Saturday, January 14, 2017
Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi
And it turns out Homegoing was a great choice for that particular initiative, since it covers men, women, racial minorities, and LGBT persons and it does so over the backdrop of 400 years of history, starting around 1600, I think (the book doesn't give dates and I'm terrible with them) and moving straight through till now, with the sections of the book each following some member of the family of a pair of half-sisters, Effia and Esi, whose stories begin in colonial Africa. As the book progresses, so does the timeline, with chapters alternating, roughly, between Effia's side of the family, whose stories largely take place in Africa, and Esi's, who is sold into slavery and taken to Europe and, eventually, America.
To go deep into all the different stories in Homegoing would take forever, and diminish one of the primary pleasures (and pains) of the book--seeing the clever ways Gyasi connects to family members to their different times, and how each deals with the dual impacts of racism and the destruction of their culture. And the impacts are really the part of the book that have stuck with me the most. The structure here, which gives the whole story an epic, almost mythological feeling at times, is constantly undercut by the brutal realities faced by these people, trials Gyasi wisely ties in with the unique traits of each protagonist. Instead of being the victim of generic "racism", we see Quey forced to travel to America when his father learns that he's gay. We see Willie faced with the powerlessness, in early 19th century America, of a woman who isn't light-skinned enough to pass. And there are many more (the genealogy in the front lists about 17 people who get their own stories here). The scope and Gyasi's willingness to make her characters bleed, as well as her canny ability to inject a ray of hope just when it all gets too depressing, drive the story.
I know I haven't spoken much here about the actual themes of slavery and oppression woven into the heart of Homegoing, but they are there, and they are impactful. Sometimes it was hard to even pick the book back up, because it seems (and, for some of the characters, it's true) that there is not, nor will there ever be, a way for them to transcend their blackness, but the last section--which ties everything up too neatly by half but also makes this important point--took me to task for these thoughts, rightly, because blackness is not a thing that should be transcended. Rather, it has always been the small-minded, small-hearted, wicked heart of man that needs elevation. And the kaleidoscope of people that populate Homegoing make the point beautifully.
Also, Gyasi is only 25 years old and this is her first novel. Really excited to see what she does next.