Homegoing: Yaa Gyasi’s Rich, Epic Slave-Trade Debut

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Photo: Michael Lionstar, Penguin Books

Yaa Gyasi’s first novel, Homegoing, opens with a family tree tracing seven generations descended from two half sisters born in Ghana around 1750. They share the same mother, but their fathers are leaders of two peoples, the Fante and Asante, who are both victims of, and complicit partners with, the English in the slave trade. One daughter, Effia, marries a white slave trader and colonial governor (the active verb is misleading here; more accurate to say she is married off to) and lives in a castle by the coast. Esi, the half sister Effia never knows, is captured and for a time dwells as a prisoner in the ghastly dungeon of the same castle. Before she is taken Esi is told a secret by one of her own family’s slaves:

“Your mother was once a slave for a Fante family. She was raped by her master because he too was a Big Man and big men can do what they please, lest they appear weak, eh?” Esi looked away, and Abronoma continued in a whisper. “You are not your mother’s first daughter. There was one before you. And in my village we have a saying about separated sisters. They are like a woman and her reflection, doomed to stay on opposite sides of the pond.”

The saying, later recalled as a curse, becomes literal in Homegoing’s elaborately realized structure: Effia’s descendents remain in Africa; Esi is sold into bondage in the American South. Parallel chapters follow members of each generation on either continent. The novel concludes somewhere near the present day, when two distant cousins from these lines have met in California and together return to the castle on the Gold Coast, unaware of their distant family connection. That’s something of a spoiler, but a hint of it is there in Gyasi’s title, which refers to a funeral ritual performed by slaves in the Americas to return the souls of the dead back to Africa. We sense that the rupture in the book’s opening chapters will be closed, if not healed. The scene is idyllic, the pair are happy, and what’s surprising about the ending is that after the novel’s many agonies — without turning a blind eye to ongoing horrors — we leave the book on a note of unmistakable optimism.

Homegoing has the range and sweep of three centuries. In the African chapters, we read of tribal war as an engine of the slave trade; of destructive droughts and the coming of a saving crop, cocoa; of the awkward arrival of white missionaries, then colonization, then the burgeoning revolutionary spirit and independence. The American chapters take in the experiences of slavery and a daring, only partially successful plantation escape; of freemen in the port of Baltimore in the 1850s and the predations of the Free Soilers who sought to put them back in chains; of Reconstruction, Jim Crow, forced convict labor, and tentative union alliances between blacks and poor whites in the South; of the Great Migration, civil rights, and drug addiction in Harlem. The new forces of multicultural meritocracy allow for the novel’s happy-ish ending, which also serves as a reckoning with the pain that’s come before.

Each of Homegoings chapters centers on one character from either line in the successive generations and bears the burden of conveying the lived feel of a mini-epoch of history. They have the feel less of linked stories than of compressed miniature novels. This is a lot to ask of passages of around 20 pages, but there are some payoffs. Each chapter is tightly plotted, and there are suspenseful, even spectacular climaxes. Their echoes ring throughout the book when formerly central characters reappear as diminished or resilient parents or grandparents of new protagonists. Some of these are purely tragic — one chapter ends with a hut catching fire and killing two sleeping daughters — but others have a romantic edge. James, Effia’s grandson, becomes chief of her home village and enters an arranged marriage. Yet he harbors a crush on a woman from the Asante capital who disdains him as a slaver. He survives an attack on his own home, sheds his identity as chief, goes back for the woman he loves, and takes her to a remote village where he can marry her and live as a humble farmer without the shame of complicity in the slave trade.

That shame is all-encompassing in the African passages of the novel’s first half. We read many passages like this one, in the mind of Quey, son of Effia and the British governer she marries: “On the ship all Quey could think about was how this was what his father did to the slaves. This was what his father did to his problems. Put them on a boat, ship them away. How had James felt every time he watched a ship push off? Was it the same mix of fear and shame and loathing that Quey felt for his own flesh, his mutinous desire?” These alternate with grim lines of realpolitik, as when Quey reckons with his new role as chief of his mother’s village: “This was how they lived there, in the bush: Eat or be eaten. Capture or be captured. Marry for protection. Quey ... would not be weak. He was in the business of slavery, and sacrifices had to be made.”

From a distance of three centuries, this can have an overdetermined ring, even a taste of contemporary liberal projection, but Homegoing repeatedly enacts one of the the novel’s classic missions: to dramatize the struggle of the individual soul, with its local yearnings and heartbreaks, against the unjust social forces of the modern world. Sometimes these forces have the face of a brutal Mississippi slaveholder — the cruelest character in the novel is simply called “the Devil” and his plantation “Hell” — but in Africa they have the faces of her otherwise sympathetic protagonists and their families. Gyasi knows that in this struggle, any reprieves for the individual, even the individual with a semblance of power, are rare.

And Gyasi’s treatment of the larger historical forces at work is often more fascinating than what she’s able to do with her characters. Just as each of its chapters have an adventurous or fablelike episode that will set the stage for the next generation as well as an ingrained, each also tells of a coupling. In the early chapters these tend to be forced and mostly undesired — Effia’s forced marriage to the white governor; Esi’s rape by one of his soldiers; Quey’s arranged marriage to a captured royal daughter; Esi’s daughter’s marriage to a fellow slave she comes to love — but after James’s daring elopement they take on an increasingly conventional meet-cute cast and only become interesting when the relationships crack up: the husband in a couple that’s come north to Harlem abandons his wife when he’s able to pass below 110th Street; their son falls in love with a beautiful singer who drags them both into heroin dependency. The theme of addiction doesn’t bring out the best in Gyasi’s writing: “Harlem and heroin. Heroin and Harlem. Sonny could no longer think of one without thinking of the other. Both sounded alike. Both were going to kill him. The junkies and the jazz had gone together, fed each other, and now every time Sonny heard a horn he wanted a hit.”

It’s the son of the two junkies, Marcus, who becomes a graduate student in sociology at Stanford (Sonny entered recovery and raises his boy with stoic determination) and returns to Africa. His girlfriend Marjorie is a Ghanaian raised in Alabama (in this she shares Gyasi’s own profile) and a student of African-American literature. Marcus is at work on a thesis that begins with investigation of the Jim Crow–era convict-leasing program that put his grandfather in a coal mine, for years. (This era is captured in a chapter that’s the best, and least familiar, of Homegoing’s American sections.) His research stalls, in part because his interest spirals out to the rest of the experiences of his family, both those he’s been told of and those he can only imagine. Of course, his project is a version of the novel we’ve been reading: “It was one thing to research something, another thing entirely to have lived it. To have felt it. How could he explain to Marjorie that what he wanted to capture with his project was the feeling of time, of having been part of something that stretched so far back, was so impossibly large, that it was easy to forget that she, and he, and everyone else, existed in it, not apart from it, but inside of it.” The “feeling of time” is a difficult thing for a writer to attain, and at her best Gyasi can conjure it in a reader’s head. As with Marcus’s project, there’s something dutiful about her rich epic and its unrelenting litany of sorrows. But she is only 26 years old, and Homegoing is no doubt the first of her many adventures.