“This is the problem of history. We cannot know that which we were not there to see and hear and experience for ourselves. We must rely upon the words of others.”
These are the words of one of the many characters in Homegoing, and they sound like an invitation, if not an instruction on how to read Yaa Gyasi’s debut novel: history is no more than a story, and more often than not, its power lies in the fact that it is told by the victors. Here, Gyasi makes an honorable attempt at reestablishing bits of “fictional truth”, if I can use the expression, in the thwarted history of those who where colonized and/or sold into slavery.
Homegoing was like anything I have read before. Gyasi gave a very original form to her novel, which is both fascinating and frustrating. Indeed, the storyline follows the lineage of two half-sisters who never knew each other. One remains on Ghana and lives a rather privileged life, being married to a wealthy slaver, while the other is tragically sold into slavery. From then on, each chapter is devoted to one of their descendants, from the late XVIII° century to the early XXI°.
The main effect of this original narrative choice is that the reader frequently needs to go back to the genealogical chart printed at the beginning of the book, so as to refresh his/her memory. One finds oneself regularly navigating through the pages so as not to forget, and this effort is sometimes at variance with those of the characters. [Minor spoilers from then on, until the end of the paragraph] On the African side, the lineage is perfectly defined, as shown by the heirloom, a beautiful stone, passed down from one generation to another, whilst on the American side, the stone is lost from the beginning. On the Ghanian side, the characters keep the same family name for up to four generations, and each knows exactly who his/her ancestor(s) were and what they did — a knowledge that becomes a burden for one of them who prefers to estrange himself from his family. On the American side, the opposite phenomenon takes place: each parent is separated from his/her child, for all the reasons that slavery in XIX°-century America could provide: one is sold to a new master, caught up in a thwarted escape, imprisoned kidnapped, killed… Family history on the American side is both renewed and destroyed with each generation and we end up feeling eerily frustrated at the thought that they will never know who their parents were, when us, simple readers, we do.
Somehow, Homegoing could be read as a short story cycle, so deep are the connections between the characters, so brutal are the ruptures, the separations and the losses. But the fact that it is not a short story cycle and that these characters, despite the appearances, are connected to one another through family bonds, alludes to the huge sense of trauma that lies behind this dark history. This invisible trauma could justify why Marcus, the last character on the American side, values so much his family and is in a desperate quest for answers, which takes the acceptable form of a PhD research.
Over the course of the novel, as we move on through the centuries, Gyasi depicts the different social struggles that Black Americans encounter, be they slaves, former slaves or descendants of slaves. The research that Gyasi carried out is properly impressive. From the wretched conditions of the slaves who worked in cotton fields, for a master who was good when he allowed a five-minute break after three hours under the scorching sun, and where whippings were the main payment they received for their efforts; to the coal mines where Black men were sent as prisoners, having never had a proper trial, to provide free labour force; and to the plague of drug addictions in the streets of Harlem, or the daily racism encountered by Black Americans long after the end of the segregation… it seems that there’s not a topic that Gyasi forgot to tackle, and each chapter gives heavy food for thought.
I felt less involved by the African side of the story, many characters of which I couldn’t relate to, or which I found somehow artificial, especially the one that comes just after the rupture in the family lineage (I’m not naming any character so as not to spoil potential readers but if you’ve read it, surely you know who I’m thinking about)[Minor spoilers from then on until the end of the paragraph]. However, even though I was less emotionally attached to those characters, I found extremely poetic the mystic, almost paranormal, haunting woman of fire that drives one of the characters mad. The resurgence of this lost past sends the reader back to the very first lines of the novel, to the motif of the fire that opens the novel; it displays the secret of her ancestors to this character but this secret, she cannot understand, for in her family history lies such a rupture that all access to her oldest ancestors is barred. Which compels her community to cast her away as a madwoman (yet another one!). I found each of the chapters from then on heartbreaking and captivating and I was seduced by the poetic consistence of the fire motif.
The African side of the story is thus defined (and mostly destroyed) by fire while the American side is marked by water — water separates the first slaves from their motherland and the last character is terrorized by the liquid element. One can only wonder what happens if or when fire meets water, but I won’t say anything about it here.
Homegoing reads as an alternate history in which characters that were so far unheard are given a voice. If their home is lost, they find a home within the pages of the novel. It thus reads as a modern postcolonial novel, which aims at reestablishing another version of history, and with her many stories of many words, Gyasi invites us “to hear and experience for ourselves”. It is up to us to rely upon her words, but it is safe to imagine that the poetry of those voices will draw you in.