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Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

HomegoingWhen Yaa Gyasi published her debut novel Homegoing, she collected an astounding array of awards and accolades.

Homegoing won the NBCC’s John Leonard First Book Prize and NPR’s Debut Novel of the Year; was named a New York Times 2016 Notable Book and one of Time‘s Top 10 Novels of 2016. Oprah picked it as one of her 10 Favourite Books of 2016. With all those commendations I was expecting a very special novel.

Homegoing was certainly an ambitious undertaking, tracing multiple generations of descendants across two continents and four centuries. Holding the narrative together is the issue of slavery which casts its shadow over not just those individuals who are captured but also those who are responsible for the trafficking of humans.  It’s an issue that sadly still resonates in the 21st century. Only last week the UK’s Guardian newspaper reported that nine African and Asian men had been taken into safety, suspected of being the victims of slavery aboard British scallop trawlers.

Yaa Gyasi’s portrayal of the effects of fate and the physical and mental scars that last through the generations, is breathtaking in its scope. But I still couldn’t help feel disappointed by the book overall.

The main problem is actually the broad scope of Homegoing.  It opens in a village on the Gold Coast (we know the area today as Ghana), home to the Asante tribe and its powerful leader “Big Man”. When a British slave trader takes a fancy to his beautiful daughter  Effia Otcher, Big Man sees an opportunity to cement relationships with the British rulers and get one up on the rival Fante tribe. Effia goes to live in a fort overlooking the sea. Under the castle, the dungeons are stuffed with slaves awaiting transit to Americas and the Caribbean.  Unknown to Effia, among them is her older half-sister Esi Asare, captured during a raid on her own village. Effia stays behind in Africa, protected as the wife of a British official while Esi, once her father’s darling, is transported to America.

Each chapter of the novel is narrated from the perspective of a descendant of either Effia or Esi, one representative for each generation, via chapters that alternate the two bloodlines alternate right up to the 21st century.

And there you have the crux of my difficulties with this novel.  Every chapter starts in a new location and time and introduces us to a completely new set of people with only a few references connecting one generation’s narrative to its predecessor.  Gyasi does a superb job of creating characters that resonate but it seemed that no sooner had I warmed to this individual and picked up the threads of the history of their family, the ongoing rivalry between Asante and Fante tribes and subsequently the fight for freedom and equality among the enslaved in the USA, then it was onto the next chapter. I appreciated Gyasi wanted to give a panoramic perspective but it meant she had little time to develop any theme in depth. She touches on ideas but then glances away before they really have time to mature or for her to say anything remarkably new. Reading the book made me feel I was experiencing a continuous supply of appetisers instead of a full meal of a novel

To overcome the problem of such a discontinuous narrative and avoid Homegoing becoming more of a series of linked stories than a novel, Gyasi relies heavy on recurring symbols like the stone pendant the sister’s mother gives to each girl. Effia’s pendant is passed from generation to generation but Esi’s stone is dropped into the filth and excrement of the castle dungeon into which she is thrown upon her capture and is never recovered, a metaphor for the  way slavery removes the individual’s connection to their past and robs them of their heritage.

I realise I am sounding very negative about this novel which is unfortunate and misleading. I did enjoy the book, most particularly because some of the characterisation was excellent.  I also gained new insights about the ways in which tribal conflict played a significant role in facilitating the capture of individuals to feed the slave trade. Gyasi more than convinced me that she’s a talented author but I’m equally confident this is not the best she is capable of producing. I’m going to watch with interest what she does next.

Footnotes

About the author: Yaa Gyasi was born in Ghana but moved with her parents to the United States when she was two years old so that her father could complete his PhD studies.  Homegoing was inspired by a 2009 trip to Ghana, after completing her sophomore year at Stanford, her  first trip to the country of her birth since leaving the country as an infant. 

About the novel:  Gyasi started to write Homegoing shortly after graduating from Stanford, when she worked at a startup company in San Francisco.  She continued working on it while studying for her MFA at Iowa university. It took Gyasi six years to write the novel. She received several offers from publishers but ultimately went with Knopf who gave her a seven-figure advance.

Why I read this book: I asked for this book as a Christmas present two years ago having heard so much about it but then didn’t get around to reading it until I joined a new book club this month which had chosen it for their December meeting.

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings – Maya Angelou

Raped at eight years old; pregnant at 17. Not that great a start in life, particularly for a black American female living in Arkansas decades before the Civil Rights movement. But Maya Angelou is nothing if not strong. And it’s that strength of mind and character that comes forcefully to life in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, the first part of her six volume autobiography.

It’s a coming of age book which traces her life from the age of three when she is sent with her brother Bailey to live with their grandmother in Stamps, Arkansas after the breakup of her parent’s marraige.  Living in the family general store, Angelou witnesses the realities of racial discrimination. One night she helps to hide a neighbour when alerted to possible Klan activity in the neighbourhood; another time she recounts the way a ‘powhitetrash’ girl taunts her grandmother, lifting up her skirts to insult her. Angelou herself is subjected to humiliation and racism. Working as a domestic servant to earn some pocket money, she is robbed of her name because Margurite (her birth name) isn’t considered by her white employer to be appropriate for one of her kind.  When she experiences the intense pain of  a rotten tooth and is taken to a dentist in the nearest town, he refuses to treat her because of her colour.

Set against this however is the way Angelou portrays the deeply held values of family, culture and faith in her community. And although much of what she relates is life at its most brutal, she is equally adept at describing its lighter moments whether its the uncontrollable laughter that bursts forth in the middle of a church sermon or the joy of discovering Charles Dickens, Shakespeare and James Weldon Johnson. It was through these authors and the careful nurturing of a family friend that helped facilitate her recovery from the traumatic effects of the sexual abuse and rape by her mother’s boyfriend. Angelou became mute for almost five years after that incident, convinced that somehow she was partly to blame.

I had sold myself to the Devil and there could be no escape. The only thing I could do was to stop talking to people….Just my breath carrying my words out, might poison people and they’d curl up and die like the black fat slugs that only pretended.

Much of the book is episodic, with events related in a non linear fashion, but the thread that holds them together is Maya’s growing sense of identity.  She progresses from being a victim of racism with an inferiority complex to a self-aware individual with a strong sense of who she is and who responds to racism by refusing to acknowledge its existence. As a sixteen year old she becomes determined to be “in control of her fate’ by getting a job as a conductor on a trolley car, eventually becoming the first black person to hold such a job.

But though she matures, she reflects that the journey is not yet over for though she has graduated from school has beaten the odds to get some financial independence, and has become a mother, there is still a part of her that is unsure of what her journey has really meant.

I had gone from being ignorant of being ignorant to being aware of being aware. And the worst part of my awareness was that I didn’t know what I was aware of.

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings has long been on my bookshelf . I included it in my Classics Club list as a way of motivating me into actually reading it. And I am so glad I did, but only sorry I didn’t read it earlier.

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