Saturday, October 8, 2016

Yaa Gyasi's Homegoing

Product Details

Oh how I wish I had arrived at the National Book Festival in time to hear Yaa Gyasi speak with the audience about the impetus for this absolutely phenomenal debut novel. It's been called, and truly is, breathtaking. I am calling it a modern day "Roots," and I suspect that the incredible story Gyasi shares is as much about her own familial line as Alex Haley's was about his.

Ms. Gyasi was born in Ghana but left for America by the age of three. She says that she had no real feelings toward that country until a visit in 2009 when she was a student at Stanford. She returned and toured the UNESCO World Heritage Site that is one of the settings for her novel. Cape Coast Castle has a long history dating back to the Swedes and then the Danes, but Gyasi begins her novel when the British made it their headquarters for the slave trade in the 1800's.

Two major tribes, the Asante and the Fante, competed to do business with the English, sadly selling their own people into slavery. Thousands of enslaved people were held in the dungeons of the Cape Coast Castle prior to being shipped  through the door of no return to the United States. What readers may not know is that African women were often married to British soldiers in exchange for gold or cloth. They lived in relative luxury on the upper floors of the castle while their fellow tribeswomen were enslaved in the basement.

Gyasi took this fact and built a historically accurate, multi-generational novel around Effia and Esi, half sisters unaware of each other's existence, who find themselves in this very situation. Through an act of trickery, Effia's step-mother arranges a marriage between her Fante daughter and a white castle officer, James Collins. In another bit of treachery, a raid on an Asante village results in Esi being captured and enslaved in the Cape Coast dungeon. Gyasi follows their lives and that of their progeny through two hundred years of deep, abiding love, and horrific, unspeakable loss.

Each emotionally resonant chapter gives voice to a new member of these women's lineage, toggling back and forth between those who remained in Africa and those who moved from plantations in the south, through emancipation, and the great migration to New York and Chicago.

Gyasi illuminates life in Africa for her readers, the tribal culture that honors its elderly yet succumbs to dangerous, hurtful superstitions, the village that cares for each member yet has trouble accepting those with lighter skin. At the same time we see the United States with its shameful history. We watch as a young woman, Marjorie, much like Ms. Gyasi, tries to fathom the difference between being African in this country and being African American.

Nominated by author Ta-Nehisi Coates for the National Book Foundation's Five Under Thirty-five honor, Ms. Gyasi has a bright future ahead of her. I would be shocked if her novel isn't optioned for film, but it's more of her writing I hope to see. "Homegoing" will be a hard act to follow.


Linda said...

Glad you liked it as much as I. I will never forget her description of conditions in the Castle dungeon or the slave ship. Yes, it's the new-and-improved "Roots" from a female perspective.

Sallyb said...

I also thought her description of the enslaved workers in the coal mines was chokingly realistic. And then to think that, once freed, they could find no better jobs than to go back down into the mines. So, so sad.