Who is Yaa Gyasi? Where did she come from? Why doesn’t every serious reader know her name? Her debut at age 26, Homegoing, has won her a PEN/Hemingway Award and a National Book Critics’ Circle Award. In the last 12 months, we have seen multiple spellbinding and successful novels centered on the lives of black people in the United States including the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead, The Mothers by Brit Bennett, and Another Brooklyn by Jacqueline Woodson.
Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing takes us from colonialism, slave trade and the missionary movement in 18th century Africa to the United States of the 20th century. The sweeping debut of this Ghanaian-American novelist doesn’t believe this story can be told through the fate of one individual or one family. Instead we travel far and heartbreakingly wide as we follow the scattered children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren of one woman in a village in Africa that was influential in starting the slave trade.
The colour of history
I cannot remember the last time I saw a more beautifully produced book. When I open the hardback, I am confronted with white flowers growing in the pitch black of the first two and the last two pages of the book. In the 300 pages in between, children will continue to be born generation after generation, aided by love, rape and forced copulation by slave owners who need new bodies. In these pages, Yaa Gyasi will show us how relentless the birth, survival and death of innocents is in the context of a history that erases your roots, and then erases the route to your roots.
Without a map of their history, the descendants of one woman have no way of knowing they are cursed, that bloodlines must be put an end to if they are to escape suffering. But the idea of the cursed woman is a decoy – black and mulatto people have necessarily been swept up in history. If a curse exists, Yaa Gyasi shows us time and again, it is that skin colour has determined fortunes for centuries.
In recent times, debates have risen about how slavery is not the sole black narrative worth exploring. But, as shown in The Underground Railroad and Homegoing, much can be said that has not been said before. The novel is diligent in revealing the complexities of the slave trade. Gyasi shows us how tribes kidnapped and sold members of other tribes for profit. She shows us the pockets of freedom and equality that existed in the States. The city of Baltimore emerges as a coastal town where black men can work on the ships as free men and black women can housekeep for fair wages. The ships and the expanse of the ocean become powerful images of the vessels that brought them here forcibly from Africa and of the water that ties them to their ancestral land. There is no one story, Gyasi shows. There is no single archetype for slaves, Gyasi reiterates.
More questions than answers
In Gyasi’s intelligent, empathetic prose, entire lives are condensed into chapters. We dwell deeply into each life, caring for that person till they are cruelly ripped away. Sometimes we don’t know what happened to that person. It appears Gyasi deliberately leaves us with questions that must plague her own characters too. Where are they? Do they die free? Is it okay to imagine for our own sakes that they have escaped whatever hell they found themselves in?
We travel through the whips at cotton plantations to the ship docks to coal mines that shade the lungs of black men. We leave Ghana behind. We leave Baltimore behind. We leave Harlem behind. At every juncture, first husbands and wives, children, parents are lost. What can be held on to? Nothing living, Gyasi finds. A family heirloom, a black stone framed with gold and threaded into a necklace, is the only item passed miraculously down the line.
The necklace ties together the beginning of slavery and its long-reaching ramifications in modern times as we encounter the effects of trauma, poverty, drug abuse and alcoholism in the black community. It made me wish that a similar novel existed in India – one that tried to understand the ways in which our colonial history had damaged us into the present day. Gyasi reminds us that de-colonisation and the end of slavery are not as complete as we believe them to be. As a black man named Jo watches his daughter have bad dreams, he thinks:
….a little black child fighting in her sleep against an opponent she couldn’t name come morning…Beulah ran in her sleep, ran like she’d stolen something, when really she had done nothing other than expect the peace, the clarity, that came with dreaming. Yes, Jo thought, this was where it started, but when, where, did it end?
This rigorous look at how history maims personal narratives, at how hope, kindness and cruelty exist in equal and baffling measure in humans, and at how trauma is inherited through the body is one of the most important books written in recent times.
Homegoing, Yaa Gyasi, Viking.