Words by Temi Otedola
Original Thumbnail Art by Antonia Weishaupt
The JTO Book Club is back for its February edition! If it’s your first time reading a Book Club post you can catch up here:
December 2018 Edition: Half of A Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (here)
January 2019 Edition: Born a Crime by Trevor Noah (here)
Don’t worry if you haven’t read this month’s focus yet. I intentionally avoid any crucial spoilers and you can still contribute to the comment section of this post by telling us any recommendations you have for a future book focus. Also, I would like to say another huge thank you to everyone who has remained so engaged and supportive of the JTO Book Club. I truly love hearing your takes on each book’s themes and ideas and hope more and more people continue to join our online, book-loving, community! So, don’t forget to leave your thoughts in the comment section below…
Judging A Book By Its Cover…
(This section documents my conjectures of the book or author prior to reading, I will also include any background information I think you should have before my personal analysis)
On picking up a physical copy of Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing its cover read that it was a “Sunday Times Bestseller” and so I could postulate that it had been commercially successful and widely read. The cover also included a quote by one of my all-time favourite authors, Zadie Smith, declaring it as “an intelligent, beautiful and healing read”, and history has revealed that anything loved by Smith would no doubt also be loved by me. Apart from this, I had no idea what the actual story was about, but I always relish in reading novels by contemporary female writers from West Africa so I knew this would be a special read for me.
Let’s Dive in Shall We?
Ok, so there is admittedly a lot to unpack. In fact, I was a little intimidated about how exactly I would form my analysis of Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing. Unpacking a single character in a literary review can be overwhelming let alone the fourteen character-led chapters that form this book. The story begins with Maame, an Asante woman whose two daughters are separated by a number of coinciding events. Over the course of the book, the reader observes how specific circumstances diverge the course of their lives and legacies forever. One daughter, Effia, is married to a British governor and lives her days above the slave dungeons of Cape Coast Castle. Simultaneously, her half-sister, Esi, is captured, enslaved in the rooms below her half-sister, raped by one of the British soldiers, and shipped to America.
Effia and Esi act as forks in the roads for Homegoing’s generational road map. Although they are born of the same mother it is their circumstances and historical surroundings that shape their legacies. Gyasi forces us to face the consequences of slavery and the effects of colonialism. What happens to these enslaved peoples versus those who remained? Homegoing allows the reader to see these digressing scenarios play out with their own differing problems. As a concept, Homegoing is astonishing. Although we are only with each descendant of either Effia or Esi for a few dozen pages, Gyasi recounts each story with a lifetime of trauma, love, pain, and resilience.
Antecedents, social narratives, and the relentlessness of history form the ideologies surrounding Homegoing. Each generation lives through different historical events formed by the previous age, reminding us that history is not simply a beginning, middle, and end, but an infinite flow of action and consequence. From the Anglo-Asante Wars in Ghana to Harlem’s Jazz Age, Homegoing reminds me that nothing is formed in a vacuum. These generations carry the consequences of British colonialism and the legacy of racial tensions in America that are still present in society today. We only have to look at the Christianisation of West Africa or the rise of White Nationalism in “Western” countries to remember that history casts a long shadow.
In particular, Gyasi powerfully delineates the lineage of racism in America. The transatlantic slave trade is remodelled as sharecropping. Sharecropping is reworked to form the convict-leasing system. The convict-leasing system is rejigged into the War on Drugs. The War on Drugs allows for mass black incarceration. Thus, we are shown that there have always been concealed modes of slavery to control Black American populations. I saw this idea reflected in Ness’ life as a slave working on a southern plantation, whose grandson, “H”, is sold to a mining company as a prisoner for looking at a white woman, and finally, whose grandson, Sonny, is enslaved by heroin. The shadow of slavery is relentless, which is why I often laugh when I hear the argument that African Americans should “get over it” or are told, “but slavery was hundreds of years ago”.
On the other branch of Homegoing’s family tree, Effia’s descendants initially remained on the Gold Coast, reaping the benefits of Ghana’s slave system. However, as we see with Quey, the son of Effia and a British Governor, it can be an inner conflict to consolidate allegiances to your family whilst also maintaining racist and immoral structures. Quey’s son James is even more conflicted and abandons his family for a poorer life, but one that he believes will break his family’s shameful legacy. So Homegoing reveals one side desperately trying to separate from their European ties whilst the other is forced to form an entirely new identity in an entirely new cultural system.
Homegoing’s most poignant impact on me was wavering the prejudicial differences I have always held about what it means to be African vs. African American. I always saw the African American experience to be world’s away from what we knew life to be like in West Africa. I would always wonder why African Americans were so desperate to cling onto a culture or heritage I didn’t see as theirs. You know, the stereotypes of African Americans wearing kente and ankara, listening to Fela Kuti and calling Africa the “motherland”.
Reading this book made me embarrassed to have spent most of my life judging others for trying to form whatever connection they could to their true heritage. All because I partially grew up in Nigeria and was able to go back several times a year didn’t give me the right to say who should and shouldn’t feel a connection to where they originate. The paths that lead from Maame, one into America, and one within Ghana, show that although paths may differ, the origin is the same. African Americans are Americans, yes, but it is only natural that African Americans can feel an affinity to where their near ancestors stemmed, especially living in a country that often shows a blatant disregard for their community. For me, Homegoing’s strongest message was a call for unification between African and African American heritage. We may have vastly different cultures now, but not too long ago we were all sisters, brothers, and cousins.
The divergence of Homegoing’s ancestral web comes full circle when the two branches meet again in the form of Marjorie and Marcus. The two come from different world’s: Marcus is a born and bred Harlem kid and Marjorie a first-generation American immigrant who still has a hold on her Ghanaian identity. Yet they are both descendants of Maame, related in a distant yet very tangible way.
In researching Gyasi it was interesting to find out that she gave Marjorie’s parents the same occupations as hers, also grew up in Huntsville, Alabama, and attended Stanford like Marjorie and Marcus. I’m not quite sure how much Gyasi based Marjorie on her own experiences as a young woman in America, but I, and probably many other diaspora kids can relate to these sentiments of cultural removal. Marjorie is socially displaced; not feeling like she totally belongs to either side. In Ghana, she’s often mistaken to be an American tourist, but in America, she’s often picked apart for her otherness – “too white” for the black kids and “too black” for the white kids. I had never seen my own experiences with social purgatory described so succinctly.
Apart from storytelling, Gyasi is also a master of prose. Her writing is descriptive and lucid, yet also seamlessly poetic. This balance of direct storytelling with poignant emotion makes for an unforgettable reading experience. Gyasi has an exceptional ability to express experiences of heartbreak, sexuality, human desire, and regret, in such a humanistic and profound way. An ability that transforms a family heirloom, a smooth, black stone, one that was lost and the other passed generationally, into a symbol of two threads of lineage formed from the same origin.
Go ahead and share your thoughts, we’re all listening.
Temi’s Takeaway Quote:
“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.”
– Yaa Gyasi, Homegoing
For all JTO Book Club updates check out the designated “highlight” on my Instagram page (here).
G I V E A W A Y
Follow the below steps to win a copy of Homegoing:
– Follow @jtofashion on Instagram (here).
– Like my latest Instagram photo.
– Comment below on this blog post stating: your thoughts on Homegoing or what your favourite book is and why…
– Send me a DM stating that you have finished the following steps.
– I will post an Instagram Photo tagging the 3 winners so keep an eye out!
For postal reasons, the books can only be sent to addresses within the United Kingdom and Europe.