I have always told myself that I will never attempt to research my family history. For me, the daunting task of unwinding and accepting what I might find on Ancestry.com seems too painful or too frustrating to even attempt. Half of my family comes from Korea, the other from Haiti. While my Korean grandparents are relatively sure of their lineage for generations, my Haitian lineage is far less certain.
My dad tells me my grandfather was a mélange truly representative of the makeup of most people of Caribbean descent. My grandmother, he says, is likely almost entirely of West African descent. However, other than stories, vague accounts of relatives, and faded photographs, I have no record of my ancestors, who they were, what they did, when and whether they were slaves, and when or whether they engaged in the slave trade.
In her debut novel “Homegoing,” author Yaa Gyasi, a 26-year-old Stanford graduate born in Ghana and raised in Alabama, explores this complex skein of lineage and history with slavery that all descendants of Africa’s Gold and Ivory coast carry with them.
While slavery’s complicated legacy is ever present in the Americas, evident both in our culture and through the oppression and inequality that still exist today, often overlooked in the U.S. is the legacy of slavery in Africa’s Gold Coast. Gyasi’s panoramic work intertwines and juxtaposes these two histories and cultures in an attempt to codify the long-lasting effects of the slave trade for both those who were captured and sold and those who stayed behind.
A tremendous undertaking, “Homegoing” follows seven generations of descendants of two ethnically Akan half-sisters in what is now Ghana. Born in the mid-18th century, they are unaware of each other’s existence. Effia, married to a white official and cursed by a fire on the night of her birth that, like slavery, “burned, up and through, unconcerned with the wreckage it left behind,” lives a life of general comfort in Cape Coast Castle, oblivious to the horrors occurring in the dungeons beneath her feet.
Her half sister Esi is captured and held in the dungeons of the same castle with “so many other bodies…that they all had to lie, stomach down, so that women can be stacked on top of them” and is referred to as “cargo” by Effia’s husband. Raped by an unnamed white man, Esi is inspected, packaged, and shipped across the Atlantic.
The story of their progeny takes the shape of vignettes, with the story of each generation occupying a single chapter, linked into a cohesive and compelling narrative by both familial ties and motifs.
Perhaps one of the most moving and heartbreakingly human chapters comes from Gyasi’s description of slavery through Esi’s daughter, Ness. Ness, who endures the hauntingly grotesque horrors of slavery, is stolen from her mother and estranged from her roots and language as her mother is given “five lashes for every Twi word Ness spoke” while growing up. Her strength is evident as she carries the weight of scars “shaped like a man hugging her from behind with his arms hanging around her neck.”
This narrative of American slavery is heightened and expanded by its imprint on Effia’s descendants. It strips identity from Quey, her son, a slaver whose light skin and broken Twi lead children to ask if he’s a white man. It returns humanity to James, her grandson, who marries a woman who refuses to shake his hand because he belongs to an ethnic group known to be slavers. James muses, “If the girl could not shake his hand, then surely she could not touch her own,” because “everyone is a part of this. Asante, Fante, Ga. British, Dutch, and American.”
Dialogue like this between chapters is what lends the novel both breadth and depth. Gyasi continuously ponders the meaning of fire and water, hashing and rehashing the weight they carry throughout generations. Fires in the night reappear in permutations to haunt descendants generations later: in the nightmares of a great-great-granddaughter for whom fire represents the trauma passed down through generations on the face of her son and in the fears of his children. A young man fears the water that once brought his ancestors over the Atlantic.
Water and Fire, two stones, one passed down through generations, one lost after the first, represent the lineages we remember and those we lose through apathy or strife. Names gain meaning as children for generations only know their parents by name. Gyasi depends heavily on symbols and motifs such as these to give structure to the massiveness of her work.
Of course, the format of interconnected short story-like glimpses into generations has drawbacks. Each chapter needs an exposition, a cast of characters to populate it, and inevitably, some characters are more convincing than others. Especially through Esi’s descendants in America, it is clear Gyasi bites off a little more than she can chew as she attempts to codify the African American experience from slavery to Jim Crow, to the great migration, to the Harlem renaissance, to the modern day. While these characters have sparkling moments of humanity and depth, they sometimes come across as conglomerations of the black experience of the time: important, but lacking depth or direction.
H, for instance, arrested for nothing and forced to work in a mine, is a dimensionless manifestation of state-sanctioned slavery after abolition. Willie, a gospel singer who moves North during the Great Migration, and her husband, who abandons her after realizing he can pass as white, are little more than tropes attempting to capture the black experience of their time period. Their son, a heroin addict in the ‘60s is an expansion of a remark made earlier in the book by James, lamenting that slavery will never end because the oppressors “would just trade one type of shackle for another, trade physical ones that wrapped around wrists and ankles for invisible ones that wrapped around the mind.”
Gyasi’s narrative prowess truly shines through the winding trajectory of Effia’s descendants in Ghana. The freedom from an archetypal storyline gives way to an at times joyful, quirky, and overwhelmingly human story. Episodes of surprising vibrancy reveal life in characters, from a kneeling mother reunited with her son who knows she is crying “by the wetness of his feet” to a housekeeper whose smile, once she realizes she can speak her native language with her employer, allows him to see “into her throat, her gut, the home of her very soul.”
Gyasi’s prose is by no means breathtaking, but as she embarks on this epic endeavor, these moments of humanity and startling clarity are the ones that stand out. A stunning debut novel, “Homegoing” is confirmation that Gyasi has much to say as well as room to grow and add depth to her prose.
“Homegoing” is a grand and painful push both forward and back. It is the struggle toward a home that may not even exist and the exploration of the roots and history that have been forcibly excised. Gyasi records and unpacks the power of truth, generational trauma, and most of all, lineage. Just as with a family, one chapter, one story, cannot exist when not surrounded by others, each supporting and engaging in dialogue with the rest.
As the Akan proverb preluding her novel states,
“The family is like the forest: if you are outside it is dense; if you are inside you see that each tree has its own position.”