Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi – Book Review

Homegoing is a novel spanning two centuries and following two lines of a family starting with two sisters; one married off to an English slave trader, and one shipped to America as a slave. Both lines are shaped by the slave trade and we follow the descendants to the present day. We touch upon each person’s story for a brief time, each one heartbreaking and painful but each one unique.

What Gyasi manages to achieve in this incredible novel is to take the slave trade out of the history books, and away from statistics and brings it closer to the present day. Gyasi manages to break free from the trap of terrible historical events being a list of statistics and facts and actually brings a voice to a number of stories. This isn’t another tale that makes you feel as if slavery is something that happened a long time ago,  not part of living memory and no longer relevant.  The story of the slave transported from Ghana to work the cotton fields in America is not the only tale to be told, but Gyasi shows us, brutally and honestly, how the legacy of the slave trade is carried through generations of African-Americans, who feel the effects, pain and anger today.

So when you study history you must ask yourself, Whose story am I missing?, Whose voice was suppressed so that this voice could come forth? – Homegoing, Gyasi

We see how each member of the family is affected and touched by it, a legacy that is very difficult to escape. Nothing I have ever read or learnt about the slave trade has affected me quite so much, made me so angry and upset.

This is the problem of history. We cannot know that which we were not there to see and hear and experience for ourselves. We must rely upon the words of others. Those who were there in the olden days, they told stories to the children so that the children would know, so that the children could tell stories to their children. And so on, and so on. – Homegoing, Gyasi

Another powerful thing that Gyasi achieves with this novel is illustrating how difficult identity is for anyone whose heritage or ethnicity can be traced back to somewhere other than where they live and come of age. There are constant conflicts – when one character, Willie, goes to church she  recalls her father complaining that they’re only praying to the white man’s god or when  another, Marjorie, who emigrated  from Ghana with her parents in the 20th century doesn’t fit in with the African-American girls at school because her culture isn’t ‘black’ the way their culture is. This is a fascinating insight which is goes to show how culture and identity is so fixed to place and quickly develops of its own accord – the girls at school share the same heritage as Marjorie, they all hail from West Africa, yet their cultures have little in common. Gyasi has spoken in an interview how this echoes her own experiences (https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/jan/08/yaa-gyasi-slavery-is-on-peoples-minds-it-affects-us-still-interview-homegoing-observer-new-review) having been born in Ghana but raised in Alabama.

I also learnt a lot of new facts, for example how some of the white slave traders living and working in Africa would take African women as wives, even start families with them. Or how different tribes, those more developed or powerful would trade with the Europeans in order to sell  fellow countrymen from different tribes in exchange for money or goods. This novel was as much educational as it was emotional. I would put it on school curriculums for anyone learning about the slave trade. Gyasi’s writing is incredibly powerful, and this is one of the best books I have read this year. I think it will haunt me for quite some time.

How could he explain to Marjorie that what he wanted to capture with his project was the feeling of time, of having been a part 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 it. – Homegoing, Gyasi

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