Yaa Gyasi covers two continents and three centuries in an epic story of race, war, slavery and exploitation, writes Jennifer Malec for the Sunday Times
Yaa Gyasi (Penguin Random House)
Ambitious and absorbing, Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing stands out, even among a recent crop of outstanding fiction by young African writers. The book spans seven generations and 300 years, and has been compared to Alex Haley’s Roots and Toni Morrison’s Beloved. It is, as Ta-Nehisi Coates says, “a monster” – especially for a debut. Roxane Gay calls it “the strongest case for reparations and black rage I’ve read in a long time”.
Gyasi, who was born in Ghana, made headlines last year when she was offered a seven-figure advance for the manuscript of Homegoing. “It’s been overwhelming but wonderful,” she says of the acclaim. “I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was a child, so the warm reception that Homegoing has got has made me so grateful that I’ve been able to fulfil that dream.”
Gyasi has lived in the US since she was two, but Homegoing is charged with the mythology and customs of her home country. “My parents always made sure to foster community with other Ghanaian immigrants wherever we lived,” she says, “so I always had this extended family of elders who shared the stories, food and language.”
The geographical distance, however, gave her the room to explore Ghana’s history openly and honestly. “I had to build so much of the Ghanaian world in the book ‘from scratch’ rather than from that point of familiarity with which I approach the American world,” she says.
Homegoing begins in the 18th century on the Gold Coast, with two half-sisters: one is sold into slavery; the other marries a British slaver. While Esi is being kept captive in horrifying conditions in a dungeon, Effia is living in luxury on the castle’s upper levels. The narrative that follows traces the sisters’ descendants on each side of the Atlantic, with each chapter focusing on one character.
The structure of Gyasi’s novel is in delicate balance with the narrative, and the result is enjoyably pacy. Although abandoning a character just as you get to know them can feel frustrating, this feeling is soon soothed by the pleasure of immersing yourself in the next story.
Gyasi says the structural limitations she imposed on herself were a sacrifice to the whole. “I really wanted this novel to feel like a mosaic piece of artwork, one where the individual pieces were beautiful and strong, but when you step away and see the whole piece, the work gains its meaning. The long arch of this novel was so important to me that I didn’t mind moving on to a new chapter when the time came.”
Gyasi’s characters are not simply drawn and what sets Homegoing apart is its brutal honesty in depicting the complicity of Africans themselves in the slave trade. “Growing up in Alabama, I was kind of always thinking about race, and the irony of being from a country that had a role in the slave trade and ending up in a place where the effects of slavery are still so strongly felt was never lost on me,” she says.
“When I took a trip to the Cape Coast Castle in 2009 and heard the tour guides talk about slavery — not just from the European perspective, but from the Ghanaian as well — I realised that you shouldn’t have to travel to Ghana to have this information.
“Complexity of individual human nature is crucial in a book like this,” she adds, “where there are so many characters and so much ground covered. I wanted all of the characters to be complex, even the minor ones.”
The last character we are introduced to is Marcus, a Stanford graduate student researching black history who in the course of his work finds himself overwhelmed by his subject matter and incapacitated with anger.
Homegoing itself deals with slavery, the Asante-Fante wars, British colonialism, Southern plantations, coal mining in Alabama and the convict-leasing system, the Harlem Renaissance and the subsequent heroin epidemic.
But fiction offers some specific advantages in the face of such vast and troubling subject matter. “I think fiction gives you access to a kind of emotional truth that can be obscured when you have to adhere to the facts,” Gyasi says.
“Fiction can also collapse that distance between reader and character in a way that allows the reader to feel deeply empathetic for people who don’t even exist. It’s a powerful tool.”
Gyasi’s sketching of characters is occasionally patchy and some may argue that Homegoing suffers from a regrettable lack of levity. But the novel draws its strength from the accumulation of subjects, echoing its epigraph, an Akan proverb: “The family is like the forest: if you are outside it is dense; if you are inside you see that each tree has its own position.”
Homegoing’s momentum is captivating and its impact is powerful. It’s a forest well worth getting lost in.
Follow Jennifer Malec on Twitter @projectjennifer
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Yaa Gyasi’s favourite books
The Door of No Return by William St Clair. This book takes you through the Cape Coast Castle in great detail. I used it in researching the first two chapters.
Black Prisoners and Their World, Alabama 1865-1900 by Mary Ellen Curtin. I used this book to research H’s chapter and it was truly eye-opening. I knew very little about the convict leasing system and this book helped me enter the world.
One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. A wonderful, bold book. Reading it made me feel expansive, like fiction could do anything.
Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison. I read this in my senior year of high school. It was the first book by a black woman that I had read and it gave me something to aspire to. It is still my favourite book.
Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I love how this book engages with questions of the African diaspora.