Effia and Esi: two sisters with two very different destinies. One sold into slavery; one a slave trader’s wife. The consequences of their fate reverberate through the generations that follow: from the Gold Coast of Africa to the plantations of Mississippi; from the missionary schools of Ghana to the dive bars of Harlem. Spanning continents and generations, Yaa Gyasi has written a miraculous novel – an intense, heartbreaking story of one family and, through their lives, the story of America itself. [Goodreads]
Date finished: 23 June 2018
Publisher: Penguin Random House
“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.”
Homegoing is one of those books I’m going to force onto everyone I know. Then I’m going to make it my aim to find new friends just so that I can recommend this book to them.
Yaa Gyasi has constructed a haunting, heart-wrenching masterpiece of a novel that pulls the reader through three hundred years of traumatic history. Beginning in West Africa just before the formal beginnings of slave trade between the Asantes and the English, Gyasi traces the forking paths of two sisters: Effia the Beauty, who is married off to an Englishman living in the Cape Castle, and Esi Asare, who was seized in a raid and imprisoned in the women’s dungeon of the very same fort, awaiting shipment to America.
Alternating chapters trace the lineages of Esi, through the plantations of America, and Effia, on the West African coast. Though I expected this form to be jarring, instead it created a sense of fragility and disjointedness that perfectly fits the retelling of such a violent, horrific story. The memory of slavery is embedded in African and American consciousness, but this memory has been fragmented and erased by a literal legacy of trauma. And so I feel that Gyasi took a brave step in attempting to portray this history as is: broken, blurred, and infinitely painful.
At the center of each of these fragments is an intricately constructed character that proves in and of him-/herself just how deep the wounds of slavery and racism run, and how they are ripped open afresh in each new generation despite a world that has supposedly “moved on”. Each of these men and women face new challenges that can be traced all the way back to the Esi and Effia’s experiences, and in this Gyasi constructs a potent, unflinching portrayal of the legacy that slavery has left – both in Africa and in America.
In Homegoing, individual pain is revealed to be but one fly stuck and slowly dying in an intricate spider’s web of violent trauma. More than this, Gyasi exposes just how difficult it is to create a universal “African” identity out of thousands of deeply personal experiences, and by extension to attempt to ground a personal identity in such a tumultuous history. Gyasi’s voice rises, unrestricted and unafraid, through this all, and it is as powerful – if not more so – than the wailing chorus of her characters.