Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi rises to the top of my books read this year, and discovering that it was a first novel by this author makes me love it even a little more. This epic story stretches through history, from Ghana in times where some Asante and Fante people were taken as slaves to modern day California. The story focuses on two people each generation–the offspring of half-sisters Effia and Esi, both born to the same mother, but separated by paternity, distance, and circumstance. Each generation looks at a descendant of each woman.
While I thought it might be disruptive not to follow one character or two characters, the way Gyasi wove the family history into each chapter didn’t make me feel as if I missed the other characters, as they were mentioned in each subsequent chapters. Seeing the spectrum of possibilities for people born in the same time period was fascinating, and Gyasi clearly did her research. I found myself wrapped up in history, celebrating victories and mourning losses as if I were there with her. There’s insight on every page of the novel. Whether she’s commenting on how people do not closely examine their lives: “It was the way most people lived their lives,on upper levels, not stopping to peer beneath” or whether the medicine woman was explaining how people worked: “People think they come to me for advice…but really, they come to me for permission,” I found the story compelling and easy to sink into. I read this book in just one day.
I could see pairing parts of this book with Ta-Nehisi Coates’s book Between the World and Me or even as a companion to Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. When I used to teach Things Fall Apart, I would refer to the proverb “where one thing stands, another stands beside it” and I was reminded of it by this line in Homegoing: “The need to call this thing “good” and this thing “bad,” this thing “white” and this thing “black,” was an impulse that Effia did not understand. In her village, everything was everything. Everything bore the weight of everything else.”
Speaking of other texts this book made me think of, Chimamanda Adichie’s TED talk “The Danger of a Single Story” could also be paired with this, as she talks about one way to steal power is to start with secondly. I remembered that when I read this line from Homegoing: “We believe the one who has power. He is the one who gets to write the story. So when you study history you must ask yourself, Whose story am I missing?, Whose voice was suppressed so that this voice could come forth? Once you have figured that out, you must find that story too. From there you get a clearer, yet still imperfect, picture.”
This entire book was beautifully written and empowering. Lines like this are hard to resist writing down and/or underlining: “You want to know what weakness is? Weakness is treating someone as though they belong to you. Strength is knowing that everyone belongs to themselves.” What I loved best, though, was the hopeful ending to the novel. It ends with love and joy and a feeling of satisfaction and completeness as well as hope. So, if you need a literary read that will kidnap you for a few hours but will stay with you for a few weeks, check this out.