender, class and sexuality in an unequal society. As Gyasi’s novel shows, black Americans must struggle against the historical impact of slavery and segregation as well as the lasting racism which is still prevalent in the US and around the world.
Despite being tragic in many places, Homegoing ultimately offers hope. Even in the most desperate circumstances, characters form bonds of love and friendship, which ultimately win out over hate and animosity. The final two descendants of Maame, Marjorie and Marcus, represent a new generation of Americans who are aware of the country’s disturbing history, but who search for the light in their past, rather than shunning its darkness.