Homegoing follows the family lineage of two half-sisters starting from 18th century West Africa, modern-day Ghana, until the present day. Yaa Gyasi’s debut novel spans seven generations and fourteen perspectives. I read in interviews the Gyasi intentionally forced herself to write each perspective in a maximum of 20 pages to give the effect of recounting oral family history, which she succeeds in. In turn, the novel form a series of beautiful and vulnerable vignettes intricately woven, not only into the context of the time, but also threads back to previous generations.
“This is the problem of history. We cannot know that which we were not there to see and hear and experience for ourselves. We must rely upon the words of others. Those who were there in the olden days, they told stories to the children so that the children would know, so that the children could tell stories to their children. And so on, and so on.”
Reading through the vignettes reminded me of sitting by the fireplace listening to family talk about our ancestry. Often, we only go back as far as our grandparents, and potentially our great-grandparents. What gets lost is the shoulders on which those generations were lifted up on. Prior to Homegoing, never had my mind considered the notion of my grandparents having grandparents. It may seem really obvious, and perhaps I am just late to the game on this, but the possibility never entered my mind. For pretty much my entire life, the horizons of my familial universe ended with my grandparents. Gyasi reminded me of the notion Newton espoused of us standing on the shoulders’ of giants. In a scientific sense, yes, and perhaps straightforwardly, it makes sense. But in a familial sense? Now that is something you don’t hear about everyday even though the impact on an individual-level is probably greater.
As I read through each generation, I felt my opinion on each of Effia’s and Esi’s lineage soften while growing in complexity. When I reached closer to the present day, the comfort I found in the familiarity of the context and issues was juxtaposed by the the lingering trail of suffering that threaded back almost 200 years before. I felt the exploration of each issue, problem or tension heighten as a result of the accumulation of injustices that had occurred to the current narrator’s ancestors. I felt a lot more invested in the stories of Marcus and Marjorie than I would had I read their chapters as self-contained pieces of writing. There is probably a lesson there in not being quick judge others and instead shower charity all with with charity of thought and opinion.
I think she was able to capture perfectly what Marcus says in the final chapter, the passing of time, the notion that we are the product of inter-generational forces that we may never know, or at least know that well.
“How could he explain to Marjorie that what he wanted to capture with his project was the feeling of time, of having been a part something that stretched so far back, was so impossibly large, that it was easy to forget that she, and he, and everyone else, existed in it—not apart from it, but inside it.”
While we are all aware of this fact, it is not something everyone necessarily internalises, and therein lies the problem, or rather the conundrum, one I felt resolve itself as I read the final few chapters of these things. The most memorable stories, without any prompting, were definitely Willie & H. I don’t know why exactly. I felt more invested in both of their plights versus the generations still under slavery.
Highly, HIGHLY, recommended. I find it hard to express just how much I love Homegoing –– it is a similar feeling to listening to my favourite album. The stories (or songs) alone are good, but what makes it a masterpiece (imho) is how beautifully it comes together.