- What: Homegoing
- Who: Yaa Gyasi (debut novel)
- Pages: 300
- Genre: Historical fiction
- Subgenre: African American studies
- Published: 2016
- The lit: of 5 flames
Remember those early English classes where the teacher would write “protagonist” and “antagonist” on the board and stress their significance to every story? There was always a conflict between the two, but then sometimes the story really threw you for a loop and gave you a bad protagonist. I’m pretty sure certain stories were chosen in elementary curriculum to illustrate this mere fact: Your main character doesn’t have to be a good person (as if a story’s cast is that obtuse and lacks complexity). And wait a minute. Could an object, and not a human or dog, be the antagonist or protagonist? I swan.
Well, Yaa Gyasi must have taken issue with that literature lesson because her debut novel Homegoing employs neither protagonist nor antagonist. Although the story plays host to many actors, not one takes center stage. I didn’t have a chance to choose sides, despise someone, wish they would act differently, love a little harder. Homegoing didn’t rely on a central character or plot to lead me; it rests instead on an historical arc, one that lasts about two centuries.
Homegoing begins in West Africa in the late 18th century. Two half sisters are born unknown to each other, thus beginning the two parallel narratives. One marries an Englishman, and her and her ancestors’ histories help tell the story of the African slave trade and emphasize how African villages (the Fante and Asante tribes in this case) weren’t blameless. They were rewarded with protection or power depending on their contribution, and Gyasi doesn’t shy away from her thoughts on this topic. The other half sister is taken hostage and forced to live in unfathomable conditions in the same castle where her unknowing and well-off half-sister lives. She is then sold into slavery, where her genealogy helps convey the African American struggle in America from slavery to antebellum and from the Great Migration to inner city hardships. Each chapter is told through a descendant of either sister until the novel reaches present day.
The New Yorker was quite critical of this style. “Too often, however, Gyasi struggles to make the linked-story form suit her epic enterprise. There are significant challenges to overcome, not least the lack of a central character to arrest the reader’s attention and carry it through the book,” says writer Laura Miller.
Despite not having any physical or tangible connections with another, with the exception of the final two, I thought the characters told this vast timeline in a fairly cohesive way, and Gyasi implicitly aids them by various themes: water, fire, one of the sister’s pendants, the Cape Coast castle, etc. I will admit that telling a story this way challenges the author to paint a rewarding climax. So the fact that a climax didn’t really exist was a little disappointing, especially because I never realized why there was a part 1 and a part 2 of the book. (To me, the story delineated between two family lines, not two different periods.) I wanted the payoff after making my way through two centuries and about 16 characters. But I guess this gave the novel a more realistic vibe.
“You want to know what weakness is? Weakness is treating someone as though they belong to you. Strength is knowing that everyone belongs to themselves.” — Homegoing
Most importantly, though, Homegoing differentiates itself from so many other novels simply because it’s interesting. I learned more about African culture and history and the slave trade, as well as how blacks navigated a cruel American society, than from any history book. There was more Googling happening in the one week it took me to read this than other recent reads. And not because Gyasi failed to provide much context; I simply wanted all the information. Seeing the anecdotal evolution of black culture before African American was even a thing fascinated me. Yeah it’s cliché, but I really wanted to keep turning the page. So maybe it doesn’t 100% knock the style out of the park, but Homegoing told a story differently than most novels, especially most historical fiction. And that’s refreshing.