Black history, books, Debut Novel, Reading, Women Writers

“Homegoing” by Ya’a Gyasi

“[S]ometimes staying free required unimaginable sacrifice.”


Ya’a Gyasi’s debut has been much-anticipated and highly celebrated, a sometimes lethal combination for any new artist. But Gyasi soars, outshining even the highest praise. Hers is a voice we didn’t know we were waiting for and one without which our reading lives would be lacking. Her writing is bold and unflinching, her task monumental.

Like the faux basket weave of its cover, “Homegoing”skillfully intertwines thin reeds of stories into an epic masterpiece. Beginning in 1760s Ghana, where tribal conflict and the increasing interference and usurpation by white men have bred the monstrous evil of slavery, “Homegoing” traces two branches of a family through eight generations. Though the glimpses of each of these sixteen characters may be brief, the overall effect – the tapestry that depicts a family over the course of 250 years – is intricate and impassioned.

Through all of the generations Gyasi’s characters are imperfect, flawed, and beautiful; each has his or her own demons, inherited traumas, and ongoing struggle.

 “Hell was a place of remembering, each beautiful moment passed through the mind’s eye until it fell to the ground like a rotten mango, perfectly useless, uselessly perfect.”

The lives in “Homegoing” are full of remembering, of escaping, and of seeking. Whether in Ghana or in America, each protagonist strives to overcome the sins of their forefathers, to forge a better place in this world.

Gyasi fearlessly addresses black Africans’ role in slavery, making clear the way tribal conflicts were manipulated and how the horrific choices so many families found themselves making fostered this evil institution. Her rebukes for the hand Ghanians themselves played are rare and courageous; her writing reminds us that the pool of blame is infinite. The characters, like all humans, are flawed; all are sinners.

Though her characters are not without fault, there is no confusion about who is culpable for the ongoing scourge of racism. Gyasi has plenty of righteous anger for white people, presented eloquently, forcefully, and undeniably.

“‘White men get a choice. They get to choose they job, choose they house. They get to make black babies, then disappear into thin air, like they wasn’t never there to begin with, like these black women they slept with or raped done laid on top of themselves and got pregnant. White men get to choose for black men too. Used to sell ’em; now they just send ’em to prison like they did my daddy, so that they can’t be with they kids.'”

In one beautiful passage about 1960s Harlem, Gyasi’s modern eye knowingly winks at the awful timelessness of struggle.

“The news made it sound like the fault lay with the blacks of Harlem. The violent, the crazy, the monstrous black people who had the gall to demand that their children not be gunned down in the streets.”

Under the cloak of a family epic, Gyasi has made one of the clearest cases for the generational effects of slavery, for the evolving but not resolving racism in America, that I have had the good fortune to read. Her writing is fluid and colorful, her debut a stunning tapestry that covers time and space with intricate grace.

“‘We believe the one who has the power. He is the one who gets to write the story. So when you study history, you must always 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 begin to get a clearer, yet still imperfect, picture.'”



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