Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

Yaa GyasiDate Read: July 16th 2016

Published: 2016

Publisher: A.A Knopf

Pages: 305

 

 

 

 

The Blurb

A novel of breathtaking sweep and emotional power that traces three hundred years in Ghana and along the way also becomes a truly great American novel. Extraordinary for its exquisite language, its implacable sorrow, its soaring beauty, and for its monumental portrait of the forces that shape families and nations, Homegoing heralds the arrival of a major new voice in contemporary fiction.

 

Review – ★★★★★ (5 stars)

Yaa Gyasi’s debut – Homegoing, is historical fiction at its best. I honestly thought Chimamanda Adichie’s Americanah hit home for me back in 2013 when I read it. But Homegoing IS home. Homegoing is about my home. I never thought I’d read a book that perfectly articulates the dynamics of being Ghanaian-American. The only book I’ve read that somewhat touches on the identity complexities of being Ghanaian by blood and American (or British) by birth, was Powder Necklace by Nana Ekua Brew-Hammond (another awesome Ghanaian-American writer). I might have to re-read Powder Necklace and review it on this platform soon!

Homegoing was an emotional read – throughout! I started reading during the wake of the horrific Alton Sterling and Philando Castile police shootings of early July, so you can imagine how haunting these real life events paralleled with this particular historical fiction, which focuses on the legacy of slavery in America and Ghana. Homegoing follows two half sisters – Effia and Esi who live in 18th century Ghana and the generations after them, making Effia and Esi the matriarchs of dual lineages. Effia becomes the wench (not wife) of the British governor of Cape Coast Castle (a slave castle here in Ghana) and is the matriarch of the Ghanaian line of the family; while Esi, who is kept as a slave in the dungeons of this same Cape Coast Castle where Effia resides with the governor, is the matriarch of the American line of the family. Homegoing alternates between the descendants of the two sisters, chronologically from 18th century Ghana to present day (after the millennium), in both Ghana and the US. As with most books of the historical fiction genre, a family tree is provided on the first page of the novel which makes following the two lineages and the different family members pretty easy.

To be honest, I don’t think it’s possible to read Homegoing without harboring some resentment for the insanity white folks forced people of African descent to endure. From the events of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, to the injustice and discrimination black folks faced in the American south as slaves, to the Anglo-Ashanti wars in Ghana, to present day racial tensions and disregard for black bodies, are all legacies of slavery. I truly admire how Gyasi manages to personalize slavery and its effects through the use of character development in each chapter. In every chapter, readers witness how each generation got some inheritance of slavery – be it through mass incarceration, the need to pass as white, lynching, colorism, the fragmenting of families and so much more.

As much as the terrors white folks caused black people are highlighted in Homegoing, I appreciate Gyasi for not letting Africans off the hook for being complicit in the slave trade. Unfortunately, the role African nations played in enabling slavery are  rarely addressed. All the ethnic wars, kidnapping of innocent people and trading of human beings in exchange for goods from the British, Dutch and Portuguese were all selfish, contributing factors to the slave trade and the inhumane effects they still manifest. While reading Homegoing, I kept thinking about Maya Angelou’s autobiography – All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes and her valid feelings of anger and disappointment she expressed after visiting the Elmina Castle (a Portuguese slave castle here in Ghana) in Cape Coast, Ghana back in the 1970’s. I understood her anger, as she was a descendent of our people who were captured and sold to the Europeans. As upsetting as the slave trade was, I applaud Gyasi for using Homegoing as a way for opening up conversations on the obscure relationship between Africans and African-Americans today, thanks to our disturbed past.

Gyasi’s ability to seamlessly weave Ghanaian and African-American histories into this story was very ambitious and exciting to read! I was impressed with the plethora of themes, actual historical events and icons that made realistic cameos in this novel. Don’t get me wrong – Homegoing is not rigid with historical facts. It’s very much a holistic novel with issues like interracial relationships, sharecropping, racial passing, lynching, homosexuality, mental illness, abelism, colorism and so much more, embedded into the storyline with respect to the times in which the characters live. Real historic icons and happenings like Yaa Asantewaa of Ejisu, The Asantehene, the civil rights movement & non-violent resistance headed by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, the Harlem heroin epidemic of the late 1960’s and others are all impressively packed into this novel of 305 pages!

I enjoyed most of the chapters and characters in Homegoing. But my favorite character was Marjorie. I like to believe Marjorie’s chapter is Yaa Gyasi – fictionalized. Marjorie was born in Ghana and raised in the US, just like Yaa Gyasi. In Marjorie’s chapter, I loved how the character articulates how she doesn’t identify fully as Ghanaian or ‘Black American’ which is sometimes used synonymously with the ambiguous term – ‘akata’ by some Africans. I especially loved that Marjorie found joy in reading books by writers of African descent,

Her work was in African and African American literature, and when Marcus asked her why she choose those subjects, she said that those were the books that she could feel inside her. (pg. 295)

Is Marjorie me? That quote is basically the essence of why I created African Book Addict! It was refreshing to read Majorie’s chapter, as I completely understood her identity struggles. While my life story is a little different from Majorie’s/Yaa Gyasi’s, reading a character with a similar background as yours is deeply gratifying. You begin to realize that there are others like you in the world; that you’re not alone in your confusion as to where you call home; that your convictions on your ever evolving identities are valid.

While discussing Homegoing with other book lovers here in Accra, I realized there were some minor inaccuracies in the novel. But I didn’t mind the minor inaccuracies others felt the need to point out. I did however find the ending of this phenomenal book a bit corny. Marcus’s chapter should have ended with a bang – as all the other chapters did! Regardless, Homegoing was emotional and heartbreaking, yet exhilarating to read. I hope Yaa Gyasi makes a trip to Ghana soon or adds Accra to her book tour. I’d love a good ole’ chat with a fellow Ghanaian-American and of course, for my copy of the book to be graced with her signature!

I’d like to extend a special thank you to my new friend – Trish Tchume and publishers A. A Knopf  for my copy of the book.  Homegoing is definitely one of my top 5 favorite books of this year. Don’t be surprised when it is required reading in schools soon.

★★★★★ (5 stars) – Amazing book, I loved it. Absolutely recommend!

My copy of Homegoing before and after reading.

P.S: I’ve typed all of the quotes I highlighted while reading and I’m open to sending anyone who’s interested, the PDF file of the compiled quotes via email. Some of the quotes, notes and suggested readings I highlighted would make for amazing book club discussions 🙂

Purchase Homegoing on Amazon

The Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis

ayana mathisDate Read: August 5th 2015

Published: 2013

Publisher: Hutchinson

Pages: 241

The Blurb

A debut of extraordinary distinction: Ayana Mathis tells the story of the children of the Great Migration through the trials of one unforgettable family.

In 1923, fifteen-year-old Hattie Shepherd flees Georgia and settles in Philadelphia, hoping for a chance at a better life. Instead, she marries a man who will bring her nothing but disappointment and watches helplessly as her firstborn twins succumb to an illness a few pennies could have prevented. Hattie gives birth to nine more children whom she raises with grit and mettle and not an ounce of the tenderness they crave. She vows to prepare them for the calamitous difficulty they are sure to face in their later lives, to meet a world that will not love them, a world that will not be kind. Captured here in twelve luminous narrative threads, their lives tell the story of a mother’s monumental courage and the journey of a nation.

Beautiful and devastating, Ayana Mathis’s The Twelve Tribes of Hattie is wondrous from first to last—glorious, harrowing, unexpectedly uplifting, and blazing with life. An emotionally transfixing page-turner, a searing portrait of striving in the face of insurmountable adversity, an indelible encounter with the resilience of the human spirit and the driving force of the American dream, Mathis’s first novel heralds the arrival of a major new voice in contemporary fiction.

 

Review – ★★★★★ (5 stars)

I randomly bought The Twelve Tribes of Hattie (the UK edition) in 2014 from my local bookstore. I didn’t even plan on reading the book this year, but it was smiling at me from my bookshelf, so I finally decided to pick it up!

Hattie, a ‘high yellow’ girl from Georgia escapes Jim Crow to Philadelphia with her mother and sisters in hope of a better life in the North. Hattie and her forbidden boyfriend, August Shepherd (also a Georgia native) get married and she gives birth to twins – Philadelphia and Jubilee at the age of seventeen. Due to the harsh winter in Philadelphia and poor living conditions, Hattie’s twins catch pneumonia and eventually die, only three months after their birth. The death of the twins, August’s poor paying job and Hattie’s helplessness up North taint her soul and morph her into a cold, resentful, miserable woman. Despite their strained relationship (as a result of infidelity from both parties), Hattie and August have nine children over the years. This book follows the Shepherds – Hattie, her children and grandchild from 1948 to the 1980’s.

The Twelve Tribes of Hattie was a wonderful page-turner! I honestly do not have any issues with this book because it was simply an excellent read. I read each chapter as a short story, since each chapter focused on one of Hattie’s nine children, intertwined with Hattie and her husband August’s history. Each chapter had its own twists and turns as readers got acquainted with Hattie’s children and whatever issues they faced in their lives.

I loved that all of Hattie’s children had diverse lives and they all faced real joys and pain: Floyd dealt with conflicting homosexual desires; Six found solace in religion and preaching; Billups was molested as a child; Franklin was a soldier in Vietnam and battled with alcoholism; Alice was a controlling middle-class housewife who was perpetually on tranquilizing medication (given to her by her doctor husband); Ruthie may or may not be August’s daughter; Baby Ella was reluctantly sent to live with Hattie’s barren sister in Georgia as Hattie was struggling to make ends meet; Bell was self-destructive – mentally and physically and Cassie was schizophrenic. Cassie’s daughter, Sala (Hattie’s granddaughter) is the last one of Hattie’s brood and readers witness her desires to become a born-again Christian, at the tender age of 10. Hattie’s demeanor definitely played an important role in the future of her children’s lives. Yes, Hattie may seem to be an unlovable, stern, sometimes cold woman – but I understood her character.

One thing I found intriguing was that Hattie and her children were described to be ‘the color of the inside of an almond’, which suggests that they were a light-skinned, black family in Philadelphia. August was described as the color of cinnamon – which is obviously darker than the color of the inside of an almond. Clearly, Jim Crow did not discriminate – whether you were dark or light-skinned, all black people faced discrimination and endured hardships; readers ultimately witness this in the lives of all the characters.

Some readers of this novel feel that Mathis’s development of the characters was brief and that there is little or no interaction between the children in the various chapters. This was not a problem for me. As I mentioned before, I read each chapter as a short story and was content with Mathis’s depiction of all the characters – they all felt very real! Apparently, new writer – Angela Flournoy’s 2015 debut novel, The Turner House (which is a recent finalist for the 2015 National Book Award – winner will be announced tomorrow!) is a similar, ‘better’ historic novel compared to The Twelve Tribes of Hattie. I haven’t read Flournoy’s novel yet, but I finished The Twelve Tribes of Hattie feeling satisfied. Be prepared for a long, powerful ride.

NoteThe Twelve Tribes of Hattie is adult fiction. Ideally, readers should be 18 years and older to indulge.

★★★★★ (5 stars) – Amazing book, I loved it. Absolutely recommend!

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Purchase The Twelve Tribes of Hattie on Amazon