In the utterly fantastic Americanah, the protagonist, Ifemelu, jokes/notes that all novels about Africa have yellow/orange/bright colours. While probably not categorically true, it’s certainly true in the case of Yaa Gyasi’ (also utterly fantastic) Home Going. I’m tempted to digress and ramble about book covers, but I’m wary of distracting you from how. good. this. book. is. and so I’ll stay focused. Look at me. Focused.
Home Going opens in the mid-eighteenth century, a time of increasing slave trade between the Gold Coast (present day Ghana) and America. In the opening chapters we follow two sisters, Effia and Esi, one Fante and one Asante. What differences their place of birth and affiliation might raise are eclipsed by the radically different paths their lives take when Effia is married to a British slave trader and moved to the Cape Coast Castle, while Esi is captured and sold into slavery in America. The rest of the novel uses each chapter to skip a generation and then alternate branches of the family tree.
You might (like I did) imagine that there would be radical differences in how the two branches of family experience the world. And there are certainly significant differences. But what is stunning is the way the narrative reveals the similarities in the violences of colonization and the violences of slavery. You might (like I did) imagine that there would be some kind of steady progress toward equality and justice over time – steeped as we are in the idea that history is an always improving exercise. And again the novel stops the reader short with such naive (and obviously privileged) notions by demonstrating that while there are material differences in the circumstances and mechanisms of racism and oppression, the substantive impacts continue – unabated and unmitigated – over time.
Instead of asking whether history or the present are ‘better’ or ‘worse,’ or whether conditions in one geographic place are ‘better’ or ‘worse,’ the novel concentrates on how individual characters make meaning (and don’t), find connection (and don’t) and the ways systemic and particularized experiences of racism impact these individual lives.
And then it’s about more! Lest I mislead you in thinking this novel is ‘just’ about slavery and racism (and consequently some kind of ‘downer’ novel you can’t stomach in the era of Trump – except when could such a novel (if this was such a novel) be more important?) let me set the record straight. This novel is about filiation and affiliation: the pull of family and community and the lengths – geographic and otherwise – we will go to in order to find ourselves. It is about romantic love. And coal mining. Because we sweep through history it is also about history. Though the changes in time seem less important than the changes in characters – each gets about 30-40 pages and by
magic the genius of Gyasi we see these characters as richly as if we’d spent hundreds of pages with them, we witness their change and wish for more.