At 26 years old, Yaa Gyasi debuted on the literary scene with one of the most impressive releases of 2016. Homegoing is a multi-generational epic that covers such a large scope in only 300 pages that you’re left wondering how anyone could accomplish this marvelous feat of storytelling so brilliantly and concisely. But Yaa Gyasi did accomplish this feat and was rewarded handsomely for it with a seven figure advance. I’m thrilled to meet Gyasi the writer at this point in her very promising career. You can be certain I will be watching everything she does, as I am already anticipating her next novel!
Homegoing starts in the 18th century with the stories of two half-sisters, Effia and Esi, born into Fante and Asante tribal territory that would eventually become Ghana. Effia is married off to a British officer and leads a life of luxury at the Cape Coast Castle compared to her family and especially her half-sister Esi, whom she doesn’t know exists. Esi is sold into slavery and initially imprisoned in the cells of the very same castle in which Effia lives. Eventually, Esi is shipped off to America and is forced to start a new life in a foreign and hostile environment.
All of this happens in the first two chapters, each devoted to one of the sisters. These chapters merely set the framework for the rest of the sprawling narrative because Homegoing is not their story, nor is it their descendants’ individual stories. Rather, it is an ambitious account of how the legacy of slavery and colonialism can profoundly affect the course of one family’s history.
In every subsequent chapter we meet a descendant of Effia and Esi. We follow them through the generations, through major political and historical events, all the way to the turn of the 21st century. Each descendant gets about 20 pages to tell his or her part of this grand family saga. Initially, I held concerns that such brief sneak peaks into their lives would not allow me to care for and connect with these characters, but those fears were unfounded. Gyasi managed to make me care about every single one of these remarkable people during the short time I got to know them.
For the first few generations, it’s easy as a reader to connect with Effia and Esi’s children and grandchildren (who each get their own chapters), because the link to the sisters is solid and unbreakable. However, as the years, decades, and generations pass, family bonds loosen and eventually become nebulous. For Esi’s descendants in particular, their lives in America are so far removed from Esi’s experiences growing up in her village that their connection to Esi and their homeland is almost nonexistent. To me, this makes a lot of sense because many black Americans do not feel a strong and personal connection to Africa.
Following Esi’s descendants was especially rewarding because I never read a novel that covers such a large scope and tracks the legacy of slavery so explicitly. Starting with Esi being sold into slavery, we then follow her daughter, Ness, in colonial America, and subsequently her own son Kojo, and so forth with future descendants until we see an ambitious and intricately woven tapestry of slavery’s legacy. This kind of scope is necessary for all people to comprehend, especially for young people, because often we think that we are so far removed from those times that we forget how the past still influences the present.
Learning about how black men were arrested for practically nothing (this was after slavery ended) in order to be forced to work in coal mines to pay off their unjust sentence was infuriating. Slavery may have ended “officially” in 1865, but black Americans were not wholly free for another century. Homegoing makes this clear in the most honest and brutal way. This message is the one that most resonated with me, but there is so much more to like about Gyasi’s stunning novel. I’ll leave the rest for you to discover.
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I’m hosting a giveaway because I bought Homegoing the week of release and then was sent another copy by My Lit Box. Oops! I have since learned to buy new releases a month late to avoid any double dipping. Also, please consider subscribing to My Lit Box, you won’t regret it. Support small businesses and writers of color!
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Yaa Gyasi’s signature on an Alfred A. Knopf bookplate
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