Described as “… trac[ing] three hundred years in Ghana and along the way also becom[ing] a truly great American novel,” Homegoing is so much more than a chronology. Young writer Yaa Gyasi debuts her talent with an expansive and epic collection of intimate histories that build up to present times from the 18th century. These myriad stories come full circle in a brilliant conclusion that binds us to our past and to each other.
One of the characters—a Ghanian teacher, Yaw—says “… that is the problem of history… we must rely upon the words of others” (Gyasi 226). He tells his students how it is the voice of the winner that writes history, and how that version is always lacking due to the missing voices of the oppressed. Though their roles were vital in the creation of the story, their input is invalid to the teller.
This book gives voice to a whole host of characters. They are all worth hearing, all powerful and virile because they are human. The smallest life is treasured and painted as a complete portrait by Gyasi. Even though the author follows the lives of many people in two different family trees through multiple generations, each character is fully developed with fears, faults, strengths, and desires. Gyasi is a master at creating the sense that we owe everything in our lives (good and bad) to those that came before us, and that we have a monumental responsibility to those who will come after. We do not stand alone in our individuality, but rather, as a link in a chain reaction, for better or worse.
Yaa Gyasi approaches history the way that the word “history” implies: as a story. Rich in detail, her book teaches about ways of life that might be unfamiliar to many: farming and scavenging in Ghana, life as a person of color in antebellum Baltimore, the struggles of living in Harlem in the 1960s. Gyasi shows a side of history we are not often taught.
If the author simply told unspoken histories, the book would be a masterful work of research. However, Gyasi couples chronology with that spark that turns words into literature, a book into an art work. Even in her debut novel, Gyasi instills great life and music in her story. Not only are we affected by decisions others made in our pasts, but we are affected by their intentions, their hopes, their fears. Gyasi gives platforms to Ghanian magic and mysticism, baptist religion, and unconditional familial connections. These unexplainable forces are just as powerful as the tangible or visible results we experience from decisions made and actions taken around us.
Yaa Gyasi’s book is called “Homegoing,” not “homecoming.” This is not a story of return, but rather, of moving forward through time while learning about and growing from your roots.
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