“The family is like the forest: if you are outside it is dense; if you are inside you see that each tree has its own position.”
This quote captures some of my feelings after reading Homegoing. I have a large family and we’re all pretty close. Whenever I talk to my friends about a family member, I always have to explain the person’s position in the family hierarchy, and now, reading Homegoing, I understand how family connections can be confusing for outsiders. The novel is a multigenerational story starting with two Ghanaian sisters, Effia and Esi, who have drastically different lives: one lives comfortably married to a slaver, and the other becomes a slave (see goodreads summary). As the story progressed, I had to refer back to a picture of the family tree that I found on the internet to keep track of the characters. I listened to the audiobook version, so that might’ve contributed to my confusion (since I wasn’t reading or seeing the names).
Homegoing was a really good novel. I’m so glad that it lived up to all the positive reviews I read online. There were a lot of recurring themes and storylines down the family lineage, it was almost like Yaa Gyasi was reminding the readers of old characters, and things that happened in the past. I like how it all tied together. And I found that some of the issues that characters in the novel faced are still relevant today. There’s a scene where a character is teaching their children how to present their ‘free papers’ (a document that certifies that they aren’t slaves) to the police, and it reminded me of how parents teach black children in America how to act in a police stop to avoid being shot.
The novel raises the conversation that Africans were complicit in the slave trade. It wasn’t just the British or the Dutch capturing people to enslave. Africans sold people captured from tribal wars and kidnapped some to earn profit from the trade. For me, the storyline personalised the slavery experience. I’ve visited a number of ‘slavery memorials’ including the Cape Coast Castle (featured in the novel), Ouidah’s Door of No Return, and Calabar’s Slave History Museum. I recognise the horrors of slavery and its impact on the African society, but I had never considered the possibility of losing family members to slavery. I’m part Ghanaian and part Nigerian, and I realise the privilege of knowing where I’m from and where my family roots are (to some extent). Just considering the likelihood that people who I share ancestral ties with might not have that same privilege because of the history of slavery, saddens me.
I don’t know a lot about my Ghanaian heritage, so the elements of Ghanaian culture and history were very informative. It led to discussions with my Ghanaian relative to learn more about the culture and context.
Leave a comment if you’ve read this novel. Did you like it? Have you read any similar novels? There’s a lot more to say about this novel, so you should check out these other reviews for more discussion on Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing.