The multi-award winning family saga Homegoing, by Yaa Gyasi, deserves all the praise it’s received. The story follows the separated halves of one woman’s family throw almost three hundreds years of Ghanaian and American history. It begins in the 1760s with two sisters (who don’t know that they’re sisters) who are separated. One sister becomes the wife of a British slave dealer. The other is sold into slavery and sent to the American colonies. Over the next centuries, the family is continually disrupted. Generations are torn apart and children are lost. I think this book is going to continue breaking reader hearts for a long time.
No one in Maame’s line has an easy life. Even the privileged members of the family have to wrestle with their consciences about how their parents make money (during the slave-trading days). There is a moment much later in the book when a grandmother tells her granddaughter a little story to explain her actions and her family. Akua says:
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 into the water. He keeps only the 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. (242*)
For hundreds of years, each generation has to start over. Most have to start over because they’ve been kidnapped and enslaved (or murdered). Others because they need to hide from their pasts. A few members of the family reach their absolute limits and refuse to live in misery.
The breaks in the generations mean that each generation is completely cut off from the past. They have to create new traditions. But it also means that their support networks are fragile or non-existent. One of the characters in the last generation has a moment with his immediate family where he thinks about who was lost:
In that room, with his family, he would sometimes imagine a different room, a fuller family. He would imagine so hard that at times he thought he could see them. Sometimes in a hut in Africa, a patriarch holding a machete; sometimes outside in a forest of palm trees, a crowd watched a young woman carrying a bucket on her head; sometimes in a cramped apartment with too many kids, or a small, failing farm, around a burning tree or in a classroom. He would see these things while his grandmother prayed and sang, prayed and sang, and he would want so badly for all the people he made up in his head to be there in that room, with him. (290)
For us readers, there are themes and motifs that repeat across the generations. The motifs keep the branches of the family linked through their fears of water and fire, fertility issues, black stones, finding and losing religion, mothers’ love, and more. At times, what happens to one branch of the family are mirrored in the other. There are also Akua’s dreams of her family’s past, which bring a satisfying symmetry to Homegoing.
As I read Homegoing, I had to wonder if the family would ever come back together—until I realized that this story wasn’t really about continuity and reunion. It’s about keeping going, whether one wants to or not. It’s about recognizing the sensation of being lost, apart from community, and yet someone finding peace or at least equilibrium in spite of it. It’s about creating identity from the ground up and trying not to collapse under the weight of history. In the midst of all the heartbreak, I marveled at the strength of the woman and men in Maame’s line. Homegoing really is a masterpiece.
* Quotes are from the 2016 hardcover edition from Alfred A. Knopf.