Another highlight of my summer reads, Homegoing, the debut novel by Ghanaian-American author Yaa Gyasi. Set in 18th century Ghana, when it was known as the Gold Coast, the novel begins with the story of two half sisters who are unaware of one another. One, Effia marries an Englishman, a slave trader and lives in the luxury of the Castle at Cape Coast, while her half-sister Esi, after being captured in a raid on her village, is imprisoned in the Castle dungeons before being sold into slavery in America.
What follows is a journey through two branches of a family tree looking at the parallel lives of eight generations of Effia and Esi’s descendants, illuminating the troubled points of history in the Gold Coast through inter-tribal wars to eventual independence from colonial rule, and the plantations of Mississippi through the American Civil War and Jazz Age Harlem to present day. Homegoing, presents the painfully entwined histories of those taken and those who remained behind.
I very much enjoyed this novel and was especially captivated the parts set in Ghana, because it not only did it depict Ghanaian culture with its rich and proud history, languages and proverbs, it also confronted and explored the involvement of Ghanaians with the trade of their own people to the British.
When slavery is written about, it generally conjures images of white slave masters, cotton plantations, the Middle Passage, murder, rape and other inhumane cruelties. But rarely, is the fact that Africans had been complicit with the slave trade written about, except in certain circles were it’s used as an excuse to defend or dilute the horrors of slavery as well as justify it. Homegoing, offers no such option, rather it explores, rather powerfully, how the legacy of slavery affects both the slaver and the slave and, ultimately, us all.
I think for me where the novel falls down, but only slightly, is in the chapters set in America, following Esi’s descandants as they pass through slavery, the Civil War to present day. I think this was because it just felt like a well trodden path. I was reminded in some parts of Solomon Northrup’s autobiography Twelve Years A Slave and Toni Morrison novels. I don’t know if this was conscious thing on Gyasi’s part or perhaps just a sense of familiarity around the stories and themes explored. However, this didn’t detract from the overall novel but I think that’s probably where I may have started to lose my initial fervour in reading.
But in dipping in the middle, the novel certainly picks up in the latter chapters, as we return to where we began in Ghana, as the novel and Effia and Esi’s descendants come full circle. In a poignant reminder of the Adinkra symbol sankofa, which literally means ‘go back and get it’, I think the novel as a whole symbolises how we need to go back and take what is good from the past and bring it to the present in order to go forward and progress. On the whole, a rich and powerful debut that will leave you thinking long after you’ve finished the last page.
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