Book Review: Homegoing by Ya’a Gyasi (2018)

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Review 2.14

How far back can you trace your ancestry? I can go back four generations on my mother’s side, to my great-grandmother whom I was lucky enough to know for twenty-five years before she passed. On my father’s side, I can go back only three generations to my grandfather, who fought on the side of the Allies during World War II and passed away when I was in high school. I imagine this is more or less normal. People can trace their ancestry back somewhere between three to five generations before the trail becomes difficult to follow. Of course you always have outliers, like the haughty New Englanders who can prove their ancestors came over on the Mayflower, but they are by far the exception rather than the rule.

How interesting would it be to know the full story? How did your family come to be your family? What strokes of luck and trials of fate determined their lives and hopes and happiness? At least I can say that my family came to the United States deliberately, in hopes of creating a better life for themselves and their families. This is part of my privilege.

Homegoing seeks to tell just one story among millions of people whose ancestors had had no say in their own futures, and were instead torn from their home countries and thrust into a life of labor on faraway shores. It also tells the story of those who stayed.

This debut novel by Ghanaian author Ya’a Gyasi will draw inevitable comparison to Alex Haley’s groundbreaking Roots. Both tell a generational story, one that stretches over four hundred years and the span of an ocean. Both highlight the injustices of slavery, and the constant backsliding struggle for former slaves to succeed under Jim Crow and segregation. The one huge difference is that while Roots focused solely on the lives of the slaves taken across the Atlantic,  Homegoing keeps half of its plot on the shores of Africa; and also tells the story of the changing political landscape of the region as it is torn apart and knitted back together again and again by war and colonization.

Gyasi does something else very striking with her novel. She acknowledges that the tribes of Africa were actively complicit in the slave trade. Warring tribes often kept captured rivals as slaves in their own villages, and they began selling these prisoners for a profit to the white slavers who came to the shores of the Gold Coast. Homegoing sugarcoats none of these unpleasant details, and presents its characters as flawed and fallible, and they are all the more memorable for their flaws and fallacies.

Every chapter of Homegoing is set from a different perspective in a different time period and setting, generally following the story of the previous character’s offspring. Gyasi shifts her narrative from one side of the Atlantic to the other, and tells the story of concurrent generations as they face the problems dealt either by being African or by being African-American. These stories are sometimes filled with sorrow, sometimes joy. Sometimes I would need a few pages to remember the characters from the previous “generation”, so that I could place myself in history.

If I read this novel again, I will begin by writing the two names of the supreme matriarchs of this generational tale, and draw a family tree as I explore the different members of this one very, very extended family.

My rating: 4.5/5

You can find Homegoing here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!