Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

Was well presented by  Runa Mukherjee, 

  • Mohini Khot, Pune:

I would like to begin by congratulating Runa Mukherjee for her selection of a marvellous book which turned out to be quite an eye opener. It deals with the nature of the slave trade as it began in Ghana, Africa. It gives us an image of the lifestyles of the Asante and Fante tribes and the effect of colonization by the Portugese and British who went there for the gold, pepper and ivory. Tribal warfare was a way of life for the tribes and the prisoners of war that were captured were treated with contempt. They were kept in cages, spat upon, heckled, or else were taken as slaves. Often there was a surplus, so to speak, and such prisoners were sold to the White colonizers for the human trafficking business. Thus, slavery has been an age old system of subjugation and punishment.

The European colonizers found it hard to withstand the climate in Africa. They could not go to the hinterland to gather slaves; the local people did this for them. The realization of the connivance of the local people in this inhuman practice comes rather as a shock. But, of course, the whole system is grounded in the notion of “otherness” and the ongoing tribal warfare ensured a strong sense of the “other” between rival tribes.

In terms of plot the novel deals with the saga of 8 generations in the families of two sisters, Effia and Esi, who never knew each other due to the strange circumstances of their birth. Their descendants are found to finally meet in the US. The novel presents a string of first person accounts of one descendant in each generation in the families of both sisters. Effia, “the Beauty” of the Fantes, marries the English governor and lives a royal life in the Cape Coast castle while Esi, born to an Asante father in the north, is sold into slavery and is transported to America. We realize, ironically, that, while Effia is mistress of the castle in the fort, Esi is a prisoner in the dungeons below, being kept in the most inhuman and unhygienic conditions.

Thus the stories of the two sisters differ widely. However, there is no smooth sailing for anyone in either family. The novel insists on our recognition of the terrible history of the American Blacks, their suffering, their undeserved victimization, the injustice meted out to them repeatedly over time, generation after generation. There is mention of half-caste children too and the difficulty of a situation where they are neither here nor there, not wholly accepted nor belonging to either race. Even the characters in the year 2000 find themselves, though legally free and “equal”, still disempowered, living in a ghetto-like Harlem. Today both descendants of slaves and immigrants from Africa are viewed as the same. It is their colour that defines them, not their history.

The novel is only 320 pages long, as Runa emphasised, but the stories are many, each of them detailed and complicated. The narration is amazingly vivid; it immerses us immediately into the experiences of each character taken up. One can only appreciate Yaa Gyasi’s skills of narration and characterization.

The conversation widened into a forum where the concepts of roots, identity, a sense of belonging, the health of the psyche and racial memory were brought into the discussion. The situation of adopted children, immigrants, and their search for identity was mentioned. The fact that India has good legislation but this legislation has failed to improve the lot of the lower castes was mentioned by the presenter. The nation has failed to provide the conditions in which real growth and empowerment could become possibilities. Participants brought forth other analogies like the situation of bonded labour, the “homeless” Sindhis, and also the recent passion for discovering genealogy through DNA.

Runa wound up the session by quoting from Amanda Gorman: “We can be the best we can allow ourselves to be.” Each people must find their pride. The United States is still a nation in the making; it is a composite immigrant nation. Unfortunately racial politics have marred the stated idealistic belief in the equality of its citizens.

  • Virginia Naude, New York:

I found the discussion a real eye opener. I had read around on the internet to get some idea of the book. The presenter did an excellent job of introducing content and also helping us navigate with visuals. I am going to order the book. I am embarrassed that I don’t have enough background in the African part of the slavery issue to pose a question.  Your book group is certainly giving me an education.

  • Kusum Gokarn, Pune:

Thanks to Runa Mukherjee for presenting the Synopsis of the book Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi.

Runa’s narration of the complicated background of the novel   describing the two main tribes in Ghana, Asante and Fante, was very vivid. There are multiple characters in this novel to add to the confusion in following this story.

Runa’s description of the background of the novel Homegoing  was followed by the main story of two sisters Effia belonging to the Fante tribe and Esi belonging to the Asante tribe, born of the same mother but different fathers.

Effia marries an English Governor of Cape Coast Castle while Esi is captured as a slave and shipped off to America.

The story touches upon the mystery of a black stone given to Esi by her mother before she died.

The story moves into further generations after Effia and Esi.

In America, Esi’s daughter Ness marries a fellow slave and works on a cotton plantation. But she sends her son Kojo away with her friend so that he can become a free man and escape from the bonds of slavery.

Kojo goes to Baltimore and works in the ship building trade.

He has eight children. They are named in the alphabetical order from A to H!

Eventually the story of the family tree of H moves forward to his grandson Carson who joins the movement named NAACP (National Association of Advanced Coloured People).

Carson’s son Marcus is a research scholar working on his PhD. He attempts to trace his roots going back to his ancestors who were slaves.

This is the main crux of the novel, reminiscent of the iconic novel Roots, as was pointed out by the speaker.

Quey’s daughter Abena has relationship with a farmer and has a daughter named Akua. Abena dies and Akua is brought up  by the Missionaries. Akua finds the mysterious stone in her mother’s belongings.

Akua gives the stone to her son Yaw. He is sent to an English school. He grows up to become a History Teacher. He writes a book on the history of Ghana.

But the mystery and significance of the stone remained unknown to us listeners.

As Mohini rightly remarked in her vote of thanks it is amazing how the author has packed the story of so many characters into a thin book of about 320 pages.

She thanked the speaker Runa Mukherjee for her excellent summarization of the book and pointing out the themes and their relevance to other countries and situations too.

Comments by some members were as follows –

Joglekar – Great slice of history.

Shanti Menon – Story about uprooted slaves.

Kaveri – Disassociation with the past. Characters have no racial  memory of their parentage.

Kapila- Novel reminded her about Indian orphans adopted by foreigners , some of whom do not know their origins.

Shakun said she knows about some people with the background of bonded labour. But now they have become rich businessmen.

Runa remarked that this novel depicts the brutality done towards the slaves. Bonded labour came much later in history when human behaviour norms had become more humane.

Aruna Jethwani drew a similar parallel to  her community of Sindhis who as immigrants  have faced identity crisis .

Bonded labour and identifying one’s roots are common factors in many other countries too.

Satish told us that he has prepared a family tree of his own family.

I too have prepared Family Trees of my mother’s maternal family Benegals and my paternal family Mangalores.

  • Shanti Menon

Homegoing  is the debut novel by the Ghanian American writer Yaa Gyasi.  Published in 2016, when Gyasi was 26 years old, the novel has won several awards, including the National Book Critics Circle’s John Leonard Award for best first book, the PEN/Hemingway Award for a first book of fiction, the National Book Foundation’s “5 under 35” honors for 2016 and the American Book Award. Gyasi was awarded a Vilcek Prize for Creative Promise in Literature in 2020.

“Homegoing” in an African American Christian funeral tradition and marks the passage of the soul to heaven.  In the title of her book Homegoing   Gyasi probably reverts to an older African-American belief that death allowed an enslaved person’s spirit to travel back to Africa.

The story begins in Ghana in the eighteenth century and follows the parallel but vastly different lives of two half sisters born in two different villages and members of two different tribes. Effia, who is  Fante, is married to the British Governor of the Cape Coast Castle while Esi is captured by slave traders and shipped to America. These women never meet, never know of each other’s existence, yet in alternating narratives we trace their bloodlines. Esi’s descendants find themselves laboring in the Southern plantations in America before escaping to the North for freedom.  Effia’s descendants become complicit in the Gold Coast slave trade, until her grandson breaks away and chooses to become a farmer.

The stories of the two families intersect in the lives of their descendants – Marcus and Marjorie.  The narrative comes full circle when Marjorie takes Marcus home to visit Ghana – to the place where the stories of the two sisters began.

Through the lives of these two branches of a single female ancestor, Gyasi explores the interconnected themes of colonialism, slavery with its raw cruelty and degradation, systemic oppression, the loss of history and the importance of memory. What is significant about this book is that she places responsibility for the slave trade in equal measure on the White traders and on African tribal rivalries. They operated in tandem and the repercussions of colonial exploitation of traditional rivalries still reverberates in many of the former colonies today.

Runa Mukherjee’s presentation of the book was absorbing and full of details. She is an artful storyteller and engaged the audience – we were sorry to have the session end. The discussion centered on ideas of identity, the contrast between a sense of rootedness and a sense of self is evident in the Ghanian line of the family, whereas the descendants of the slaves experience a sense of loss in not knowing their origins – where they come from or their connection to the mother country. Runa expertly unpacked the many nuanced layers in the book and conveyed the complexity packed into what is a short novel of 320 pages. Participants in the book club connected the themes to their own experiences – how do first generation immigrants to the US keep family stories alive, so that subsequent generations do not suffer a sense of loss of a collective memory? Contrasts were drawn between African slaves who were forced to leave their homeland and voluntary immigrants. The latter have choices and carry their culture and their traditions with them. Will members of the South Asian diaspora lose their sense of identity and belonging in a generation or two?

A parallel was drawn between Indian children adopted by Western couples who return to search for and explore their background – is understanding and knowing our past is rooted in our psyches or is it a very modern Western phenomenon? Or is the curiosity on family history an individual trait?

A question was raised on the situation of Indians who were taken to the West Indies as indentured labourers. Can a comparison be drawn between their situation and that of the African slaves? Runa pointed out that indentured labor practices is a late 19th century, early 20th century phenomena when norms had changed. Even though the system of indentured labour was brutal it was far less so than the institution of slavery. Mention was also made of the migration of Sindhis and the fact that the community is facing an identity crisis.

Once again kudos to Runa for an excellent presentation.

Nityaasha Foundation