October is the UK’s Black History Month and so Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi was a serendipitous find at the library last week. It almost feels like the book found me; in that special way they have of sometimes jumping into your hand.
Homegoing tells the epic tale of the families of two half-sisters, Effia and Esi, living on Africa’s Gold Coast. One is married to one of the newly arrived slave traders, one of the ‘Collinses of Liverpool, who’d gained their wealth building slave ships.’ The other ends up in Collins’ dungeon at Cape Coast Castle, waiting to be shipped to America. Although they will discover brief details about the other’s existence and life, they never meet, and eventually the links and traces will be lost as Gyasi uses these two matriarchs to trace the history of Africans in America and in the country that will become Ghana.
The initial chapters are one of the most vivid accounts I have ever read of Africa before colonialism. It isn’t all perfect, with wars, family rivalries and secrets galore. And yes, the Gold Coast branch of the family are involved and building wealth in the slave trade. But Effia’s grandson James walks away from his father’s wealth in disgust at the part they have played in it, little realising that he has distant cousins who haven’t had that option.
The way the book is structured, with a chapter per generation of the family, creates a stark depiction of inter-generational trauma. As characters like James set out on their own, or are taken from their mothers like Ness or H, their pain is never soothed or allowed to heal before the next blow hits and the links to the stories, language and relationships of the extended family are broken forever. In her review on GoodReads, Roxane Gay calls Homegoing, ‘the strongest case for reparations and black rage I’ve read in a long time,’ and the ways in which pain and dislocation manifest down the family lines could not be clearer.
In that room, with his family, he would sometimes imagine a different room, a fuller family. He would imagine so hard that at times he thought he could see them. Sometimes in a hut in Africa, a patriarch holding a machete; sometimes outside in a forest of palm trees, a crowd watching a young woman carrying a bucket on her head; sometimes in a cramped apartment with too many kids, or a small, failing farm, around a burning tree or in a classroom. He would see these things while his grandmother prayed and sang, prayed and sang, and he would want so badly for all the people he made up in his head to be there in that room, with him.
He’d told his grandmother this after one of the Sunday dinners, and she’d told him that maybe he had the gift of visions. But Marcus never could make himself believe in the god of Ma Willie, and so he’d gone about looking for family and searching for answers in a more tangible way, through his research and his writing.
Although this is a story of two matriarchal lines, the relationships between fathers and daughters or sons are as important and evocatively drawn. These brighter moments bring into relief what is lost. Fathers like Jo, Robert or Sonny experience fleeting happiness until, chased away by what they perceive as their own failure to protect, they leave, and more links are broken. A more gimmicky writer might be tempted to have characters cross paths in a more obvious way than being in similar places years apart but Gyasi does not provide that comfort. What is severed stays severed. Some scars never heal. Some lost things cannot be recovered. As Baaba tells Effia,
You are nothing from nowhere… What can grow from nothing?
If there are dislocations in how your family got from there to here, you will love Homegoing and how it weaves a tale through the generations. And as the story of Effia and Esi is built into the fabric of America – while not letting Britain off the hook either – it uncovers what is not usually taught in school history lessons, but definitely should be.
Author photo by Bank Square Books, Door of No Return by ZSM and Fishing canoes at Elmina and slaves going on board ship at Manfroe by Jan Kip [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons. Book cover from Penguin Random House.