Armchair Book Club: Homegoing

Heather Allen explores the much-anticipated young American novelist Yaa Gyasi's Homegoing.

Yaa Gyasi is a much-anticipated young American novelist who has written a sweeping epic as her first novel. A multi-generational story, Homegoing starts in 18th century Ghana, and then follows six generations of West Africans –those forced by the British to become slaves in the Americas, and those who were left behind.

To start, I was more interested in hearing this new writer’s voice than the story itself. I thought I had a pretty good idea of the horrors of the West African slave trade and slavery in the United States. But, of course, you can always learn something new from powerful storytelling.

Gyasi does a remarkable job of portraying the complex way in which evil ideas, once acted upon, spread from culture to culture. In addition to British atrocities, African tribes became pitted against each other, warring and capturing neighbours in order to profit from the slave trade.

Gyasi explores the myriad ways the trade brought misery to everyone who had anything to do with the trade – from the slaves, the children born of slave traders and African captives to those whose family members were stolen from their huts in the night.

At the same time as reading Homegoing, I was listening to a podcast called The History of the World in 100 Objects, which dissects history by looking at various objects on display at the British Museum. Coincidentally, the latest episode I tuned into featured a drum from North Carolina.

For centuries, it was thought that this was a Native American drum, but through recent testing, it has been proven to have originated in the slave trade region of Ghana where Homegoing is set.

I think Gyasi would appreciate this podcast, which also highlights not just individuals but generations of people who suffered and died, who didn’t get to see into the future or benefit from any real change.

Like this drum — which was used by slave traders on ships to force slaves into macabre dances, not for joy but to keep them active enough to stay alive — the effects of persecution move from one generation to the next. The drum most likely fell into many different hands before eventually ending up back in the hands of the British in London.

Homegoing is one of the books that when finished feels more like the start of a journey. It’s a book that encourages you to make connections to history, and to see the present world with new eyes.