A lot of 2020 seems like a bad dream, doesn’t it? It seems like the stuff of literary fiction, that has somehow materialized into real life and we’re being made to live through it since last December. However, some of us need to turn to fiction as a coping mechanism. Or in this case, fiction inspired by reality, such as Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing.
Literary genius has been emerging from Africa for a few years now with writers such as Chinua Achebe and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie; and now Yaa Gyasi, a Ghanaian American writer. Born in Ghana, she truly knows how to weave stories that transport the reader to the exact time and place of her choosing. Her novel Homegoing tells the tale of West Africa’s key role in perpetuating the slave trade over three centuries. It illustrates how the people, especially women, of that time navigated one of history’s greatest injustices.
The novel starts off in late 18th century in an Asante village, part of the Gold Coast which eventually became Ghana. A young girl, Effia is sold by her father to a British slave trader named James – as a bride, not as a slave – and taken to live with him in Cape Coast Castle. The irony is that right under her bridal chambers, are dungeons filled to the brim with slaves, from villages just like Effia’s, waiting to be sent off to the Americas and the Caribbean via the Middle Passage. Among them is Esi Asare, Effia’s 15-year-old half-sister. The story then takes us on a journey as these two women, unknown to each other, embark on their own paths, filled with treachery, heart-wrenching tribulations and secrets.
The book is almost impossible to put down, but most importantly it’s impossible to forget.
The element that makes it unique is the fact that Yaa Gyasi intertwines reality with spirituality, everyday life with the occult. She beautifully introduces common beliefs and fables told by the people in Effia’s village, and how they impact the lives of people as they accept the reality of losing their loved ones to slavery.
I especially took to this book, because I find African mysticism so unique and still an element we know so little about.
The sheer empathetic tone of this novel draws you into a point where you’re feeling the ache of the sisters and wishing that things, weren’t as they were, then or now. The subjugation told from the point of view of two women enduring entirely separate experiences is exceptionally interesting. It also highlights the fact that we, as humans, use stories to not only escape reality but also to understand it.
To me, what makes African writers so unique is that not only are the backdrops not mainstream, but their word crafting is so visceral. You’re drawn into each moment to a point where you’re feeling what the characters are feeling.
Some quotes from the book that particularly stood out were: “Tell a lie long enough and it will turn to truth” and “History is storytelling”. These two lines beautifully give the gist of what the novel is about: how 2 women and their trials shape the future of many, and how we must learn from our past. These quotes are also an on-point illustration of the events of today as we swing back and forth on major issues like racism, classism or sexism. These have existed for centuries and are still as unresolved and painful as ever.
The title of the book, Homegoing, originates from African-American traditions of a person’s death signifying a return ‘home’. This encapsulates the novel quite beautifully because it speaks of the millions of lives that have departed but left behind scars we are yet to heal from.
I believe this novel attracted so much attention because of its transcendence and relevance even today. As we navigate the pandemic crisis and the movements that are finally finding a voice, such as Black Lives Matter and women’s rights, it’s interesting to turn to history as told by a unique voice. Yes, it may be intertwined in a fictional story, but the baseline truth remains very vital and imminent. The fact that many antislavery laws have been passed doesn’t mean that subjugation has stopped being a reality.
To be able to hear unique voices and to peek into the minds of those who lived through hell, makes one realize that there are so many stories we are yet to hear, understand and correct. Homegoing is just one glimpse into the lessons we should have learnt but somehow still haven’t.
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