Slavery is one of those subjects which many people like to associate with a rescinding past. For most of us born in the 1990s, we have even bigger concerns such as getting the latest updates on our phones or doing well in our studies which leaves a lot less space to ponder issues such as slavery. In fact, it is quite hard to draw the parallels between the subject of slavery and our lives today. Granted, because of the nature of the university courses such as history and literature, it is possible that some of us encountered the subject of slavery again after high school. But in the four walls of a lecture hall, like it had been in the four walls of my history class in secondary school, studying Roots hit me so much more as a subject of the past than as something that I needed to think about as I went about my daily businesses.
Then enter Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi into my life and I just cannot stop pondering the subject of slavery – four solid months after I finished reading the book.
Homegoing is the story of the beginnings of slavery through to the present day told from the shoulders of two stepsisters, Effia and Esi. Through their experiences and life stories, we are introduced, as they are, into the subject of slavery in the 18th Century Gold Coast (present day Ghana) where it all begins. Through certain machinations which I will not go into to avoid messing the mysteries of the book for the reader, Effia ends up married to a white man who is in charge of The Castle which hosts the dungeons where the slaves in transit to the Americas and elsewhere are kept. This begins Effia’s long association with slavery. When Esi’s village is raided, she is captured and kept in the dungeons and later shipped to America to begin her life of slavery.
The stories of these two sisters that usher us into slavery and later out of it are told parallel to each other. The book follows up to the seventh generation of both Esi and Effia through chapters dedicated to a central member of a particular generation for each side. This technique is very useful because of the massive nature of the subject of slavery. Through highlighting a character and talking about them against the backdrop of what her generation suffered, it becomes easier to understand the massive subject that the book tackles.
The writer of the book was only 26 years old at the time she wrote the book and this made me even more curious about the symbolism used in the book, the amount of work that went into the research to portray a reality that is far removed from the author’s life as well as the intensity with which she is able to convey emotions. Her style is also very subtle and the reality, although overtly stated in the book (slavery is a sad subject), still manages to catch a reader by surprise like when she describes a mining location and it is still shocking how much more danger lurks and awaits the slave that works there. Let me not mislead you: Homegoing is a sad book. There are bright spots, of course, but this is a book that will jolt you into thinking about so many things, you might get exhausted.
Without going into the details of the book, I would love to mention that this novel provides some clarity on just how we got into the mess of slavery. The book highlights the role of Africans (greed) as well as that of whites (thinly veiled bad intentions) in facilitating slave trade. The message of the author seems to be, it is the fault of all of us and we should face this truth if we are to heal the wounds of slavery and build a united future. But maybe we can go into these details after we all read the book?
Homegoing is a wonderful book that takes its readers (and its characters) on numerous journeys – in terms of time, location and emotionally. And as a breakout novel by Yaa Gyasi, one can only imagine what other topics this promising Stanford creative writing major graduate has in store for us. So far, the book has won the National Book Critics Circle’s John Leonard Award for Best First Book, PEN/Hemingway Award for the best first book of fiction, American Book Award and the National Book Foundation 5 under 35 honours.
I got my copy of the book at the Textbook Centre and it was retailing at 1150/-. Prestige bookshop, Bookpoint and Kwani? Trust are also other places you can check with if you are looking for a copy.