Author: Yaa Gyasi
Publisher/publication date: Alfred A. Knopf/2016
Pages: 310 pages(my copy)
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 thousand s 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 grandchildren 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 a captivity came to be inscribed in the soul of a nation.
Can I request that you go back to read the blurb again. Patiently this time. Word for word, in case you sped through. Thank you.
Homegoing is a heartrending read. It follows two sisters separated at birth and explores if either of them ever had much hope as the white man breathed down their necks. Each alternating chapter traces the two generations through the evolvement of slave trade and there is an aching cry for the enslaved and those involved in selling their own brothers to the white man. Each chapter reads like a short story of people whose lives are scarred by the actions of other humans like themselves. Its haunting because just when you get drawn into the characters and empathise with their plight, the story for that person’s generation just ceases.
In short, it traces the legacy of slave trade in people’s every day lives and is a perspective of racial history. Life during the tribal wars in 1700, the transatlantic slave trade, the effect or lack of effect of the fugitive slave act, and how oppression of the blacks by the white shifted from that of the body to that of the mind.
We read of the way a people’s mother tongue was whipped out of their mouths; five lashes for every one word of Twi their children would unwittingly speak. We’re enraged at how humans are shackled to owners by a piece of paper so declaring them; people who in their own rights, should have mattered.
”you want to know what weakness is? Weakness is treating someone as though they belong to you. Strength is knowing that everyone belongs to themselves”
”but for the rest of her life Esi would see a smile on a white face and remember the one the soldier gave her before taking her to his quarters, how white men smiling just meant more evil was coming with the next wave”
I don’t know if a reader can read this and justify certain actions ever again in their lives.
For me, Esi’s story was particularly haunting as she saw part of the undoing of her own people by her hands, and didn’t know it for what it was, until it was completed.
Yaa Gyasi has this as her debut novel and I say its worthy of praise. Effort is clearly put in (I saw a quote where Gyasi said she wrote the most part of the book in a dark and dingy room in her house, giving off a dungeon vibe).Her language is the envy of other writers, and her story-telling skills seamless.
There is a family tree at the start of the book which is very important for when the reader begins to get winded keeping up with who’s who from each generation.
Some people lament at the way each character’s story ends just when the reader starts to fall in love. I suppose that this is a way of stating the obvious; evil would not give closure. Mothers are separated from their children, lovers are killed or sold and the reader wants closure?
For those who have read this book, these characters remain my favourite: Esi, Ness, Kojo, Majorie.
It’ll help if you already know one or two things about the American civil war, slave trade, racism. If you don’t, I suppose this book can be a background for further learning. I recommend this book for the preservation of history. I rate the book 4.5 stars out of 5.
”It was one thing to research something, another thing entirely to have lived it.”
”When he was younger, his father told him that black people didn’t like water because they were brought over on slave ships. What did a black man want to swim for? The ocean floor was already littered with black men”
”Esi stared at her mother then, and it was as though she were seeing her for the first time. maame was not a whole woman. There were large swaths of her spirit missing, and no matter how much Esi loved her, they both knew in that moment that love could never return what maame had lost. And Esi knew too that her mother would die rather than run into the woods ever again, die before capture, die even if it meant in her dying that Esi would inherit that unspeakable sense of loss, learn what it meant to be un-whole”
”Ness would fall asleep to the images of men being thrown into the Atlantic ocean like anchors attached to nothing: no land, no people, no worth”
“The mud wall of the dungeon made all time equal. There was no sunlight. Darkness was day and night and everything in between. Sometimes there were so many bodies stacked into the women dungeon that they all had to lie, stomach down, so that women could be stacked on top of them”
” ‘don’t matter if you was or wasn’t. all they gotta do is say you was. That’s all they gotta do. You think cuz you all muscled up, you safe? Naw, dem white folks can’t stand the sight of you. Walkin’ round free as can be. Don’t nobody want to see a black man look like you walkin’ round proud as a peacock. Like you ain’t got a lick of fear in you… I’ma tell you, war may be over but it ain’t ended’
‘you have to understand, H. the day you called me another woman’s name, I thought ain’t I been through enough? Ain’t just about everything I ever had been taken away from me? My freedom. My family. My body. And now I cant even own my name? aint I deserve to be Ethe, to you at least if nobody else? My mama gave me that name herself. I spent six good years with her before they sold me to Louisiana to work them sugarcanes. All I had of her then was my name. that was all I had of myself too. And you wouldn’t even give me that’.”
”She wanted to explain that at home they had a different word for African-Americans, akata. The akata people were different from Ghanaians, too long gone from the mother continent to continue to call it the mother continent. She wanted to tell Mrs.Pinkston that she could feel herself being pulled away too, almost akata, too long gone from Ghana to be called a Ghanaian. But the look on Mrs. Pinkston’s face stopped her from explaining herself at all.”
So people, what do you think? Read this? Interested in doing so? Or do you have a comment about the slave trade? Or you just want to say hello? Comment people. Thank you!