I was halfway through “Homegoing” before I began to connect with it.
As Yaw, a historian character in Yaa Gyasi’s novel, tells his daughter "people need time in order to see things clearly."
I finished the book because of its brilliant premise and its grand ambition, and at the urging of Thandi, who read it first. I needed time to see how the sometimes plodding early chapters and characters that were more stand-ins for ideas than people laid the groundwork that made Yaw come alive on the page.
Gyasi tells the story of the transatlantic slave trade as a family saga. The matriarch is Maame, an Asante from the interior of what is now Ghana who serves a Fante family on the coast. The story begins in the 18th century, when both the Asante and the Fante are trying to fend off British slavers by doing business with them. Maame’s elder daughter, child of the head of household she serves, is betrayed by her stepmother and ends up married to a British slave trader. Her descendants remain in what will become Ghana. Maame’s younger daughter is captured, sold to the British and sent to America, home to her descendants.
As Gyasi’s chapters switch between the continents, we see, through the eyes of one family colonialism and slavery, Jim Crow and nascent revolution, the uncertain promise of the U.S. Civil Rights Movement and of Ghanaian independence.
Gyasi was born in Ghana and raised in America. I suspect Yaw was modeled on her father, of whom she speaks fondly in her acknowledgements. In one passage, Yaw tells his students:
“We believe the one who has the power. He is the one who gets to write the story. So, when you study history, you must always ask yourself, whose story am I missing? Whose voice was suppressed so that this voice would come forth? Once you have figured that out, you must find that story too. From there, you begin to get a clearer, yet still imperfect, picture.”
As a child, Yaw is horribly disfigured by a fire started by his mother, who is gripped by the nightmare of her family's past. He is sent away to school and begins a career in the early days of independent Ghana, delaying returning to his mother for a lifetime.
Yaw "wasn't certain that he believed in forgiveness. He heard the word most on the few days he went to the white man's church ... and so it had begun to seem to him like a word the white men brought with them when they first came to Africa.
"Forgiveness was an act done after the fact, to point the people's eye to the future. And if you point the people's eye to the future, they might not see what is being done to hurt them in the present."
Willie, the American of Yaw’s generation, is rejected by other African-Americans because of her dark skin. Racism engenders self-hatred.
Willie is an artist, but can only find work cleaning toilets in the nightclub where she should be on stage singing. Her husband humiliates her, leaving her with psychological scars as crippling as Yaw’s physical marks.
But there is redemption. Yaw, who like Gyasi’s father brings his family to America, has a daughter who is a gifted historian – a storyteller. And Willie finds her voice.
“Homegoing” is imperfect. And promising. I'm glad I finished this debut, and am eager to see Gyasi find her voice in her next books.