Author: Yaa Gyasi
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf,
Price: $ 26.95 (Hardcover)
The author of this debut novel is Yaa Gyasi— pronounced “Jessie.”
Born in Ghana, Gyasi was brought by her parents to the United States at the age of two. After stops in Ohio, Illinois, and Tennessee, they settled in Huntsville, Alabama when she was ten, her father becoming a teacher of French at UAH. Gyasi is, then, an African immigrant, not an African-American, a difference which is brought out in the novel.
“Homegoing” was a work seven years in the making, begun as an undergraduate at Stanford University, continued while Gyasi was taking the MFA at Iowa, and beyond, and has made a spectacular entrance into the literary world, the subject of a bidding war among seven publishers ending in a million-dollar advance.
That is a lot of pressure, but “Homegoing” is a lot of book.
The action of this madly ambitious novel begins in Ghana, then called the Gold Coast, in the 1750s. The slave trade is flourishing, with the ferocious Asante tribe capturing prisoners in war, and those prisoners then being sold to the British or the Dutch traders by the businesslike middlemen, the Fante tribe.
Just as some slavery apologists have reiterated for ages, the Africans were in fact complicit in the slave trade. It could hardly have been done without them. But Gyasi is not out to assign blame. Her main point in this story is to illustrate, powerfully and sometimes disturbingly, the long-range, perhaps endless, effects of that original evil, on all parties.
We begin with two half-sisters, Effia and Esi. Effia’s father agrees to a generous “bride price” for his extraordinarily beautiful daughter, essentially selling her to James Collins, a powerful white British official. Away from England for years at a time, British men, imitating perhaps the native customs, often took native second wives, calling them “wenches,” even marrying in mock Church of England ceremonies. James and Effia live at British headquarters, called The Castle.
Esi, captured in a raid, is thrown into an unspeakable dungeon in the basement of The Castle, in hunger, filth, degradation of every kind, directly under the comfortable quarters of her sister, although neither is aware of this situation.
The novel then moves, in less than 300 pages, from the eighteenth century to the present, telling the stories of both women’s descendants for eight generations.
Esi is sold to cotton plantations in Mississippi and endures that particular hell: whipping, rape, children sold away, all of it. Her daughter, Ness, lives on a cotton plantation in Tuscumbia, Alabama.
This branch will flee using the Underground Railroad, make it to Baltimore, enjoy first freedom and then terror of recapture under the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, suffer as convict labor in the coal mines of Pratt City, Alabama, in the 1880’s and end up in Harlem, there to deal with prejudice, crowding, poverty, and finally the heroin epidemic of the 1960s.
The African chapters, which alternate, follow Effie’s descendants. In the early chapters we experience village life in West Africa—the tribal political arrangements, hierarchies, and military adventures.
We learn of the foods, the domestic arrangements—each wife gets her own hut—
the ceremonies and rituals for first menstruation, marriage, feast days.
This branch of the family will endure failed crops, tribal warfare, colonialism, demented missionaries, war against the British, and will 2finally experience independence.
Any advantage some enjoy in the early years as a result of being half-caste is more than negated by a feeling of belonging nowhere, not knowing who you are, not British, surely, but not entirely African either.
In the middle of the twentieth century, Effia’s descendant Marjorie will immigrate to Huntsville as a teen. Marjorie has a British accent, having learned her English in Ghana, and she is ostracized by her black classmates for talking like a white person, for not being properly, culturally, black.
This is a huge novel, not encompassed in any book review. Gyasi created for herself then dealt with many problems. Perhaps there are too many story lines, too many settings to describe in too many eras, characters perhaps not fully enough developed. But her goal was to show the impact of slavery on two continents over many generations, and there is no denying the emotional impact, the exceptional power of this work.
Don Noble is host of the Alabama Public Television literary interview show “Bookmark with Don Noble.” A shorter form of this review was originally broadcast on Alabama Public Radio.