“How easy it was for a life to go one way instead of another,” says H, a former slave in Yaa Gyasi’s debut “Homegoing.” In many respects the sentiment sums up the very essence of this linked short story collection, which the book’s cover justly calls a novel perhaps because of how tightly interconnected the characters’ fates are.
“Homegoing” spans 300 years from 18th century Ghana and the end of British colonialism there to contemporary America as it follows the misfortunes of Effia and Esi and their descendents.
Effia and Esi have the same mother, but they do not know it. Effia is born in Fanteland. Through devious machinations, she ends up wedded to James, a Gold Coast British white slave trader. Her home becomes the Cape Coast Castle where she walks freely, as does her son, Quey, who will later struggle with his identity. Is he African or British? Black or white? Something in-between? Most important, where do his loyalties lie?
Born in Ashantiland, Esi is captured by Fante warriors and sold to the British, who imprison her in the Cape Coast Castle dungeon before sending her to America. Gyasi makes clear the role Gold Coast natives played in the slave trade and this complication is a great strength of the novel. Esi has a daughter, Ness, in whose chapter we learn how horrific the middle passage was for Esi, “a woman who was never known to tell a happy story.”
The last we see of Esi, little Ness is plucked from her arms and sold to another plantation; after which we see Ness’ fate unfold.
But Esi and other characters whose stories similarly end abruptly remain present through omniscient mentions in myriad tales and through myth and symbolism, rather than descendants’ memories. As a result, some of the most disturbing moments are those in which we see how characters are clueless about their histories simply because there is no one to inform them.
Stories of slavery, of losing one’s children, of being whipped, of desperately trying to hold onto humanity no matter how inhumanely one is treated, are bleak by nature, but Gyasi’s unsentimental prose, her vibrant characters and her rich settings keep the pages turning no matter how mournful the plot.
H’s heart-wrenching story is exemplary. Why his name is simply ‘H’ is something he will never understand, but readers know its connection to his parents’ sad lives. H gains his freedom only to be convicted of a petty crime and sent to work in a coal mine for 10 years, just another form of slavery as seen in Douglas Blackmon’s 2009 Pulitzer prize-winning book, “Slavery by Another Name: The Reenslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War until World War II.”
In Gyasi’s fiction, H finds himself struggling through the untimely deaths of friends and colleagues due to diseases and abuse. Later, in Pratt City, Ala., a town settled by ex-convict miners, H learns the difference between reliance and friendship as he confronts “white men and their families next door to black men and theirs.”
Identity, self-preservation and loyalty are the lenses through which many of the chapters examine race relations. In one story we see the effects of passing for white on a family. In another, the ever-changing kaleidoscope of language is tackled through the word “obroni,” which translates as “a person from beyond the horizon.” The horror of being present at the wrong place and the wrong time, whether black or white, is handled poignantly in yet another story.
The chapters change narrators effortlessly and smoothly transition between time periods — be it the Great Migration, Jim Crow, Fante-Ashante wars, the Fugitive Slave Act, heroin riddled Harlem, all the way to present day. However, while the early chapters of “Homegoing” boast deeply realized characters, the later chapters seem more focused on time and place. For instance, Harlem comes to life in one story but the protagonist’s life in Harlem comes across as generic.
I kept expecting a Henry Louis Gates “Find Your Roots” TV show sort of ending with the descendants of the clans of Effia and Esi finally discovering they are related and, indeed, “Homegoing” makes you wonder how many of us might actually be sitting across from a relative. But 26-year-old Gyasi, who was born in Ghana and grew up in Huntsville, Ala., goes instead for a closure steeped in symbolism.
At one point in “Homegoing, a village storyteller informs a group of rapt children that “a story was nothing more than a lie you got away with.” Story is also the act of giving a face to those whom history otherwise relegates to name, date and place. Yaa Gyasi’s assured “Homegoing” is a panorama of splendid faces.