JUNE 11, 2016
A PAIR OF HALF-SISTERS live in a castle in colonial Ghana, on the coast of West Africa: one, in the stately rooms of the castle itself, the other, held captive in the dungeons below, ready to be sold into slavery. Each sister is unaware of the other, and that their fates will be as different as their present. Yaa Gyasi’s debut novel Homegoing weaves a spectacular epic, tracing the progeny of these two sisters along the Gold Coast of Africa, into the slave plantations of the American South, all the way up into the present day. Though Effia and Esi never know of the other’s existence, they and their descendants become deeply embroiled in the colonial slave trade, and Gyasi traces the direct impact of slavery and colonialism on these two divergent families from the 18th century onward through vignettes of each of Effia and Esi’s successive generations. Gyasi’s novel gives voice to some of the voiceless multitudes, what Toni Morrison once noted in her dedication of Beloved as the “60 million and more” men, women, and children who perished under slavery’s terrible crux. This “more,” as Gyasi’s novel endeavors to find, are the many generations afflicted by the reverberations of slavery.
Gyasi begins with an exploration into the deep complexity of the slave trade along the West African coast in the 1700s, bringing nuance to something that can be literally reduced to black and white: the capture and sale of human beings. The Akan-speaking Asante and Fante peoples served as captors and slavers for the many European powers, selling rival tribe members to the highest bidder. James, Effia’s grandson and a descendant of local royalty and a British slaver, cannot escape his own and his people’s culpability in this act: “Traders would bring in their captives […] then sell them to the British or the Dutch or whoever was paying the most at the time. Everyone was responsible. We all were […] we all are.” The strength of Gyasi’s novel lies in the complexity and the profundity of these moments of reflection, which gain momentum in each iteration, with each new generation. The things lost and gained by each successive generation evolve into the richness and the deep deficits of the characters. Take, for instance, the Twi word for “white man,” which is “obroni.” A local shaman describes to one of Effia’s scions: “It did not begin as obroni. It began as two words. Abro ni.” Abro ni, we learn, was a phrase that originally meant “wicked man.” The past, for Gyasi’s characters and culture, becomes a compounding and inescapable force, one that echoes powerfully in their daily realities.
With its broad scope of family, place, and history’s ambition, Homegoing bears resemblance to Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude: Gyasi gives voice not just to a single person or moment, but to a resonant chorus of eight generations of a family, an ensemble that is at once singular and fluid. The story’s desire to reset and recapture a narrative lost in the Middle Passage is palpable, and in many ways the heart of Gyasi’s work is in this reconstruction, an effective — if fictionalized — cultural history. Gyasi’s authorial imperative is to explore the roots of the institution of slavery and restore Akan culture as part of that history. She draws on traditions and culture from the many eras and environments she depicts: traditional folk tales such as Anansi the Spider, gospel songs from the American South, jazz and poetry from the Harlem Renaissance. She is also highly attentive to the debt and legacy of African-American writers throughout her historical reconstruction, paying homage to James Baldwin’s Sonny’s Blues, Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, and Charles Johnson’s Middle Passage, just to name a few.
Gyasi’s work rises to a full-throated roar in its description of the brutality of the slave trade. The rape, dehumanization, abuse, and torture is traced with a blood-red line throughout the novel’s many generations. Ness absorbs the legacy of her mother’s trauma through her stories, her many accounts of the horrors of the Middle Passage and a life in slavery.
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. Esi said, in the Big Boat, they were stacked ten high, and when a man died on top of you his weight would press the pile like cooks pressing garlic.
Ness herself was born into slavery on a Southern plantation, where her trauma is scorched into the scars and lacerations on her skin. Ness’s skin is “like another body in and of itself […] no longer skin, really, more like the ghost of her past made seeable, physical.”
While these characters — from slaves to sharecroppers to prison laborers to blue-collar workers — were unable to pass down physical keepsakes, oral traditions, or often even their names, the things that remain constant, from father to son or mother to daughter, is the heritage of trauma. After the Fugitive Slave Act passes, an escaped slave impersonates a scrutinizing policeman when he has his children practice showing him their papers as free blacks. This lesson is simple self-defense of a kind still taught to black youth today, through warnings about interacting with police or policies like Stop and Frisk.
The perpetual pain, theft, enslavement, and brutality often leaves characters asking: Where does this hurt come from? Who can I blame for this weight I carry on my shoulders? One of the last descendants of Esi, the woman originally enslaved in colonial-era Ghana, is Marcus Clifton, a PhD student at Stanford in sociology; his thesis involves trying to find the root of his trauma. He at first thinks it starts with his great-grandfather’s forced labor and imprisonment in the South, or perhaps his grandfather’s part in the Great Migration away from the Jim Crow South, or perhaps to his father’s addiction to heroin in Harlem or the corresponding war on drugs in response to the crack epidemic, and the resulting mass incarceration of black men, many of whom he had known growing up. The inscrutable complexity of it all leads Marcus to infuriatingly inconclusive dead ends.
Gyasi’s prose is functional and spare — the beauty of her story rests in the depth of these characters and their many crises of consciousness under the compounding weight of history and suffering. Carson “Sonny” Clifton is a child of the Great Migration who finds himself overwhelmed by a heroin addiction in the depths of Harlem. He loses his job and his apartment and falls in with a crooner and fellow addict named Amani. Hard up for money, he goes to have dinner with his mother, his last hit of heroin hiding in his shoe for reassurance. The meal turns contentious as he yells as his mother that she “ain’t never fought for nothing.” She calmly reaches out to him:
[His mother] put her hand on his shoulder, and squeezed hard until he had to look in her eyes. “That ain’t true, Carson. I fought for you.”
He returned his eyes to the two pieces of the chicken bone on his plate. He toed the bag in his shoe.
There is so much left unsaid: depths of shame and pain and trauma and addiction, the dichotomy in Sonny’s choices between whether to fight or submit to his addiction. In a single sentence, 200 pages of preparation finds its payoff.
Books from African authors who write for a Western audience can sometimes edge into the territory of didactic, moral tales of the perils of zealotry or the terrors of old ways. From the start, you can feel Gyasi surge against simplification, and the scope of her story belies the vast depth of her ambition; yet, in detailing 300 years of history, there are necessary sacrifices. Homegoing is structured as a series of vignettes, spanning the Atlantic as they alternate between Esi and Effia’s extended families. Though linked by the bonds of family and legacy, the disconnected nature of vignettes leaves large gaps and swaths of these characters’ lives unchronicled. Otherwise, one imagines such a story ballooning well beyond a thousand pages. Yet the narrative ellipsis at times compels the novel’s momentum to rely on the implied strength of this family tree. The reader’s relationship with each successive wave of characters is quite brief before they are ushered out, often for good, leaving little room for character growth or a reader’s investment. The true development and nuance of the story is in this amorphous family tree, and as a result, the novel’s pure sustaining interest for a reader is tenuous, at best.
Homegoing comes together in a heartfelt conclusion with the stories of the most recent descendants of Esi and Effia: Marcus and Marjorie. Gyasi reveals a remarkable revelation that has been simmering in the background all along, one of two divergent families, with one based in a legacy of fire and the other a legacy of water. Fire, Effia’s legacy, is the destructive force of colonialism that charred and burned and scarred the Akan people. Water, Esi’s legacy, is the all-surrounding, suffocating totality of slavery and the vast, deadly Atlantic Ocean during the Middle Passage. At first, these forces are in contention: fire and water, Ghana and America, slaver and enslaved. It is only through time and struggle and the love of family that Gyasi is finally able to bring the descendants of Effia and Esi back together again. Marjorie and Marcus, as friends visiting a sandy Ghanaian beach, in their ownership of their impending futures and distant pasts, forge a peace that has been 300 years in the making.