Author: Yaa Gyasi
Publisher: Penguin Random House
Publication date: June 2016
No. of pages: 320
Reviewer: Favour Ozoemena
SLAVERY is an open wound, one that will never heal. The stunning debut novel of Yaa Gyasi “Homegoing” confronts us with the involvement of Africans in the enslavement of their own people.
One of the peculiar aspects of slavery is how much we know and how much we deliberately forget. The story begins in Fanteland with a fire that ushers the birth of Effia, half-sister of Esi. Due to the dramatic nature of her birth, she was known as the child that came with the fire, although they had no idea how close to the truth they were.
In the early 1700s the white men traded with the locals. The locals got iron and millet from the white men while offering up more sensitive goods; human beings. Effia was manipulated by Baaba into marrying a white man – Governor James Collins – for reasons known to her alone, and that was another type of enslavement. Governor James Collins with his own family back in England was no different from his colleagues who started new families in the Cape Coast Castle with young girls from the Fanteland. Effia lived in the “castle” with her new husband and feigned oblivion of the dungeon just a few feet beneath her new home. On the flip side of things, Esi, her half-sister was captured by slave traders and thrown into that same dungeon as was the custom with slaves. Slaves awaited transport to the New World in the fetid, macabre dungeons under the Cape Coast Castle.
Gyasi used a narrative structure in which Effia and Esi’s stories are told separately which is no easy feat to accomplish for a first timer on the scene of writing. Chapter by chapter, the book moves back and forth between Esi and Effia and their respective continents jumping ahead a generation each time. Each chapter is from the point of view of one character and as the chapters move without skipping generations, each protagonist is the child of one we have formerly met. It is a devastating story. In “Homegoing” you have a group of people who not only were ripped from the land they come from but from each other in permanent ways. Although most of the characters in the book are black, the whites who populate this world are equally capable of kindness, nobility, savagery and weakness.
The chapters set in America are no less moving. ‘Kojo’ opens on the eve of the fugitive slave law in 1850. The events that unfold convey both the thrill of free blacks in Baltimore and the dread of losing one’s liberty or one’s family members at any moment. As Gyasi moves across the centuries from old and new Ghana, to pre-Civil war Alabama and to Stanford California, she subtly attunes her words to time and setting. The 17th century chapters echoes with tales of the past while the contemporary chapters glow with non-ambiguous practicality. Slavery is a source of confusion and discomfort, regardless of which side of the colour divide we descend from.
In the book, a teacher in the mid-20th century says to his students, “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?
Gyasi takes us to the flip side of things with this work.