Monday 16 October 2017

Homegoing - Yaa Gyasi (2016)

A debut novel can be a fascinating thing, sometimes a brilliant start that a novelist may find difficult to live up to, like Donna Tartt’s The Secret History (1992), or a false start that the novelist tries move on from, like Jack Kerouac’s The Town and the City (1950). Yaa Gyasi’s debut novel, Homegoing, falls somewhere in-between these two extremes. Gyasi was born in Ghana but was raised in America, predominately in Alabama, and decided on becoming a writer after being inspired by the Toni Morrison novel Song of Solomon (1977). Homegoing itself was inspired by Gyasi’s visit to Ghana in 2009 and took her six years of work before the novel was accepted for publication by Knopf. The novel is quite ambitious, featuring a multitude of characters, spanning two centuries and does not contain a principal protagonist; rather it is divided into discrete chapters that come with a host of new characters (too many to adequately discuss here; one book club member counted over forty characters). Gaysi is mostly equal to her ambition and the novel can be considered a successful attempt at presenting slavery in a new light.

Homegoing is written in a refreshingly simple, direct style, but is complex in terms of the generational flow of characters. It begins with a fire lit by a woman of the Asante tribe, Maame, who is enslaved by the rival Fante tribe. She escapes but leaves behind her daughter Effia. Maame then returns to her people and has another daughter called Esi. Via alternating chapters Gyasi tells the stories of the descendants of each daughter. Effia’s descendants remain in Africa in the Gold Coast area that eventually became Ghana, and Esi’s descendants become slaves in America. Each chapter begins with fresh protagonists, which can be challenging for some readers, but fortunately Gyasi has created a host of sympathetic characters with enough colour and nuance to draw the reader in and win them over. The early part of the novel contains fascinating portrayals of African tribal life, beliefs and customs. I was shocked to learn that the peoples of the Gold Coast region were already engaged in slavery before European powers began trading slaves themselves. Slaves would be taken from opposing tribes and some were then sold to slave traders from North Africa and the Middle East. It made me wonder just why this was completely unknown to me after all the history associated with slavery I’ve been exposed to throughout my life.

One of the strengths of the novel is that many of the characters display a moral complexity that transcends their position as either victim or oppressor. When Effia is given as an African bride to her English master, James Collins, we discover that Collins is not merely an evil white slaver, but can be kind and has enough moral awareness to suffer some degree of guilt and horror regarding the slave trade. The African side of Homegoing is the most engaging throughout much of the novel, with its range of well-rounded characters and unfamiliar historical context. The American side takes in the oppression of black Americans after the abolition of slavery, through imprisonment and forced labour and the poverty and drug addiction of city life throughout the early part of the twentieth century. Despite such tragic themes the narrative becomes marginally more prosaic, causing the latter third of the novel to fall away slightly. It picks up again when Gyasi takes us into the modern era that features a character called Marjorie, who is perhaps based on her own life experiences. Within this modern cultural context the disparate narrative strands of the novel come together and offer a satisfying conclusion that could have easily descended into cliche at the hands of a lesser writer.

Homegoing addresses some important themes, such as slavery, family bonds, and the shaping forces of history on individuals. Although the novel encompasses a significant historical period, perhaps its greatest strength is that Gyasi makes only fleeting references to significant historical events, even the American Civil War only gets a few sentences. Instead the novel conveys its history via the characters personal stories, their struggles, triumphs and the weight of familial burdens that take generations to resolve. This gives the novel some emotional gravitas, which underlines the profound effects of the forces of history on the individual. Although Homegoing is not a literary masterpiece, it can be considered to be an important book. Slavery, much like the Holocaust, is a subject that is not going to go away and therefore it is important that we find new ways of addressing its legacy, particularly at this point in history in which right-wing hatred is on the rise once more. Coincidentally when I finished this novel I watched the movie Get Out (2017), which provided a fresh perspective on slavery within the unlikely context of a postmodern horror narrative. Humanity needs more stories like these to help us make sense of both our past and our present, which is why the novelistic form is so important culturally, rather than just being a means to entertain ourselves, something that we should not lose sight of in our hyper-distracted world.