Published: June 7, 2016
“The family is like the forest: if you are outside it is dense; if you are inside you see that each tree has its own position.” –Akan Proverb
This magnificent sweeping tale of eight generations gives a broad look and much insight into the history of slavery and the slave trade. The writing is incredible! Each chapter focuses upon a family member and is so richly described, containing so much history, emotion and conflict that each could theoretically be further developed into a novel of its own.
Homegoing begins in Cape Coast, Africa in which is modern day Ghana. Cobbe has a child with a house girl, who we know as Maame. Effia, the daughter, is raised as Babba’s (Cobbe’s first wife’s) daughter. This house slave ends up free by marrying an Asante and has a second daughter Esi who ends up kidnapped by the Fantes and sold into slavery. For a brief time period, Esi lives in the basement of the castle with the other slaves while her half-sister, Effia is above, married to James, one of the slave traders. Both Esi and Effia have the necklaces handed down to them by their mother, until Esi’s is lost as her ancestry and heritage is stolen from her by being sent to America as a slave. The novel begins with Effia’s and Esi’s stories and continues through generations upon generation of their offspring.
The book has two parts. The first half reads like a fable. It is vibrant with the culture of the African people. The story-telling is itself true to the culture of these people, full of their belief systems. For me, the magic of the book lies in this first half. It is fascinating to learn about the Asantes and Fantes, their beliefs, and the warring that occurs between them. The second half becomes more straight forward in its manner of relating the stories of the characters, as we get closer to modern day.
I listened to this novel and the audio version is amazing! I also obtained a physical copy of this book afterwards so I could refer back to spellings of names of characters.
The most important theme running through this book is that of slavery and what it did to these people, effectively cutting off their ancestry, their heritage, making them a different people from Africans. Marjory, in chapter 14, does not feel African-American, because she was born in Ghana. This was reminiscent, for me, of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichi’s “Americanah” in this respect. However, it is the in-between period which becomes so illuminated and shocking when viewed over eight generations. Gyasi depicts a beautifully functioning African culture that becomes fractured by the slave trade. The horrors of slavery and it’s aftermath are put in perspective with this broadly sweeping novel. We are still dealing with the aftermath today, and Gyasi bravely posits the question of where will it end.
Even though each chapter reads as a short story, Gyasi, does a beautiful job of weaving themes through the story, connecting them in so many ways. Gyasi tackles so many subjects within this novel that it is impossible to enumerate them all in a quick review. I’ve touched on many within the discussion questions. Suffice it to say, this is an incredible read, and I recommend it to everyone! I am amazed that this is a debut novel by such a young author!
Cape Coast Castle
Map of the slave trade
“Weakness is treating someone as though they belong to you. Strength is knowing that everyone belongs to themselves.” — Essie’s Maame
“Evil is like a shadow, it follows you everywhere.”
“I can only make the impossible attainable… People think they are coming to me for advice, but really, they come to me for permission.” — Mampanyin, witch doctor
“Beulah was running. Maybe this was where it started, Jo thought. Maybe Beulah was seeing something more clearly on the nights she had these dreams, a little black child fighting in her sleep against an opponent she couldn’t name come morning because in the light that opponent just looked like the world around her. Intangible evil. Unspeakable unfairness. Beulah ran in her sleep, ran like she’d stolen something, when really she had done nothing other than expect the peace, the clarity, that came with dreaming. Yes, Jo thought, this was where it started, but when, where, did it end?”
“Evil begets evil. It grows. It transmutes, so that sometimes you cannot see that the evil in the world began as the evil in your own home.” —Akua
“When someone does wrong whether it is you or me, whether it is mother or father, whether it is the Gold Coast man or the white man, it is like a fisherman casting a net in the water. He keeps only one or two fish that he needs to feed himself and puts the rest in the water, thinking that their lives will go back to normal. No one forgets that they were once captive, even if they are now free.” –Akua
“Most people lived on upper levels, not stopping to peer underneath.” –Marcus
- Discuss the theme of fire throughout the book.
- Discuss the meaning of family and ancestry, knowing where you come from in this book.
- How are women treated within different cultures in this novel?
- Discuss the importance of scars as a theme in this book. Does the author believe that scars can be inherited or passed down from one generation to the next?
- Who was your favorite character and why? Which chapter did you like best?
- Discuss the meaning of obroni and the effect this word had on people.
- What do you think the meaning of the title “Homegoing” is?
- What effect do the British have on Africa as slave traders? as missionaries?
- Discuss the theme of rape in the book. Both Ese’s mame and Ese are raped as slaves.
- Discuss the theme of power and the various places it is found: in Effia’s beauty, in Kujo’s physical strength, in James’ lineage…
- Discuss the character of Quey and how his father deals with his apparent homosexuality.
- How is race perceived differently in different locations? Africa, the south vs. the north?
- How is race defined in different ways within the novel? By skin color, by speech?
- What is the role of religion and belief systems within this novel?
- Discuss the quotes mentioned above and their relevance to the novel and it’s themes.
- Yaw is a teacher of history. What does he teach his students about the learning of history? How is the theme of storytelling important within this chapter as well as throughout the novel?
- Discuss the figure of Akua. Crazy woman or sage woman? Is it a matter of interpretation?