At one point in Yaa Gyasi’s epic novel, perhaps towards the end, I arrived at two thoughts. The first was that this artful novel won’t take long to have itself registered as a classic. The second thought came as a question: who will read Homegoing and not believe Yaa Gyasi is a gifted storyteller?
Esi, one of the unforgettable characters in Homegoing proclaims in the early pages of the novel, “you are a fine storyteller”, and somehow her expression, like a surefire, endures through the remaining pages. Esi’s words, as it stands, reveal the appreciative portrait of the novel, the overall deftness of Gyasi.
Yaa Gyasi writes with strings of rhythms beneath calculated simplicity. Homegoing is the kind of story that fits all taste, style, time and age without sounding weighty or rushed. Everything just seems right, sublime and captivating. Homegoing captures that “feeling of time, of having been a part of 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 of it”.
Each chapter is from the perspective of a new character. Homegoing spans centuries and continents that encapsulate 300 hundred years of human history. This debut follows two families, Efia Otcher’s and Esi Asare’s, two half-sisters unaware of each other’s existence, one from the Fante tribe and the other from the Asante tribe, in the British colony that is now Ghana. Gyasi goes further to trace these sisters’ bloodlines for six more generations in a spellbinding fourteen interconnected narratives.
Homegoing, like every good story, depicts what great literature can do. It brings us closer to slavery through the lens of history. It allows us to take a journey, a glimpse into the fluctuating shadows of the past. It teaches us the importance of truth, knowing, and forgetting. It tells us to remember the unsung lives that lived in the shackles of freedom.
There is room to embrace diasporic navigations in Homegoing, linking two spaces: home and abroad. Homegoing reminds us of the past through the present, knowing that the past, in itself, once had the power of the now and still possesses the ability to shape the future. In Homegoing, Yaw, a character described as “a fearsome man with a scar covering one whole side of his face”, gives us a newer approach to history through these memorable sentences: “We believe the one who has the power. He is the one who gets to write the story. So when you study history, you must always ask yourself, Whose story am I missing? Whose voice was suppressed so that this voice could come forth? Once you have figured that out, you must find that story too. From there, you begin to get a clearer, yet still imperfect, picture”. This picture, in the words of John Hope Franklin (in his NYT article, Rediscovering Black America) provides “a sense of balance”.
The novel explores historical moments and sociopolitical ideas from the civil war down to the end of slavery, the great migration and modern civil rights. Through generations that begin in mid-eighteenth century, Homegoing addresses the unhealed scars of slavery. In Ness, like other characters, cruelty is bested dismally by burdens that hide stories. Ness represents the nativity of shouldered provocation and anger. Ness, like her mother Esi, shows slavery as a deep scar into the mind, through memories lasting generations. She represents the history that failed to be reduced into fading memories.
“Each night, in retribution for his still-black tongue, the Devil sends him back to their marriage bed with lashes that are reopened as soon as they heal.” Those words convey the experiences of Sam, Ness’ husband, whose ancestors were Yorubas. And we have a place where Ness is “beaten until the whip snaps off her back like pulled taffy, and then she is kicked to the ground.” Both Ness and Sam, knowing that endurance is a choice without an option, respond to its creed, unbroken to love, and “in a month, once the wounds on both of their backs have hardened to scars, they finally consummate their marriage.”
Sadly, the marriage they consummate defies the completeness of relief. Instead, it is a pain borne out of pain: “He runs his hands along her scabby back, and she does the same along his, and as they work together, clutching each other, some scars reopen. They are both bleeding now, both bride and bridegroom, in this unholy holy union. Breath leaves his mouth and enters hers, and they lie together until the roosters crow, until it’s time to return to the fields.” Gyasi, through exquisite finesse as a great weaver of tales, infuses humanity, fear, pain, love, torture, sameness, difference and heart in this engaging novel.
It is easy to deduce from the writing style that Yaa Gyasi had no intention to delight or please, but it checks both quite impressively. It is right to use the word ‘masterful’ together with ‘masterpiece’ to praise this novel without seeming ambiguous. Cap it with ‘epic’ and you have something that sounds like “epic, masterful masterpiece.”
Like William Finnegan’s Barbarian Days, Dwight Garner will agree that “there isn’t a line the most mischievous critic could single out for ridicule” in Homegoing. This book is easy to read for the best reasons: everything about it is simple and important and exciting. Homegoing dazzlingly sits among great literary classics like Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, John Steinbeck’s The Grape of Wrath and Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities.
This masterpiece is an impressive delight sure to establish Yaa Gyasi as one of the literary A-listers. Countless times, beautiful expressions jump at you from the page: “They would just trade one type of shackles for another, trade physical ones that wrapped around wrists and ankles for the invisible ones that wrapped around the mind”. On such occasions, I let out a long whew. My breath stops for the love of stunning sentences. An astonishing debut as this appears to you as perfect even when nothing is ever flawless.
Basit Jamiu. Writer. Critic. Reader. @IamBasitt on twitter.