Friday, October 7, 2016

Historical Fiction: Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

I have been waiting for the better part of 2016 for Yaa Gyasi's Homegoing to become available. Ever on a quest to read more books by black authors, I immediately put it on my list and gave it a spot on this blog when I discovered its synopsis on Goodreads. I know there are others out there who desire to read more books by writers of color, and I am glad to aid in the search and discovery.

The Situation: In 18th century Ghana, two half-sisters are growing up to lead very different lives, and for the most part are ignorant of each other. Effia will end up leaving her village to be married to a British slaver. Because the woman she knows as her mother is incredibly envious of her beauty, she plots to be rid of her forever. This plot may ultimately land her in a castle, but the building has a sinister purpose, and what happens underneath it has a terrible effect on many of Effia's own people. Her half-sister Esi will end up being one of them. Starting with them, Homegoing tells the story of both sides, switching back and forth between Effia's line and Esi's. One will remain in Ghana, and the other will end up in America.

The Problem: While Effia's line may not be forced to endure the slavery that we as Americans are familiar with, they still have to endure the presence of the British, even after England has stopped trading slaves. The British still desire the land, and they stand to benefit from the different tribes fighting and killing each other. And if that weren't enough, the women in Effia's line must deal with the expectations of marriage and child-bearing, while the men must prove themselves to be strong and work hard so as to not shame their family. It will take several generations for Esi's family to finally escape slavery in America, only to have to endure segregation and Jim Crow. And even after that, the troubles just don't immediately end. Both sides have to fight both for and against where they came from, and where they seem to be going.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a historical fiction novel that begins in 18th century Ghana and ends up more or less in modern day America, while ultimately going back to Africa as well. Two different stories are told using several different narrators. Effia and Esi both have the same mother, from whom the reader hears very little. Form there, the book travels through six generations before ending up in the present day, switching between the two family lines as it moves forward. Many of them have brothers and sisters, but the story remains focused on one specifically before moving on to one of their children. On Effia's side is an inherent fear of fire, a fear that proves to be validated in one particular story. On Esi's side there is the fear of water, which is also validated, but more because of the long journey slaves had to take on boat from Africa to America. By having the two different stories, Gyasi explores both sides of the potential story: what could have happened by remaining in Africa, and what could have happened by being forced into slavery in a foreign land. None of the stories, on either side, are completely ideal, but many of the people that are focused on do end up happy, while others remain miserable for one reason or another. 

My Verdict: What amazes me most about this book is that it barely hits the 300 pages mark, and yet there is so much in it. With fourteen total stories, each one incredibly rich in its own way, there is a lot in these pages, and perhaps what makes it so unbelievably short is that Gyasi doesn't waste words or use any filler. Every paragraph and piece of dialogue has a point and adds to the story. And yet, somehow, this book is still an easy read, despite being so rich. Another thing that amazes me is that even while dealing with the difficult subjects of the slave trade, segregation, Jim Crow, and institutionalized racism, the book was never hard or difficult to read. I was never anxious about picking it up again, or got bored because I felt like I had read about this stuff before. Somehow, Gyasi took a subject almost all of us are all too familiar with and didn't make it boring or repetitive.

Favorite Moment: When Marcus, the last story in Esi's line, looks at a piece of artwork and admits to doing the requisite pondering head-tilt whenever another viewer comes near.

Favorite Character: A muscular man known only as H from Esi's line, is 13 years-old when the slaves are emancipated, but ends up a victim of the convict leasing system. A big and scary man with the strength to do some damage, he ultimately ends up a family man and head of his worker's union. For me he represented somewhat of a turning point in Esi's line.

Recommended Reading: There are other books written by black authors that tell the story from the points of view of different family members, but Homegoing is the first one I have read that does it moving from generation to generation. The Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis tells the story of different siblings all from the same family, as does The Turner House by Angela Flournoy.

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