Toward the end of Yaa Gyasi’s stunning debut novel Homegoing, winner of the 2106 American Book Award, readers meet Marcus, a Stanford PhD student who sets out to research the convict-leasing system. As a young man, his grandfather had been arrested on trumped-up charges, then leased by the state of Alabama to a coal mining company, where he was forced to work in the mines for years. Marcus wonders how he can write about his grandfather’s imprisonment without writing about the Great Migration and Jim Crow. How can he write about the migration without talking about the cities that took the migrants in? How can he not talk about Harlem? And if he talks about Harlem, how can he leave out his father’s heroin addiction, or the ensuing “war on drugs?” To Marcus, the task of telling the entire story is overwhelming.
Sisters separated by fire
With Homegoing, Yaa Gyasi has found a way to tell this epic story, and a slew of other ones as well. The narrative begins and ends at The Castle, a British fortress on the Gold Coast of Africa where future slaves were held in a dungeon, then shipped to America. The book follows the stories of sisters, Effia and Esi, raised by different mothers after their own perished in a fire. When she comes of age, Effia is married off to a British officer and lives in The Castle, above the dungeon. Her sister, Esi, is taken from her tribe, sold to the British, held in The Castle, and shipped off to an Alabama plantation.
The novel follows the lives of their families, beginning in the 1760s and extending through modern times. Effia’s line lives through war, Colonialism and the fight for independence in what would become Ghana. Esi’s line survives slavery and the Jim Crow era and all forms of oppression in Alabama and Harlem.
The weight of family history
Each chapter follows one character as they struggle for freedom, to find love, make a family and a better life for their children. Like Marcus the PhD student, it would be easy for the reader to feel this epic saga is too much to handle. But Yaa Gyasi writes beautiful, compelling stories. Any chapter of this book could be extracted and stand alone as a stunning piece of short fiction. In the context of the novel, however, the readers sees individuals fighting to survive as they carry the weight of their family history like an unruly baton. The baton contains subconscious memories of physical pain, oppression, heroism, strength and guilt. Each person struggles through their moment in history, until the moment they hand the baton off to the next.
Washtenaw Reads selection
Homegoing is the 2018 selection for Washtenaw Reads, “a community initiative to promote reading and civic dialogue through the shared experience of reading and discussing a common book.” The novel is a terrific choice, as Gyasi leaves each reader wondering how best to use our own knowledge and power to reshape the next generation.
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