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Nondumiso Tshabangu Reviews Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

HomegoingStar Rating: ★★★★☆ 4/5
Yaa Gyasi
Penguin Random House, June 2016
Online Price: R313


You can learn anything when you have to learn it. You could learn to fly if it meant you would live another day.

Homegoing is a fresh new voice in African literature – one that it is imperative you get to know. Yaa Gyasi tells a story of slavery, immigration, hard work and sacrifice with eloquence and relevance to the present day. The result is a gripping debut novel.

Two half-sisters, Effia and Esi, are born into different villages in the eighteenth-century, in a region that now comprises part of Ghana. Effia is married off to an Englishman and lives in comfort in the palatial rooms of Cape Coast Castle. Unbeknownst to her, her sister, Esi, is imprisoned beneath her in the castle’s dungeons, sold with thousands of others into the Gold Coast’s booming slave trade, and shipped off to America, where her children and grandchildren will be raised in slavery.

One thread of Homegoing follows Effia’s descendants through centuries of warfare in Ghana, as the Fante and Asante nations wrestle with the slave trade and British colonization. The other thread follows Esi and her children into America. From the plantations of the South to the Civil War and the Great Migration, from the coal mines of Pratt City, Alabama, to the jazz clubs and dope houses of twentieth-century Harlem, right up through the present day, Homegoing captures, with singular and stunning immediacy, how the memory of captivity came to be inscribed in the soul of a nation.

Throughout the work, the focus is on the wounds inflicted on the colonized and the enslaved. The villages of West Africa come alive as Gyasi invokes a world of hand-swept compounds, families sharing goat pepper soup, men sleeping with machetes under their beds to protect against capture. Just as the Europeans intruded upon the world of the native people of America, so did they sow disorder in the West African kingdoms, exploiting pre-existing rivalries. Old alliances fell to human greed to satisfy a ruthless market.

Gyasi tackles issues around power, land and slavery in Africa and the US long ago, yet her centuries-distant tale contains a powerful echo of modern-day grapplings with racism and history – in America, especially, where the #BlackLivesMatter movement has galvanised the struggle for equality in a new generation. Homegoing, as the Wall Street Journal recently pointed out, also has structural and thematic similarities to Alex Haley’s 1976 Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Roots, and its landmark TV series adaptation.

Gyasi was born in Ghana but has lived in America for most of her life. Her fiction navigates history by instinct, making it all the more powerful, and vividly reminded this reader, at times, of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart – for instance, when Abame village witnesses the first arrival of a white man on an “iron horse” (bicycle). What do people do when they have been stripped of a country they have known?

Review by Nondumiso Tshabangu

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