Story Elements that Echo After You Turn the Final Page

Yaa Gyasi’s latest, "Homegoing," is certain to be on someone’s read-it list. It’s on ours.


Gyasi spins a tale of Ghana.

Courtesy of Yaa Gyasi

It’s too early to put Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing on the Best of 2016 literary lists. But there’s good reason to keep an eye on the Berkeley author who makes her debut with the back-and-forth tale of two half-sisters born in 18th-century Ghana who never meet.

The Stanford University alum and graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop writes with powerful sweep and at times astonishingly beautiful phrasing that suggests a substantial writer in the making. If the 14 chapters read like rich, episodic character studies linked only by slender strands—a symbolic chain far more slender than the shackles placed on the book’s Atlantic slave trade victims—Homegoing is admirable for its ambition and story elements that echo after the final page is turned.

Effia and Esi, the primary women at the story’s head, are set by fate on separate trajectories that lead them and their offspring either deeper into West Africa’s interior or to the Gold Coast to America. They have encounters with castles, dungeons, slavery, entitlement, racism, warfare, colonization, coal mines, dope houses, and more. The tale is woven with love and a reverent respect for ancestry, and Gyasi untangles the complicated tendrils of a family tree while navigating through
250 years of West African and American history.

As an investigation of culture, the book’s points are plentiful, if glancing: the role of West Africans in the slave trade, urban blight and economic strife caused by drugs in America, families on any continent torn or tied together by forces of nature, feuds, and generational and religious differences.

Gyasi was born in Ghana and raised in Alabama. Perhaps it’s making a stretch, but there’s an incantatory aspect reminiscent of spirituals to her writing that include deftly delivered repetitions. Sonny, a drug-user who keeps a bag of dope in his shoe for reassurance, for instance: “He walked the many blocks between his house and his mother’s house with his big toe clenched around the bag as though it were a small fist. He’d clench it, then release it. Clench it, then release it.”

Gripping in its family portraits, searing in relentless scenes of ownership, bondage and beatings, and gorgeous in its demonstration of a young writing talent in our midst, Homegoing is certain to be on someone’s read-it list. It’s on ours.

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi (Penguin Random House, 2016, 320 pp., $26.95)

This report appears in the September edition of our sister publication, The East Bay Monthly.

Published online on Sept. 27, 2016 at 8:00 a.m.

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