In January 2020, after reading Stephanie’s post about her challenge to read more books by authors of colour, I was inspired to consciously start looking for books written by black authors. My first pick: Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi.
In a nutshell
“Homegoing” tells the story of multiple generations descending from the same Asante woman called Maame. From a time perspective, the book spans over more than a hundred years.
Starting with two half sisters, Effia and Esi, daughters of Maame, the stories unfold on two parallel streams of the family tree. The two sisters have very different lives – one marries a British Governor, while the other is a enslaved – leading to contrasting lives of their descendants.
Note: Asante is an ethnic group, native to the Ashanti region of Ghana. They speak the Twi language.
This was a very moving book for me, as I haven’t read before about slavery nor about African countries. The story had a twofold impact: on one hand I enjoyed a lot the story per-se and I was quickly caught on the episodic structure, on the other hand I gained insights into the historical and cultural elements of Ghana.
Episodic narrative structure
The chapters are structured as alternating episodes, offering a glimpse into the descendants lives – one episode of the Effia “series”, then one episode of the Esi “series”.
I find it especially fascinating how these episodes manage to offer a comprehensive view on the characters’ lives concentrated in a very short story (each chapter is ∼20 pages long).
Gyasi chooses an essential element that portrays each character and weaves his/her story around that. The reader also gets to find more details as (s)he progresses through the story, putting together pieces of the trans-generational puzzle.
As I went through the stories of Effia’s and Esi’s descendants I encountered multiple cultural elements that were unfamiliar to me:
- names (eg. Akua, Akosua, Ohene)
- ethnic groups (eg. Fante, Asante)
- religion (eg. Nyame the God of the Asante people)
In regard to names, I had no feeling whether the name was for a woman or a man. It helped to draw my own version of the family tree where I noted the sex of the person and also a few key words about him/her.
! Slight spoilers in the picture, please do not analyze my writing if you haven’t read the book 🙂
The book offers a historical perspective on slavery in Ghana. The Cape Coast Castle, one of the 40-is “slave castles” on the Gold Coast of Ghana, is a central point of the story – there British governors were living on top luxurious levels of the building while Ghanaian slaves were waiting in the underground dungeons to be transported to their owners.
While I was aware of the slavery issue, I was struck by the fact that local people were involved in the enslavement of their own people!
If you want to read more about “Homegoing” and how Gyasi was inspired to write the book, I recommend The Story Behind ‘Homegoing’ (Stanford Magazine, 2017)
“Homegoing” is a beautiful and heartbreaking saga of multiple generations descending from Ghana. Even though it tackles tough issues such as racism and slavery, colonialism and (lack of) integration, the compassionate tone helps the reader make sense of the impact ancestry has on each character.
I recommend this book with all my heart, it is a moving story and a “healing read” (Zadie Smith).
‘Till next time … happy reading!
Cover image adapted from the book cover (Penguin, 2016).