Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Ghana: Homegoing, by Yaa Gyasi

I resisted this book as my choice for Ghana for quite a while. Even though the author, Yaa Gyasi, was born in Ghana, she was raised in Alabama. Furthermore, the publicity material describes the book as "an intense, heartbreaking story of one family and through their lives the very story of America itself". I didn't want to read an American story, I wanted to read an African story. But I did want to read this book after seeing a lot of positive reviews, and when I did, I found that it is in fact an African story as much as it is an American story - I guess that it is not described that way for marketing reasons - the publishers thought that calling it "the story of America" would sell more books.

Effia and Esi are two sisters - half sisters, in fact - in Ghana in the late eighteenth century. One of them marries a white man, a slave trader in Cape Coast. The other is sold into slavery. The novel follows seven generations of their descendants and all the twists and turns of their lives. It is a stunning novel. There is nothing stereotypical about any of the characters. In America, after escaping via the underground railroad, Esi's grandson Kojo marries a free woman, Anna. And yet heartbreakingly, she is captured by those hunting runaway slaves in the north, and her son H is born into slavery again. After slavery ends, he is convicted for, as far as I could tell, looking at a white woman, and sent as a convict to labour in coal mines. Eventually his descendants return to the north, to New York, but their struggles do not end there.

Effia's son becomes an heir to his uncle, a "Big Man"in his tribe. But her grandson James Richard wants nothing more than to marry the girl he has set his heart on, and manages to disappear in a tribal war to contrive this. So his descendants, too, know struggles and poverty. Furthermore, they are haunted by dreams of the "fire woman" who is deeply connected with their family history.

Eventually the two branches of the family come together, without realising their connection. The ending could have seemed contrived, but didn't. It is a thoroughly satisfying story, and one that revealed as much to me about the colonial history of Ghana as about the history of African Americans.

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