‘Homegoing’ New novel examines West African and African-American experience

HOMEGOING. By Yaa Gyasi. Knopf. 300 pages. $26.95.

The 1960s and ’70s saw the famous “boom” in Latin American authors gaining recognition in the U.S. Then, in the slipstream of Salman Rushdie’s “Midnight’s Children” in 1981, it seemed there was a major Indian novelist appearing almost weekly. Now it appears to be Africa’s turn.

The last decade has seen a new “boom” of novelists from continental Africa, spinning tales of people, places and histories long overlooked or reduced to stereotype in American fiction: this new generation of African novelists in America adds a twist on the Latin American and Indian authors, however. Not only do they present their own national stories and, often, stories of recent immigration to the U.S. or Europe, they also comment on and reinflect America’s national story, drawing attention to the repressed history of Africans and African Americans in that story, and the way American race-making has affected and infected us all.

In “Homegoing,” Yaa Gyasi, who was born in Ghana, raised in Alabama is a resident of California, has pulled off an extraordinary feat of historical imagination. Beginning with two half-sisters, Effia and Esi in the Gold Coast in the middle of the 18th century, the novel takes the form of two parallel sets of stories, tracing the descendants of Effia and Esi through six subsequent generations in West Africa and in the U.S. What separates the two lines is, of course, slavery, or, more precisely, the Middle Passage. As the novel also points out, slavery is what links the two lines.

One of the great strengths of “Homegoing” is that it looks at divisions among the Fante and Asante in 18th- and 19th-century Gold Coast Africa and those nations’ own slave-owning cultures that, in part at least, enabled the transatlantic slave trade. For example, while the novel rightly highlights the particular horrors and atrocities of the trade as carried out by the British in the Gold Coast, Effia’s marriage to the Englishman James Collins depends not just on colonial power but also on her own stepmother’s machinations.

Once married to James and living in Cape Coast Castle, one of the most notorious slave-trading depots on the entire West African coast, Effia acknowledges that “no one ever mentioned the dungeons.” Esi is captured in a raid led by men from her own village, including her own younger brother.

The novel’s subsequent stories alternate between American and African settings, allowing Gyasi to bring to life key moments in the national narratives of the U.S. and Ghana.

As in the stereotypical cultural tours of Europe where “if it’s Tuesday, it must be Belgium,” there is a sense in some of these stories that Gyasi’s narrative is driven more by history than by her characters. Thus we learn how the 1807 banning of the international slave trade represented not the end of slavery for Gold Coasters but the intensification of colonial control.

On the other side of the Atlantic, Kojo, having been smuggled out of the hell of plantation slavery as a child, is in Baltimore working as a caulker when the Fugitive Slave Law is passed; his pregnant wife is duly kidnapped and transported back to the Deep South. Kojo’s son H is 13 when the Civil War ends, and dialogue early on in his chapter lets us know that the “War may be over but it ain’t ended.” He is effectively sold as a convict laborer in a coal mine in northern Alabama, eventually becoming a union activist.

Then, if it’s the 1920s, it’s got to be Harlem. And passing. And jazz. And if it’s the ’60s, it’s Harlem and heroin. In other words we get a pretty thorough coverage of African-American history and the serial abuse and denial of rights experienced by black Americans. This is essential history, but the characters in these sections too often come across as vehicles for that history rather than as flesh-and-blood characters in their own right.

The stories in the Ghanaian line also tend to telegraph their historical significance, overtly setting the context in relation to the Anglo-Asante Wars, for instance, or the formation of Kwame Nkrumah’s Convention People’s Party. The intensity of the writing in the Ghanaian chapters, however, rings truer; the symbolism of history teacher Yaw’s scar may be fairly obvious, but it is bound up not just in the national story, but also the family story, complicating in a genuinely human fashion Yaw’s anger not only at colonial rule but also at his own mother.

Yaw’s story ends with one of the key homegoings of the novel, as he is reunited with his “crazy” mother. She teaches him, “Evil begets evil. It grows. It transmutes, so that sometimes you cannot see that the evil in the world began as the evil in your own home.”

This lesson, at once self-implicating and leading to self-forgiveness, spells out the major theme of the Ghanaian stories, and its complications seems deeply felt.

The final homegoing seems a good deal more forced, however. In the novel’s closing story/chapter, the aptly named Marcus, sixth-generation descendant of Esi, and son of the reformed heroin addict Carson, experiences an ecstatic epiphany with Marjorie, the sixth-generation descendant of Effia.

Marjorie’s “Welcome home” and the suggestion that the burden of victimhood has been lifted as a result of his washing in the roiling Atlantic Ocean at Cape Coast are a little too pat, and smooth over the much more complicated, much more interesting family ties and antagonisms between Africans and African Americans. It is to be hoped that Gyasi will continue to explore these relationships in future novels. She is plainly a writer with great skill and a great deal to say.

Reviewer Simon Lewis teaches African literature and directs the Carolina Lowcountry and Atlantic World program at the College of Charleston.