As Black History Month comes to a close, there is still so much to learn and understand about the depth of ingrained inequalities in contemporary society. Yaa Gyasi’s 2016 debut novel, “Homegoing,” analyzes and encompasses Black history in America by tracing the roots of oppression to the Gold Coast slave trade in Africa.
American-raised scholar and author Yaa Gyasi was born in Mampong, Ghana, but moved to the southern United States when she was two years old. 18 years after the family’s immigration, she returned to Ghana and ventured into the slave capturing hub of the 17th century, the Cape Coast Castle. This visit galvanized Gyasi to write her debut book, “Homegoing,” a history of her Ghanian ancestors on the Gold Coast and the story of a single fictional family’s lineage through the perspective of each generation. Though Gyasi was only 26 years old when she wrote it, “Homegoing” earned her the National Book Critics Circle's John Leonard Award for best first book, the PEN/Hemingway Award for a first book of fiction, the National Book Foundation's "5 under 35" honors for 2016 and the American Book Award.
“Homegoing” begins with the story of two half-sisters in 17th century Ghana who were born into different villages and unaware of each other’s existence. One sister lives in the upstairs echelon of the Cape Coast Castle and is married to a wealthy Englishman. The other is held captive in the dungeon of the very same castle, awaiting the fate of being shipped to the New World into slavery — or, just as likely, death from starvation or disease. The story follows the familial lineage of the sisters’ descendants, some of whom stayed in their Ghanian villages and others who fought for survival under American slavery’s dehumanizing legacy.
Every subplot of “Homegoing” is tight and riveting. The book begs to be devoured in one sitting, but warrants breaks for the reader’s emotional healing. Every chapter, beyond being its own story, is drastically different, suspenseful and just as compelling as the next. The images Gyasi paints of Harlem’s jazz clubs are just as vivid and illuminating as Ghana’s mud-hut villages. The most heroic and important endeavor Gyasi accomplishes in “Homegoing” is by far the voice she gives to the missing and untold narratives that have been lost in slavery’s devastating after-effects.
The extensive research Gyasi conducted for the book is evident in the authentic African proverbs and customs she intersperses into the earlier narratives, such as folklorish tales of Anansi the Spider.
The narrative timeline, though virtuous and intricate, can be a bit hard to follow. Fortunately, there is a diagram of the respective family tree that Gyasi inserted into the introduction of the book for clarification and reference. Because of the comprehensive lens Gyasi used when approaching the story, it’s doubtful the structure could have been quite as compelling if crafted any other way. After all, the linear narrative is what makes the book so powerful in the first place.