Homegoing (Gyasi novel)

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Homegoing
Homegoing (2016 cover).jpg
hardcover dustjacket (1st ed.)
AuthorYaa Gyasi
Cover artistPeter Mendelsund
CountryUnited States
LanguageEnglish
GenreHistorical fiction
Published2016 (Penguin Random House)
Media typePrint (hardback)
Pages320 pp. (1st edition)
ISBN978-1-10194-713-5

Homegoing is the debut historical fiction novel by Yaa Gyasi, published in 2016. Each chapter in the novel follows a different descendant of an Asante woman named Maame, starting with her two daughters, who are half sisters, separated by circumstance: Effia marries James Collins, the British governor in charge of Cape Coast Castle, while her half-sister Esi is held captive in the dungeons below. Subsequent chapters follow their children and following generations.

The novel was selected in 2016 for the National Book Foundation's "5 under 35" award, the National Book Critics Circle's John Leonard Award for best first book, and was longlisted for the Dylan Thomas Prize in 2017. It received the Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award for 2017.

Plot[edit]

Effia's line[edit]

Effia is raised by her mother, Baaba, who is cruel to her. Nevertheless she works hard to please her mother. Known as a beauty, Effia is intended to be married to the future chief of her village, but when her mother tells her to hide her menstrual cycle, rumours spread that she is barren. As a result she married a British man, James Collins, the governor of Cape Coast Castle. He and Effia have a happy marriage. She returns to her family village one time, when her father dies, where Baaba tells her that she is not Effia's mother and that Effia is the daughter of an unknown slave.

Effia and James have a son called Quey who is raised in the Cape Coast Castle. His parents, worrying that he is friendless, eventually have him befriend a local boy named Cudjo. When they are teenagers Quey and Cudjo realize that they are attracted to one another. In fear of their relationship James sends Quey to England for awhile. When he returns, Quey is assigned to help to strengthen the ties between his familial village, who sell slaves, and the British. He is frustrated by his uncle Fiifi, who seems evasive about trade relations. Eventually Fiifi along with Cudjo, raid the village of the Asante people and bring back the daughter of an Asante chief. Realizing that to marry her would join his people, the Fantes, with the Asantes, Quey resolves to forget Cudjo and marry the Asante girl.

Quey's son, James, learns that his Fante grandfather died and returns to Asante land where he meets a farmer woman, Akosua Mensah. Growing up with his parents dysfunctional political marriage, and promised since childhood to the daughter of the Fanta chief, Amma, James longs to run away and marry Akosua. With help from Effia, James runs away from Amma and lives among the Efutu people until they are raided and killed by the Asantes. He is saved by a man who recognizes him though James makes him promise to tell everyone he has died. He then travels to reunite with Akosua.

James's daughter Abena only knows her father as a rural farmer called Unlucky for his inability to grow crops. By the time she is twenty five she is still unmarried. Her childhood best friend friend, Ohene promises to marry her after his next successful season and the two begin an affair which coincides with the start of a famine. The village elders, discovering the affair, tell them that if Abena conceives a child or the famine lasts more than seven years Abena will be cast out. In the sixth year Ohene successfully farms cocoa plants. Rather than marry Abena he tells her that he promised to marry the daughter of the farmer who gave him the seeds. Abena, now pregnant, decides to leave her village rather than wait for Ohene to marry her.

Akua grows up among white missionaries after her mother dies early in her childhood. When an Asante man proposes, she accepts and marries him and the couple have several children. Before the birth of her third child Akua begins to have nightmares about a woman on fire with burning children. At the same time war breaks out and her husband goes to war. He, returns missing one leg, in time for the birth of their son, Yaw. The nightmares continue to haunt Akua and, while sleepwalking, she murders her daughters by setting a fire that consumes them. Her husband is able to save Yaw and successfully prevent Akua from being burned herself by the townspeople.

Yaw grows up to be a schoolteacher who is highly educated but angry about his facial burn scars. After his friends go through a difficult pregnancy he decides to take on a house girl, Esther, and he grows to love her. To please Esther he goes to see his mother for the first time in over forty years where she tells him that there is evil in their line and also tells him that she regrets causing the fire that burned him.

Marjorie grows up in Alabama, which she hates, and spends summers in Ghana visiting her grandmother. In her majority white high school she struggles to fit in as the black students mock her for acting white and the white students won't have anything to do with her. While reading in the library she meets a German born army brat, Graham, and develops a crush on him hoping he will ask her to prom. Instead his father and the school ban them from attending together and when Marjorie hears him telling others that she is not like other black girls her crush on him dissolves. Her grandmother dies shortly after and Marjorie returns to Ghana for the funeral.

Esi's line[edit]

Esi is the beloved and beautiful daughter of a Big Man and his wife, Maame. Her father is a renowned and successful warrior and he eventually captures a slave who asks Esi to send a message to her father about where she is. Esi complies out of pity as her mother was formerly enslaved. As a result her village is raided and her father and mother are killed. Before she leaves Esi learns that her mother had a child before her, while she was enslaved. She is then captured and imprisoned in the dungeon of the Cape Coast Castle where she is raped before being sent to America.

Esi's daughter, Ness, is raised in America. Her mother teaches her some Twi but she and her mother are eventually beaten for it and separated. In her new, more lenient plantation, Ness is forbidden from becoming a house slave because of the deep scars on her back. Before arriving at the plantation Ness was forcibly married to an African man who spoke no English though they eventually came to love one another and have a child, whom she named Kojo. After a woman heard her speaking Twi, Ness was offered the opportunity to escape north. Ness, her husband, Sam, and Kojo escaped but in an effort to protect her son, she and her husband allowed themselves to be caught and then claimed their child died. Ness was severely whipped, causing her brutal scars, and forced to watch as her husband was lynched.

Kojo is raised in Baltimore where he goes by the name Jo Freeman and marries a freeborn black woman Anna. When Anna is pregnant with their eighth child the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 is passed. Jo is warned that he should go further North but he decides to stay. Though he worries that he will be captured as his papers are forgeries, in the end it is Anna who disappears while pregnant. The kidnapping destroys Jo's family.

H is freed during the Reconstruction era, but sometime after, as an adult man, is arrested and accused of assaulting a white woman. Unable to pay the ten dollar fine he is sentenced to work in a coal mine for ten years. When H is released from his sentence he intends to rejoin a black community but discovers that he is ostracized for being a convict. He settles in Pratt City in Birmingham, Alabama, made up of other convicts both black and white, and works in the coal mine as a free agent. After a few years he writes to his ex girlfriend Ethe, whom he cheated on shortly before being arrested. She eventually comes to join him.

Willie marries Robert, her childhood sweetheart who is light-skinned, and they have a son named Carson. After her parents die Robert suggests they move away and Willie asks that they go to Harlem as she wants to start a career in a singer. As they look for work Willie realizes that her dark skin will prevent her from being a professional singer while Robert is able to pass for white. The two grow farther apart and begin keeping secrets from one another. After Willie runs into Robert at one of her jobs and they are both sexually humiliated by his white coworkers, Robert abandons her. Willie eventually begins a new relationship and has a daughter. After seeing Robert with his new white partner and their white child she realizes she forgives him.

Carson, who as an adult goes by the name Sonny, tries to find meaning in marching for civil rights and working for the NAACP but instead becomes demoralized by his work. Like his own father he becomes an absentee parent to three children. He meets a young singer named Amani and after she introduces him to drugs he becomes addicted to drugs as well. When Willie finally reveals details on his father and offers him a choice between her money or getting clean he chooses to get clean.

Sonny and Amani's son Marcus goes on to become an academic at Stanford University. He meets Marjorie, now working as a lecturer and the two form an intimate bond. She suggests that they go to Ghana and while they are there visiting Marjorie's family he suggests they go to the Cape Coast Castle which Marjorie has never visited. While seeing the Door of No Return Marcus has a panic attack and flees through the door to the beach. He and Marjorie swim in the water where she gives him Effia's stone, which has been passed to her through the generations, and which unbeknownst to the both of them, was given to Effia by their mutual ancestor, Maame.

Descendants of Maame[edit]

Major themes[edit]

The novel touches on several notable historical events, from the introduction of cacao as a crop in Ghana and the Anglo-Asante wars in Ghana to slavery and segregation in America.[1] Because of the novel's scope, which covers several hundred years of history and fourteen characters, it has been described as "a novel in short stories" where "each chapter is forced to stand on its own."[2]

Development history[edit]

In the summer of 2009, following her sophomore year at Stanford University, Gyasi took a trip to Ghana,[3] eventually taking a side trip to the Cape Coast Castle; the trip to Ghana was sponsored by a research grant.[4] Although Gyasi was born in Ghana, she moved to the United States as an infant, and this was her first trip back.[4] On a friend's prompting, they visited the Cape Coast Castle, where she found her inspiration in the contrast between the luxurious upper levels (for colonists and their local families) and the misery of the dungeons below, where slaves were kept.[4] She relates: "I just found it really interesting to think about how there were people walking around upstairs who were unaware of what was to become of the people living downstairs."[4]

Gyasi says the family tree came first, and each chapter, which follows one descendant, is tied to a significant historical event,[3] although she described the research as "wide but shallow."[4] The Door of No Return by William St. Clair helped to form the descriptions of life in and around the Castle in the first few chapters.[5][6] One of the final chapters, entitled "Marjorie", is inspired by Gyasi's experiences as part of an immigrant family living in Alabama.[4][3]

... I think I was kind of constantly interacting, I guess, with really what the legacy of slavery is. You know, coming from a country, Ghana, that had a role in slavery, and then ending up in a place where slavery is still so strongly felt institutionally, as racism is still so strongly felt. The irony of that wasn't lost on me. And I think, had I not grown up in Alabama, I don't know that I would have ever written this book.

— Yaa Gyasi, 2016 interview with Scott Simon[6]

Publication history[edit]

Reception[edit]

Before the official publication in June 2016, Time's Sarah Begley called it "one of the summer’s most-anticipated novels".[3]

Critics have reviewed Gyasi's first novel with almost universally high acclaim. The New York Times Book Review listed it as an Editor's Choice, writing, "This wonderful debut by a Ghanaian-American novelist follows the shifting fortunes of the progeny of two half sisters, unknown to each other, in West Africa and America."[7] Jennifer Maloney of The Wall Street Journal noted the author received an advance of more than US$1,000,000 and praised the plot as "flecked with magic, evoking folk tales passed down from parent to child", also noting the novel has "structural and thematic similarities to Alex Haley's Pulitzer Prize-winning 1976 book, Roots".[8] Christian Lorentzen of New York Magazine said, "Each chapter is tightly plotted, and there are suspenseful, even spectacular climaxes."[9] Anita Felicelli of the San Francisco Chronicle said Gyasi is "a young writer whose stellar instincts, sturdy craftsmanship and penetrating wisdom seem likely to continue apace — much to our good fortune as readers".[10]

Isabel Wilkerson of The New York Times described her as "a stirringly gifted young writer".[11] Wilkerson also commented on the difference between the lyrical language of the West African passages and the "coarser language and surface descriptions of life in America".[11] Wilkerson expressed some disappointment: "It is dispiriting to encounter such a worn-out cliché — that African-Americans are hostile to reading and education — in a work of such beauty."[11] Steph Cha, writing for the Los Angeles Times, notes "the characters are, by necessity, representatives for entire eras of African and black American history [which] means some of them embody a few shortcuts" in advancing the narrative and themes, but overall, "the sum of Homegoing's parts is remarkable, a panoramic portrait of the slave trade and its reverberations."[2] Laura Miller, writing for The New Yorker, said that while parts of Homegoing show "the unmistakable touch of a gifted writer, [the novel] is a specimen of what such a writer can do when she bites off more than she is ready to chew," noting the "form [of the novel] would daunt a far more practiced novelist" as the form, composed of short stories linked by ancestors and descendants, "[isn't] the ideal way to deliver the amount of exposition that historical fiction requires."[1]

Maureen Corrigan, reviewing for National Public Radio noted the plot was "pretty formulaic" and it "would have been a stronger novel if it had ended sooner," but "the feel of her novel is mostly sophisticated," and she concluded that "so many moments earlier on in this strong debut novel linger."[12] Michiko Kakutani noted in her New York Times review the novel "often feels deliberate and earthbound: The reader is aware, especially in the American chapters, that significant historical events and issues ... have been shoehorned into the narrative, and that characters have been made to trudge through experiences ... meant, in some way, to be representative," but it also "makes us experience the horrors of slavery on an intimate, personal level; by its conclusion, the characters' tales of loss and resilience have acquired an inexorable and cumulative emotional weight."[13] Other reviewers were not as critical of the novel's structure. Jean Zimmerman, also writing for National Public Radio, praised the novel as "a remarkable achievement," saying the "narrative [...] is earnest, well-crafted yet not overly self-conscious, marvelous without being precious."[14]

Leilani Clark at KQED Arts wrote: "Until every American embarks on a major soul-searching about the venal, sordid racial history of the United States, and their own position in relation to it, the bloodshed, tears, and anger will keep on. Let Homegoing be an inspiration to begin that process."[15]

Awards and nominations[edit]

Ta-Nehisi Coates selected Homegoing for the National Book Foundation's 2016 "5 under 35" award, announced in September 2016.[16][17] Homegoing was shortlisted for the 2016 Center for Fiction First Novel Prize,[18] which eventually went to The Castle Cross the Magnet Carter by Kia Corthron.

The novel was subsequently awarded the John Leonard Prize for publishing year 2016 by the National Book Critics Circle for outstanding debut novel in January 2017.[19][20] In February 2017, Swansea University announced Homegoing had made the longlist for the 2017 Dylan Thomas Prize for the best published literary work in the English language written by an author aged 39 or younger.[21]

References[edit]

  1. ^ a b Miller, Laura (30 May 2016). "Descendants: A sprawling tale of a family split between Africa and America". The New Yorker. Retrieved 1 March 2017.
  2. ^ a b Cha, Steph (10 June 2016). "The blazing success of Yaa Gyasi's 'Homegoing,' a panoramic portrait of the slave trade's legacy". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 1 March 2017.
  3. ^ a b c d Begley, Sarah (5 June 2016). "A 26-Year-old Looks to the Past for Her Literary Debut". Time. Retrieved 1 March 2017.
  4. ^ a b c d e f Wolfe, Eli (28 June 2016). "How Yaa Gyasi found her story in slavers' outpost". San Francisco Chronicle. Retrieved 1 March 2017.
  5. ^ Yaa Gyasi (June 2016). "I Was Thinking About Blackness in America" (Interview). Interviewed by Isaac Chotiner. Slate. Retrieved 1 March 2017.
  6. ^ a b Yaa Gyasi (4 June 2016). "Slavery Scars A Trans-Atlantic Family Tree In 'Homegoing'" (Interview). Interviewed by Scott Simon. National Public Radio. Retrieved 2 March 2017.
  7. ^ "Editors' Choice". The New York Times Book Review. 2016-06-17. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2016-12-03.
  8. ^ Maloney, Jennifer (26 May 2016). "'Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi, Born in Ghana and Raised in the U.S." The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved 1 March 2017.(subscription required)
  9. ^ Lorentzen, Christian (2016-06-14). "Homegoing: Yaa Gyasi's Rich, Epic Slave-Trade Debut". Vulture. Retrieved 2016-12-03.
  10. ^ Felicelli, Anita (3 June 2016). "Homegoing, by Yaa Gyasi". San Francisco Chronicle. Retrieved 2016-12-02.
  11. ^ a b c Wilkerson, Isabel (6 June 2016). "Isabel Wilkerson Reviews Yaa Gyasi's Homegoing". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2 December 2016.
  12. ^ Corrigan, Maureen (7 June 2016). "In 'Homegoing,' A Saga Of A Family United By Blood, Separated By Slavery". National Public Radio. Retrieved 1 March 2017.
  13. ^ Kakutani, Michiko (13 June 2016). "Review: In 'Homegoing,' What Slavery Costs One Family". The New York Times. Retrieved 1 March 2017.
  14. ^ Zimmerman, Jean (7 June 2016). "'Homegoing' Is A Sprawling Epic, Brimming With Compassion". National Public Radio. Retrieved 1 March 2017.
  15. ^ Clark, Leilani (2016-07-17). "Book Review: Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi". KQED Arts. Retrieved 2016-12-03.
  16. ^ "Yaa Gyasi, author of Homegoing, 5 Under 35, 2016, National Book Foundation". www.nationalbook.org. Retrieved 2016-12-02.
  17. ^ Schaub, Michael (29 September 2016). "Meet the National Book Foundation's 5 Under 35". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 3 March 2016.
  18. ^ "Announcing the Short List for the 2016 Center for Fiction First Novel Prize". The Center for Fiction. September 2016. Retrieved 3 March 2017.
  19. ^ "National Book Critics Circle Announces Finalists for 2016 Awards" (Press release). National Book Critics Circle. 17 January 2017. Retrieved 3 March 2017.
  20. ^ Alter, Alexandra Alter (January 17, 2017). "Zadie Smith and Michael Chabon Among National Book Critics Circle Finalists". New York Times. Retrieved 3 March 2017.
  21. ^ "Longlist announced for the 2017 International Dylan Thomas Prize" (Press release). Research Institute for Arts and Humanities, Swansea University. 9 February 2017. Retrieved 2 March 2017.

External links[edit]

  • Official website: "Homegoing". Penguin Random House. 2016. Retrieved 1 March 2017.

Reviews[edit]