Sisters and Survivors: Yaa Gyasi, “Homegoing”

Sisters and Survivors: Yaa Gyasi, “Homegoing” December 13, 2017

Yaa Gyasi’s debut novel, Homegoing, is the uneven execution of a brilliant and haunting premise. Homegoing starts with two half-sisters, Effia and Esi, in colonial Ghana. The sisters never meet–we slowly learn the circumstances which led their mother to flee her first home for her second. One sister becomes the wife/mistress of the British governor of the Cape Coast Castle. The other sister becomes a slave, sent from the castle’s dungeon across the Middle Passage to America. Homegoing follows the sisters’ descendants through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries down to the present day.

If this maybe sounds too neat, it doesn’t feel that way (at least not until the very end, which does get a bit rhymey when the contemporary descendants meet one another). That’s because of the way the story is told. Each sister and then each descendant gets one short chapter, alternating between Effia’s children and Esi’s. We get one quick glimpse of a person’s whole life and then the narrative moves on, never returning to that perspective. It’s a breathtaking way to convey life’s brevity and contingency.

This structure allows themes to recur, like the constant tug of war between a man’s ability to stray from his wife and children and his desire to stay, or the tense negotiation of traditional and modern ways of life. It means that each chapter answers questions from previous stories: Whatever happened to the burned baby? Did the escaped slave’s child survive? (There’s a genealogical chart at the front and you’ll be grateful for it, though I tried to resort to it infrequently because it contains spoilers….) But honestly for me the biggest effect of the structure is simply that it showed each life so fleeting. There’s continuity and survival but also constant, devouring loss.

The individual stories vary in their craft and conviction. The chapter of “H.,” a prisoner forced to work in the Alabama coal mines under the convict-lease system, is searing, the kind of thing where Gyasi’s research takes on flesh and soul. Every page of that chapter is indelible, including the portrait of the mixed-race town where ex-convicts settled to live among people who understood their pasts. The weakest chapter is probably the one with the NAACP organizer turned heroin addict, which feels like a lecture about how oppressed people turn to drugs to block out sociopolitical misery.

Gyasi has certain things she feels instinctively, like the resonant symbolic power of dreams, and certain things she’s pretty numb to, like religion in general and Christianity in particular. (There’s a slavering, brutal missionary teacher who’s a pure cliche, which wouldn’t matter as much if the faith of the believing black Christians in this book ever got a vivid exploration.) She has a great talent for evoking place and community: free black Baltimore in the years before the Civil War, for example; or the Asante village where all the men have gone to fight the British, leaving the women to battle among themselves. The descriptions of the Cape Coast Castle itself are intensely powerful, both in its heyday and in its postcolonial incarnation as a museum. All of the exploration of intra-African division and complicity in the slave trade is well-done, sharp and sad, neither glossed over nor turned into a cheap occasion for moral equivalence.

In short, if this description interests you then you’ll probably be glad you read Homegoing. It’s a page-turner. It isn’t as good as it should be, and it hammers certain keys of human experience (horror, complicity, dreams) while touching others glancingly if at all (laughter, faith, to a lesser extent repentance). But it has an epic scope and an inexpressibly poignant form.

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