In June this year, I bought and downloaded ‘Homegoing’ by Yaa Gyasi onto my tablet, and I finally completed it today and it was such a different book from the ones I normally read and very relevant for the UK’s Black History Month that I wanted to talk about it. It is an amazing piece of literature definitely deserving a review.
Yaa Gyasi is a Ghanaian-American novelist and Homegoing is her debut novel. At only 26 she has already won awards for this novel and of course, they are well deserved. According to her Wikipedia, Homegoing was inspired by a trip to her home country of Ghana, that she had not visited since being an infant. Homegoing is a phrase used for African-American funerals and is a big part of the culture and history. Back in the days of the slave trade, slaves believed death meant their soul would ‘go home’ and return to their native place in Africa. Of course, as the novel starts in the 18th century and explores the theme of slavery so raw and bluntly, I can see why Gyasi used this as a title. Of course, when I started reading I knew deep down this book was going to be more educational to me than it would ever be empathetic because this is a book of black history and the suffering, discrimination and such African people went through from 18th century onwards. I think it is a good idea for white people to read stories like this as it’s stories that are true and need to be told. Not forgotten. So many people went through so many things to even get to where we are today and in recent stories such as the rise of Black Lives Matters, the obvious problem of racism in many industries and shootings of black youth by police – it’s very important to remember we’ve still got a long way to go in learning from our ancestor’s discrimination and cruelty.
Admittedly I was terrible with keeping up on my reading on the first few chapters of Homegoing but I don’t put that down to the writing or topic at all. I’m very bad for procrastinating reading. But recently I picked up Homegoing again and got sucked back in and even between University classes or on the tram home I have found myself wishing I had more time to ‘just finish this chapter’ or ‘find out who the next character is’. Each character was so different but I loved how you could trace back the relatives and descendants to the original characters of Effia and Esi. Family/ancestors are an important theme in this story. It also explores two regions of Ghana, the Ashanti people and the Fante. From reading this I am so in love and amazed by Gyasi’s knowledge and research of her culture and the past of Ghana. Even at the end of the book I looked at her list of references and was incredibly impressed. The passion to spread the knowledge and history of Ghana is so amazing and Gyasi is an incredible author and writes each character so beautifully and makes each of their stories so unique, that you find yourself glued to the book intrigued.
Gyasi does not spare anything writing the honest past of these characters and how some of them lived through well-known history including the African Slave Trade, the Plantation era, segregation in the US, riots, war on drugs etc., it left me feeling like I had gotten a more honest and powerful insight to how people of colour experienced these times. A quote that stood out to me massively about half way through the book was:
“We believe the one who has power. He is the one who gets to write the story. So when you study history you must ask yourself, Whose story am I missing?, Whose voice was suppressed so that this voice could come forth? Once you have figured that out, you must find that story too. From there you get a clearer, yet still imperfect, picture.”
This stood out because I think it’s a quote and question to ask yourself even now. What’s in the history books in school in the US isn’t always correct. Things are missed out, people are missed out. Think of the Ferguson riots and many other riots after innocent black youth had been killed after. Thankfully on Twitter, people are lot more quick to notice the anomalies, but there was so many call outs for ‘trustworthy’ media ignoring important facts or honest stories from black witnesses. Media would paint the white policeman as a victim and the barely even adolescent black child as not. In this day and age, racism is systematic and history is changed to suit those who are in charge.
As I prepared to write this review, I actually scanned over other people’s reviews and one talked about how most ‘the past of slavery’ centered books tend to just be there to shock and upset. I don’t really agree and I definitely think Homegoing is different from that. It doesn’t give you a bird’s eye view, it puts you right there in the character’s shoes. It takes you through generations to see how, even though the African slave trade is in the past, things still effect people of colour today. There is still lasting effects and that we shouldn’t ever forget about it. It’s not something we can brush under a rug or let a white leader convince us that it’s all ‘over and done with’.
I wanted to make this a spoiler-free review but I’ll mention briefly, the ending characters who close the book for me were based in the 21st century, I’m guessing around 2001. The final female character, Marjorie, takes our final male character Marcus back to Ghana where she grew up, more specifically, the Cape Coast. The story itself starts with fire and fire is actually a prominent theme throughout the story, however as the two characters stand on the beach in the sun there is this one paragraph:
“She walked to where he stood, where the fire met the water. He took her hand and they both looked out into the abyss of it. The fear that Marcus had felt inside the castle was still there, but he knew it was like the fire, a wild thing that could still be controlled, contained.”
I thought this was such an amazing little scene that I actually wrote it down. I loved the contrasting symbolism of starting with a fire and ending with water. I can never spot or decipher exactly what this symbolism could have meant to the author but I feel it was to maybe be a metaphor for the character’s futures. The vast, big sea on the coast of Ghana, the character’s ancestors homes – where it all started. To show despite all of the anger, distress, brutality, violence and suffering the characters go through during the book, they are still there. They are still strong and part of the Earth. Their ancestries are important stories to the Earth and despite how horrible the world can be, people will keep fighting. The ocean scene is almost like a healing scene compared to the rest of the book, although it is clear you are meant to understand that racism and discrimination is still rampant, the two characters are given a moment of peace and clarity, of happiness.
I think this is definitely a novel to pick up this year and read as it is so educational and relevant even now. The cover art I have seen for it is also beautifully illustrated and it’s just such a raw, enthralling book that I might consider getting a physical copy for myself to read again in the future.
Thank you for reading, Homegoing is currently available here on Amazon UK