Yaa Gyasi’s Homecoming is an exceptionally fine debut novel from a young, African-American writer originally from Ghana, but now living in The United States.  Gyasi, like Annie Proulx, uses the alluring and appealing trope of the family saga in an epic sweep of a novel.  Since she addresses some very tough topics–the novel begins in what was once called The Gold Coast of Africa, later independently called Ghana- during the era of the buying and selling of black Africans as slaves to much of the New World, except for Canada.  The family saga will begin with two sisters in the Gold Coast in the early l700s, one of whose destiny will be to remain in Africa, and who thus represents the traditions of that part of Africa, mainly focusing on marital alliances and extended families.  We get a kind of overview of how various generations descending from this first sister live in small villages there, where life is continuous on a mostly unchanging spectrum: the author focuses on two main tribes there, and a building called The Castle, run by British soldiers and men of fortune.  Gyasi minces no words in showing us how one of the Africa tribes sells its neighbors into slavery to the British–this part of the novel is in no way sugar-coated; Gyasi would have it that only by forming an alliance with The British would this tribe maintain its own autonomy and not be snapped into British oblivion and probably slavery too.  The other African tribe is not a war tribe, and we are made privy to their capture by their neighbors, and they are temporarily housed in the basement of The Castle, awaiting transport to America and the West Indies.  Certain daughters of the tribe are “married” to some of the British soldiers, who, of course, have wives and children at home, but the trope allows us to get glimmers of the horrors of the lives these captives live, if you can call it living: they are stacked up  in piles of ten bodies in the basement, and will be transported overseas the same way; many die in the dungeon, many are chained in the lowest levels of the ships to become slaves. By having one of the original two sisters marry one of the English troops, we are privy to the sounds and moans and rapes of the women chained in the basement while British life goes on “normally” in the upper parts of The Castle. It’s very grim, but necessary reading, and by personalizing some of the people trapped in the dungeon, Gyasi gives many of them the human face that history rarely can or does.

The other sister is shipped off to America to be sold as a slave, creating the unwilling diaspora of African-Americans still residing in this country.  It is still nearly impossible for me to imagine human beings being stripped naked in auction blocks (you can see an old one in Maysville, Ky., right on the river), and, ripped apart from any family, sold unwillingly: the origins of the broken black American family are traced right to this fact.  I’d forgotten that so many of those brought as slaves also all spoke different languages, so that their ability to communicate with even one another was nullified.  And Gyasi does emphasize, as Annie Proulx does in The Barkskins (also reviewed this month), a certain rapacious, predatory personality of white Western men; both authors are baffled by same, as am I, but it’s certainly been historically accurate, and it hasn’t gone away.  The white Westerners have a crueler streak in them than even the Africans who sold them as slaves.

The novel follows the descendants of these two women, through either Africa or their slavery and eventual freedom in America.  That fierce bond and protectiveness that the women have for their children is given historical context, and although the author does blame slavery for the chronic broken African American family, she refuses to let the African-American male off the hook easily: for those who might fear that a novel like this one could veer into ideology, Gyasi is way too smart and too savvy to want to utilize that trope.  Her honesty and integrity in her historical research and her own view of African-American history are too astute for her to play any games in this novel, and we congratulate her for avoiding this obvious pitfall.

Gyasi also happens to write almost like an angel: her prose is lyrical, much like fairy tales: she is able to write about an entire generation in just a few pages, so that the readers don’t get bogged down in too much detail: she focuses on essentials, but writes with a clarity and brevity that astound us.  She also is smart to keep an important link between the African families and the American ones, through one mystical grandmother whose granddaughter is in college in America (no doubt a version of the author).

When Yaa Gyasi finally brings the two branches of the family back together through descendants who are contemporary to our own lives, now, it’s a very moving thing, that after generations of being sold and ripped apart, remnants of these families remain alive: Proulx, too, deals with the remnants, one of the most important aspects of Old Testament stories, so that both women writers use Biblical tropes to underscore their points: that’s a very smart thing to do, and it works beautifully for both writers.

You will likely be reminded of Alice Walker’s The Color Purple in Gyasi’s novel, in the brevity of the prose and the near fairy tale quality of the lives of those who survive.

Homegoing is a very beautiful novel, and it personalizes a history of a people so that history becomes alive, one of the things that fiction can often do, but journalism and/or biography often can’t.  Homegoing is an achievement of the highest rank.

–Daniel Brown

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