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'Homegoing' a breathtaking exploration of slavery

Allison Graham
Allison Graham

17-year-old student living in Jakarta

Jakarta | Thu, June 8, 2017 | 10:10 am
'Homegoing' a breathtaking exploration of slavery

'Homegoing' by Yaa Gyasi. (Shutterstock/File)

Yaa Gyasi’s debut novel, Homegoing, is, in a word, breathtaking.

It is exhaustive. It is a beautiful refusal to accept anything less than a complete picture of cause and effect. It is both real, based in part on her own experiences, and fictional.

The premise of the novel is simple: two half-sisters and their descendants find themselves on opposite sides of the slave trade. As a result, the narrative is cleaved into the stories of those who remained and were colonized and those who were enslaved by their neighbors.

The two sisters—Effia and Esi—are united for a brief moment in time: one lives in a castle above the dungeons that trap the other. They are only united again through their descendants, six generations later. This divide, a very real and ongoing divide in our world, is one that both sides of the family struggle with. Though neither side is ever completely aware of the other, they are no less tied to ideas of blame and guilt.

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Those that remain see their society fractured by the role it played in the betrayal of human dignity. Effia’s descendants, the first of whom are directly tied to the slave trade, face questions of blame on a daily basis. They struggle to accept culpability, acknowledging that they merely helped transport slaves provided by those who now seek to shift the blame somewhere else. They question how a society can blame the British and "sympathizers" for the African slave trade, given its own visible role in the practice.

On the other side of the Atlantic, Esi’s descendants struggle with their identities and the struggle for freedom. Generations are lost from the family tree and families are separated by kidnappings and failed escapes. Perhaps the most potent struggle in this side of the family tree is the struggle with African-American identity and the role slavery plays in it. Can an African-American man be blamed for dressing up as a white man? What power do those still living with the aftermath of slavery have to shape a more positive future?

Despite bridging two continents and multiple homes, Homegoing is a truly cohesive and coherent novel. Potent imagery and poignant phrases follow the generations, serving as a reminder to the role of the past in the present. Descriptions of home-life in African compounds are just as vivid as depictions of life in the Harlem Renaissance. Yaa Gyasi is as comfortable writing the African story as she is the American one.

Is this novel primarily African fiction, or American fiction? Parallels may be drawn between it and Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, but it also echoes contemporary African-American literature. It is at once an African story, American story and human story.

As a result of its beautiful writing and compelling plot, Homegoing leaves readers awed and educated. No doubt, the ending of the novel offers hope that regardless of divides and of how far we have gone from home, we can always return in some form.

This book is a brilliant look into the impact of slavery not just in the United States, where the topic has often been analyzed, but in seldom-considered Africa. With simple yet poetic prose, Homegoing is easily accessible to a range of readers regardless of their understandings of American or African history.

Though a work of fiction, its sturdy basis in reality make this book a fabulous tool in understanding the repercussions of the African slave trade today. (kes)

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Allison Graham is a 17-year-old student living in Jakarta. She’s an Irish-American triplet born just across the water in Singapore, but since then has lived in Mexico, China, Australia, Chile, Oman, and the United States. She loves stories—spoken or written—wildlife, as well as unicycling and juggling (though not at the same time).

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