Friday, February 17, 2017

Yaa Gyasi's Homegoing

Back in the fall, when I attended Nashville's Southern Festival of the Book, I came home with a long reading list and a number of actual books. I managed to hear Yaa Gyasi twice, once sitting on the row with her proud family. The book, written when she was twenty-two, resulted from a trip to Africa to see where her family had originated. (Gyasi actually grew up in Huntsville, Alabama.)

The novel she ended up writing wasn't the story she expected to find on her travels, but she put together a beautiful, masterfully told story set on the Gold Coast of Africa that begins with two daughters of the same mother, each unaware of the other's existence. One is taken as the wife of a white slave trader, living in the castle on the coast under which captive tribes people are held until placed on ships for passage to America. The other becomes a slave.

Rather than tell the full story of her characters, Gyasi gives just enough to make her characters real before moving to the next generations. She gives a picture of the tribal rivalry, spurred on by European slave traders. While history books sometimes imply the role African tribes play in the captivity of their rivals, the novel gives a clearer, fairer explanation of this complicated chapter in history.

Gyasi brings the characters all the way up to modern times, even bringing together a couple who will never be aware of their connection, many generations removed.

Much as Colton Whitehead managed to do in The Underground Railroad, Yaa Gyasi manages to put real faces on the characters set in this historical backdrop. Her characters are multi-dimensional, their flaws laid bare along with their virtues. In the end, readers close the pages of the book with a large cast of believable, sympathetic characters taking up residence in our long-term memory.