I start DiverseAThon week with Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi. Having just finished this book I hot footed it to Daunt Books in Marylebone, London for an author event where I had the pleasure of meeting Gyasi and hearing her read from the book. Thank you to Daunt Books for hosting such a wonderful evening and to Gyasi for this beautiful story.
Gyasi’s story takes the reader seamlessly through a village in Africa in the 1800s to modern America. We follow the lives of the descendents of two sisters. Twins born on a night of the greatest fire of their village. Siblings who never meet. Effia is married off to a slave master and Esi is sold into slavery. The saying Esi is told of separated sisters being “a woman and her reflection, doomed to stay on opposite sides of the pond” couldn’t be more accurate when comparing the two sisters’ lives. However, as we follow each of the women’s descendants through attempts of escape from slavery, religious and spiritual awakenings to conquering fears of fire and water those opposite sides of the pool begin to merge and not in the way one would expect. Saying that the denouement is thoughtful yet satisfying.
The story flits between the descendants of the two sisters and at times I was extremely grateful for the family tree at the beginning of the novel although each of the decedents carried something over from the preceding family member so if you were to read it in one sitting you could follow it quite easily. Some have found this structure hard to follow and when Gyasi was asked why she had chosen this method she said she was intrigued by the concept of time to show how “policies had changed but not really“. This she wonderfully depicts in her narration of H’s life where he escapes slavery only to be subjected to years of servitude in the mines following a petty crime. This Gyasi picked up on tonight and explained how she wanted to emphasise the cyclical, rhythmic, nature of prejudice and how it still features today and how we need to “force ourselves to pay attention“.
Whilst Gyasi touches on an astonishing number of themes within this 300 page novel two of those themes really stuck out for me. The first being feminism and the second spirituality. Touching on the first, each of Gyasi’s women are powerful and a force to be reckoned with. Even when they are sold into slavery and are subjected to physical and emotional abuse each of them has the resolve to stand. An example of this is one woman who is determined to be her “own nation” after seeing the effect of fellow villagers raging war against the other all of which benefited the “white man“. I asked Gyasi about this theme and she said that she wanted her wrong “at least strong but always striking…and essentially anchors of the family.” This you see in abundance throughout the novel.
Moving to spirituality, Gyasi mentions the Gods the villagers worshipped and children feared. By some evocative prose Gyasi conjures up the use of fire and a firewoman in one chapter which beautifully referenced the relevant protagonist’s past. Spirituality runs throughout the novel and the need to be in touch with ones ancestry.
There are also some wonderful love stories within this book for example, a man destined to be a leader in his village bonded in a loveless marriage for the sake of relations renounces his stature and embarks on a journey to find a woman he met twice some years before having been unable to shake her from his mind.
Readers familiar with Zadie Smith will see tones of observations of generations of different ethnic backgrounds settling in a new country. Are you where your family is from or where you are born? Can you be both or are you neither? This is why this book was my choice for #DiverseAThon as it made me think of my own background. Second generation Indian born and bred in England. Am I Indian or English?
I like to think I am a bit of both.
Recommended for: anyone who enjoys diverse reads. If you enjoy Zadie Smith novels you will enjoy this one! If you liked this novel you will enjoy The Association of Small Bombs by Karan Mahajan.
Favourite quotes: “Weakness is treating someone as though they belong to you. Strength is knowing that everyone belongs to themselves”
“when you study history, you must always ask yourself, Whose story am I missing? Whose voice was suppressed so that this voice could come forth? Once you have figured that out, you must find that story too from there, you begin to get a clearer, yet still imperfect picture.”
Thanks for reading – I hope you enjoyed it!