“History is Storytelling” ~ Yaa Gyasi
I’m in awe of this novel! Gyasi speaks so poignantly; history (and often herstory) is very much just a retelling of one’s story; the quote above is the core of the novel. Yet, there is more to that story, which is carefully demonstrated in this epic novel. I initially read Homegoing for our GGI: One World, One Book 2020 Event, but soon realized this is more than just an entertaining book club novel. It was one of those books. You know what I mean--the kind that linger long after you turn the last page. I had to sit with my thoughts after finishing, but only for a short while before joining our official Abu Dhabi GGI Book Club meeting (virtually of course). It was after this lovely discussion about the novel, about family, loss, disappointment, love, going home, generations and generations of stories all so deeply interwoven that I felt even more content to having just read the novel. We all were able to connect to major points, characters, and key events and in doing so, felt like we were in the same room (not just over zoom).
Yaa Gyasi's Homegoing was a brilliant, soul-stirring, and thought-provoking novel with an inspirational message of hope. I might have found a new favourite this year. I was so absorbed with each character's story, even during the unsettling and difficult parts - which is often. It was easy to get lost in the world of each character, their era, and sadly, their dire circumstances. I had to brush away the tears, yelled “no…”, gasped, cheered, and smiled knowingly on many occasions while reading this week. I am quite accustomed to my sensitive nature, so it’s not surprising for me to feel things very strongly. Yet, when I had these strong reactions, I knew there was more to the novel than just entertainment - Homegoing was inspirational and eye opening.
Gyasi's debut novel essentially summarizes hundreds of years of conflict, racism, hardships, while also demonstrating resiliency, passion, grace, love, sacrifice, and hope within only 300 pages. Readers learn about the origins of two half-sisters, who are unaware of their true start in life or one another. The narrative unfolds through their corresponding descendants ricochetting back and forth between continents and countries until Gyasi concludes this epic tale. The history shared between the descendents is unique in that each character has their own chapter to “tell” their story, which is then interconnected for the reader to know more than the characters themselves. However, Yaw states that “[t]his is the problem of history. We cannot know that which we were not there to see and hear and experience for ourselves. We must rely upon the words of others” (226). Unfortunately, the characters only know their personal experiences, making this story all the more honest.
The shocking depictions of racism become the harsh reality that underlies each generation, who then proves their resilience defiantly in spite of those barriers. I appreciated how Gyasi was able to write these “mini” short stories all the while demonstrating the history of Ghana and the USA in a macrocosm. As a reader, it was important to remember that each 'story' consists of central experiences of each individual according to their isolated struggles of being a descendant from either Effia or Esi. The need for some semblance of family, home, love, or purpose are perceived within each chapter beautifully. By focusing on the British colonization, Gold Coast slave trade, horrendous plantations, the Civil War, the Mass Migration, and unfair incarceration, readers truly see how the events are all connected. It’s not rocket science to see how we still have so much further to go to make reparations, right wrongs, and end racism.
Gyasi certainly wrote the narrative with her vivid, dynamic characters in mind, while also educating her readers of a somber history. I appreciated reading another historical fiction this month. It’s important to learn the world’s history. It only reinforces how novels, such as Homegoing, is a relevant read to learn more about issues of racism in today's society. The past might have a lingering effect on some. However, the past does not have to dictate the future; giving humanity greater hope.
I think that is also a good reason why Homegoing was a great choice for our GGI community, this year especially. Our stories, values, support for one another, and goals to make the world a better place is certainly possible if we continue on this path--after all, we often find ourselves home in many places other than where we were born. Listening to one another’s stories brings us closer as a community, and also opens up our hearts, which I think is quite beautiful.
Knowing one half of the story is fine, but let’s keep this in mind as well:
“We believe the one who has power. He is the one who gets to write the story. So when you study history, you must ask yourself, Whose story am I missing? Whose voice was suppressed so that this voice could come forth? Once you have figured that out, you must find that story too. From there you get a clearer, yet still imperfect, picture” (126-7).