Homegoing, Yaa Gyasi: Book Review

A spellbinding, magnificent debut from Gyasi.

homegoing yaa gyasi book review
Homegoing Book Cover Homegoing
Yaa Gyasi
Adult Fiction, Historical Fiction, African American Literature
Knopf
June 7, 2016
Hardcover
305

The unforgettable New York Times best seller begins with the story of two half-sisters, separated by forces beyond their control: one sold into slavery, the other married to a British slaver. Written with tremendous sweep and power, Homegoing traces the generations of family who follow, as their destinies lead them through two continents and three hundred years of history, each life indeliably drawn, as the legacy of slavery is fully revealed in light of the present day.

Effia and Esi are born into different villages in eighteenth-century Ghana. Effia is married off to an Englishman and lives in comfort in the palatial rooms of Cape Coast Castle. Unbeknownst to Effia, her sister, Esi, is imprisoned beneath her in the castle’s dungeons, sold with thousands of others into the Gold Coast’s booming slave trade, and shipped off to America, where her children and grandchildren will be raised in slavery. One thread of Homegoing follows Effia’s descendants through centuries of warfare in Ghana, as the Fante and Asante nations wrestle with the slave trade and British colonization. The other thread follows Esi and her children into America. From the plantations of the South to the Civil War and the Great Migration, from the coal mines of Pratt City, Alabama, to the jazz clubs and dope houses of twentieth-century Harlem, right up through the present day, Homegoing makes history visceral, and captures, with singular and stunning immediacy, how the memory of captivity came to be inscribed in the soul of a nation.

This review contains quotes from the book

Yaa Gyasi‘s Homegoing is the best book breathing in 2016. I’ve never read a work of African-American literature as jaw-dropping as Gyasi’s debut. (But don’t take that the wrong way, I just really enjoyed this book!)

Where do I begin. For starters, I initially read this book back in July, but I couldn’t quite formulate an opinion that would do this book justice the way I wanted. I’ve always avoided slave and oppressed narratives because, to be honest, those accounts are just too damn depressing for me to revisit again and again. I’ve been reluctant to read anything after The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison since high school; I always considered it a painful meditation having to comb through the memories and horrific events my ancestors suffered at the hands of ignorance.

It often pained me, even more so, to learn about my history in middle school, about slavery and its brutality, and the constant reminder of “how things used to be back then.” It hurt. Gyasi certainly cuts no corners on the gruesome nature of slavery and racism in her tale, either; though she displays a massive amount of forgivable honesty.

The child had night terrors…she’d have scratches along her arms from where she’d fought invisible battles…Maybe Beulah was seeing something more clearly on the nights she had these dreams, a little black child fighting in her sleep against an opponent she couldn’t name come morning because in the light that opponent looked like the world around her. Intangible evil. Unspeakable unfairness.

Much like Jacqueline Woodson‘s Another Brooklyn and Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche‘s The Thing Around Your Neck,  Homegoing often said things I wasn’t quite ready to hear. Surprisingly, part of the magnetism of this book comes from Gyasi’s ability to ruffle feathers. Her stories hit a little too close to home; made noise in moments of silence; and surfaced all too fast for me. But what good is a book if it does move you in such a way?

While Gyasi has crafted a book of gold, you will find it difficult to keep the blood from rushing out of the pages inside of it. And why would you? Every page bleeds with wisdom, with knowledge and so much endearment it’s incredible.

At its core, Homegoing is a generational tale of two half-sisters, Effia and Esi, betrayed and spliced — by their own people no less — into two very different worlds of servitude: Effia, to a British slaver; Esi to thralldom. In this incipient divide, Homegoing flexes its wings for flight.

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Told interchangeably between Effia and Esi’s lives, we gradually learn who they were, who they became, the motive behind rather rash decisions and how these sisters eventually come to pass. But what’s perhaps most astonishing about the book are the countless stories told by their progeny.

With destinies as fraught with worry and danger as their parents, we move onward to the lives of the sisters’ offspring, which spans more than 300 years. Each story from the next kin in line sheds a sometimes-harsh but equally beautiful light on how the racial climates of a particular era influenced a new generation. Gyasi jolts us back in time to the tribal tensions between the Fante and Asante nations where everything begins, to the deep dark South, then the Great Migration, to the Harlem Renaissance, and eventually make our way to our final destination in present day America.

Here’s a taste of what Gyasi’s book has to offer:

The white man’s god is just like the white man. He thinks he is the only god, just like the white man thinks he is the only man. But the only reason he is god instead of Name or Chukwu or whoever is because we let him be. We do not fight him. We do not even question him. The white man told us he was the way, and we said yes, but when has the white man ever told us something was good for us and that thing was really good? They say you are an African witch, and so what? So what? Who told them what a witch was?

Each chapter opens another fresh wound that never quite patch themselves completely, but amazing sacrifices are made for the sake of the generation after them.

In a sense, Gyasi’s tales read much like the litany of stories we remember being told by our grandparents as children; though we never understood the stories themselves we learned to associate them with importance by the weighted voice of our elders. How in the hell does someone write something so biblical as Homegoing on their first go? I don’t know, but I feel all the more blessed to have picked up this book at the time I did.

Seven years in the making, Gyasi has mustered all of the insight, patience, and emotion of a well-seasoned author with Homegoing. How amazing a feeling it is to have read a book that brings a sense of peace and understanding about such a jarring topic as slavery.

This book is priceless and I will certainly cherish it forever.

Yaa Gyasi talks rigorous research and writing process behind Homegoing


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Written by Paris Close

Paris Close

Editor-in-chief at Paperback Paris. Saving myself for Andy Cohen. Give me Gillian Flynn, or give me death.