Homegoing: Where is home?

HomegoingIt’s eighteenth century Ghana, and Effia and Esi are half-sisters separated by mere circumstance. Effia is married off to a British slaver, living lavishly at Cape Coast Castle, while her sister Esi miserably and unknowingly is in the Castle bowels below. There, she awaits a slave ship bound for America. What transpires is a journey told through their descendants across 300 years and two continents. Hailed by Pulitzer Prize Winner Ta-Nehisi Coates as “an inspiration,” Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing may be the must-read book of the year.

 Jennifer: Well, that intro begs the big question. Is this the must-read book of the year? I’m going to tentatively say, “Probably.” I haven’t read widely enough. (And we’ve just decided to close out the year with Commonwealth by Ann Patchett and The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead.) What are the other “heirs apparent” for must-reads? And, more importantly, what makes any book—specifically this one—a contender?

Lara: I will go further and say it should be required reading. Gyasi has written a masterpiece about those not in power that celebrates the importance of storytelling and questioning history. One of my favorite characters in the book is Yaw, a fifty-something history teacher, who was violently scarred in a fire started by his mother. Yaw believes that history is storytelling and he uses his facial scar as a lesson, asking his students if one of them would like to tell the story of how he got his scar. The students hesitate and then begin sharing many of the rumors about Yaw’s scar.

“Who’s story is correct?” Yaw asked them.

Peter raised his hand… “We cannot know which story is correct because we were not there.”

“This is the problem of history. We cannot know that which we were not there to see and experience for ourselves. We must rely on the words of others… But now we come upon the problem of conflicting stories… Whose story do we believe then?
The boys were silent. They stared at him, waiting.

“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.”

I believe Homegoing is that story. The story—actually one of many—that has long been suppressed.

Jennifer: I agree. The book is a treasure. Yes, a must-read. Historically, the book is so very important—and I think we might really celebrate the still-small-but-nonetheless-present “blooming,” if you will, of these slave narratives (if blooming can even be used in this context)—from Twelve Years A Slave and “Roots” to this book and Whitehead’s. This book is history, and it’s a history from which we’ve yet to heal. It’s literary value, though, is tremendous. Gyasi’s use of this overarching metaphor of home (where is home? What is homecoming and homegoing?) quietly and subtly moves the book forward. In an amazing feat, Gyasi will pick up a story of one character and carry it for some twenty pages, only to drop it and pick up another character’s story. Normally, I think, this would have a jolting effect. The reader would be unhappy, dissatisfied. But Gyasi fully succeeds! Each story is great! Gyasi accomplishes resolution in the midst of brokenness.

Lara: It’s really an accomplishment. There’s not a central character, but each character has a compelling story that propels all of their stories forward. And by compelling, I often mean horrific. Going back to the beginning, we learn about Esi and her capture into slavery by other Africans. As she’s awaiting transport to the U.S., her living conditions are deplorable.

“Now the waste on the dungeon floor was up to Esi’s ankles. There had never been so many women in the dungeon before. Esi could hardly breathe, but she moved her shoulder this way and that until she had created some space. The woman beside her had not stopped leaking waste since the last time the soldiers fed them. Esi remembered her first day in the dungeon, when the same thing had been true of her.”

It’s unimaginable that anyone would experience this, but to know this girl is fourteen is heartbreaking. And Effia is upstairs, forcibly married to a slave trader. She’s a child bride.

Homegoing is fiction; however, it should be noted that this slave castle, along Africa’s Gold Coast really existed. These horrific stories happened to real people.

Jennifer: But the book is entirely literary, so it’s historical literary fiction, as opposed to historical genre fiction. I think the two huge victories are its historical significance and its narrative continuity—but the writing is great. With every character—without exception—I was sucked in.

Consider Jo’s story:

“Jo only knew the South from the stories Ma Aku told him, same way he knew his mother and father, Ness and Sam. As stories and nothing more. He didn’t miss what he didn’t know, what he couldn’t feel in his hands or his heart. Baltimore was tangible. It wasn’t endless crops and whippings. It was the port, the ironworks, the railroads. It was the pigs’ feet Kojo was eating, the smiles of his seven children with number eight on the way. It was Anna, who’d married him when she was just sixteen and he nineteen, and had worked every day of the nineteen years since.”

Great writing. The significance of story. The way each piece makes its story tangible.

We move from Africa to the South. We see Harlem. We end with the children of children, coming to terms with history.

Is the end “happy”?

Lara: I am not sure happy is the way to describe the ending. I don’t know if you can have “happy” with the history we have just experienced with eight generations. I am left mesmerized by the strength and perseverance of Effia and Esi’s families through racism and oppression. I am saddened that these are stories we still have to tell. But we must. For the record, we didn’t even scratch the surface here. These are tales I will come back to and read again, for sure.

Jennifer: Well, it’s really my old song-and-dance on the redemptive end. “Happy” is too simplistic. There is resolution. I’m not going to give it away, though there is no great big historical secret. Rather, there’s this historical unraveling. Then, there’s a closing, in which a character who is afraid of water rushes into the water and laughs. This is big and symbolic. And this water is significant; it’s the water that lapped up against the Cape Gold Coast and from which slave ships set sail; it’s the water that haunted the woman who set fire to her own home, killing her child.

So, happiness may not be an end result. Reconciliation might be.

Lara: Reconciliation, yes. And resilience. This book is important again, because it tells a different story. A story many of us have not heard. It’s the other story. The one we have to seek out and listen to and share.

Jennifer: This resilience is worth noting. Great literature makes stories tangible, to use that word again. Suffering often leads to virtue. The way individuals survive and thrive, even if it’s later, through children, is breathtaking. I really admire the scope of this novel, the courage of it. I think Gyasi did this dazzling job in breaking our hearts with single narratives. For me, especially, the disappearance of Jo’s wife (Anna), and the rape and abandonment of Willie were killer. But here are people who get back on their feet and live. Gyasi does not destroy her characters. She honesty engages with reality. She makes beauty of the very ugly.

Lara: I totally agree with you. Their ability to survive is remarkable. And humans can survive. We can do hard things. Gyasi’s characters do the hardest things—the things no one should have to ever do. And yet, they endure.

Jennifer: By the way, Yaa Gyasi is twenty-six and this is her debut.

Lara: Gayasi is one to watch; and I am definitely looking forward to her next book.

Next Up!

One of Snotty Literati’s favorite authors, Ann Patchett, just released Commonwealth… So, Of course we are reading it next.

See you next month!


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Want to read more from Jennifer? Check her out at www.jenniferspiegel.com 

Want to see what Lara is up to? Go to www.onelitchick.com

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