Yaa Gyasi’s debut novel Homegoing is set to be published this upcoming June. She is only 26 years old and has managed to score a seven figure deal for her first book. Sometimes the bidding wars surrounding book deals are indicative of a book’s value and sometimes they are not (cough Garth Risk Hallberg’s City on Fire cough cough). This is one case where I can say the publishing industry is correct. Homegoing deserves the hype.
Homegoing follows the direct descendants of two half-sisters, separated by fire and water in the 1760’s. One sister, Effia the Beauty, is “married” to a white slave trader in Cape Coast while the other, Esi, is captured and forced into slavery, where she becomes one of the many people brutally taken from their homeland and robbed of their personhood by the transatlantic slave trade bound for the southern United States. The ensuing three hundred pages follows both lines through three hundred years. The colonization of the Gold Coast, the Anglo-Asante wars, the rise and fall of the slave economy in America, slave hunters and the illegal enslavement of free blacks, reconstruction, coal mining, Jim Crow, the Great Migration, the Jazz Age, Harlem’s heroin epidemic, Ghanaian nationalism and independence, civil rights and the ever-present oppressive forces of institutional racism and everyday violence towards people of color are just some of the things Effia and Esi’s descendants live through.
One of the most impressive things to me about Homegoing is the way that the structure of the narratives make the relentless injustices suffered by generation after generation so impossible to ignore. No character is given more than thirty pages. The majority of chapters, which are snapshots of one ancestor’s/descendant’s life, are between fifteen to twenty pages. And it never feels like enough. It is amazing to me how Yaa Gyasi can make me feel as if so much has happened within such a short period of time and yet feel that I was not given enough time with each person. You quickly care about each and every character and mourn how short your time with them is, just as you can imagine their family members mourn their own brief times together. You want to know what comes next for each person. What happens to them when their chapter ends? You long to know more in the same way a daughter longs to know more about the faceless mother she has heard so little about. In Gyasi’s novel, family is somehow both inescapable and invisible.
A recent graduate from the renowned Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Gyasi was born in Ghana and raised in Huntsville, Alabama. Her experiences of transient nationality, feeling neither wholly African nor African-American, are very present in her writing. No character dies where they were born. They are always changing places, whether running away from something, running towards something or being taken against their will. It is that longing for home, to return to a place that one has either never been or does not truly exist, that permeates each narrative. To name the novel “Homegoing” instead of “Homecoming” is telling.
Like I already hinted, I’m not the only one to have fallen in love with Homegoing. Ta-Nehisi Coates, National Book Award winning author of Between the World and Me, feels the same way. “Gyasi’s characters are so fully realized, so elegantly carved—very often I found myself longing to hear more. Craft is essential given the task Gyasi sets for herself—drawing not just a lineage of two sisters, but two related peoples. Gyasi is deeply concerned with the sin of selling humans on Africans, not Europeans. But she does not scold. She does not excuse. And she does not romanticize. The black Americans she follows are not overly virtuous victims. Sin comes in all forms, from selling people to abandoning children. I think I needed to read a book like this to remember what is possible. I think I needed to remember what happens when you pair a gifted literary mind to an epic task. Homegoing is an inspiration.”
With what is both a great American novel and a great African novel, I hope to see Yaa Gyasi’s success inspire more works like this one. I whole-heartedly award Homegoing with the Taste Maven Stamp of Approval. As Gyasi reminds her readers, “History is Storytelling”, and Homegoing is Storytelling at its best.