Yaa Gyasi, “Homegoing” (2016) (narrated by Dominic Hoffman) – Historical fiction, as a category, eludes me somewhat. A friend defined it for me reasonably well, but I confess that I had been drinking and most of what I remember was that it’s fiction set before living memory but still within historical time i.e. not in a mythical undated past. I feel like there’s more to it than that, a certain relationship to the past, but I never solidified my thoughts on this; maybe it is just as my friend (who reads more historical fiction than I do, I’m pretty sure) has it and that’s it.
For instance- “Homegoing,” which made quite a splash when it came out in 2016, first novel by a writer in her mid-twenties… is it historical fiction? It does, indeed, take place in the past, ranging from the eighteenth century to close to the present day. It’s also definitely literary fiction. I suppose genre boundaries are generally looser these days, but all the same I can’t shake the idea that real, on-the-button historical fiction is… more romantic? More detail focused, really embedding you in the past? More populist? I don’t know.
Anyway! “Homegoing” is a story of two lineages. They are descended from half-sisters on the eighteenth century Gold Coast, in today’s Ghana. Effia, raised among the Fante people, marries a British officer overseeing the slave trade; Esi, raised semi-illegitimately among the Asante, winds up enslaved, sold out of the fortress that Effia’s husband oversees. We then follow the two half-sister’s descendants, Effia’s in Ghana, Esi’s in the United States, through two centuries or so of history.
Critics have described “Homegoing” as closer to a collection of short stories than a novel, and there’s something to that. Not only do the chapters focus on separate individuals as we follow the lines through the generations, they’re usually cut off from whoever became before. The previous generation in any given story is usually dead, sold away, missing, otherwise absent from the action with few exceptions, where the previous generational character is old and beaten down by life. The traumas of slavery, colonialism, Jim Crow will tend to do that. The lines come together in the end, thanks to the magic of university education in the late twentieth century. There’s no happily-ever-after promised for the last two of their respective lines but they do gain a certain degree of self-knowledge… that feels like a common trope in contemporary literature but I wouldn’t stake too much on it.
Truth be told, the characters started to run together some as Gyasi hit various historical beats. More than individuals, there was “the post-Reconstruction guy,” “the lady around when they introduce cacao production in Ghana,” “the college kids,” etc. That could be part of the point- history and it’s long-neglected, now-attention-grabbing personal-level cousin, intergenerational trauma, determines these characters more than interiority. It also could be that such a work is less suited for listening to as an audiobook, though the voice actor, Dominic Hoffman, does a decent job (note- I’m no judge of African accents so don’t get mad if you listen and don’t like his).
Trauma and history interact to make character- self-knowledge, and knowledge of one’s lineage, maybe provides a key to a meaningful life; as far as I can tell, these are the points of the book. It’s kind of similar to “Roots,” in a way, though the feel is entirely different. “Roots” came out of the black pride moment (written by a Republican who was, arguably, trying to corral black pride to an at least moderately conservative end); “Homegoing” comes out of contemporary social justice and fiction workshop milieus. Gyasi’s prose is finer than Haley’s, by a wide margin; Haley’s prose was generally more vigorous than Gyasi’s.
Trauma, history, lineage-knowledge as self-knowledge… white people tried this script, in the twentieth century, sometimes with real pathos (Jewish writers coming to terms with the Holocaust), sometimes more with bathos (“white ethnic” stuff amongst gentiles, and not a few Jews too). I think it is different from PoC writers, frankly, I’m not about to call them bathetic unless they go really overboard, but we’ll just say it has little to do with my idea of history. As far as I’m concerned — and I know this puts me at odds with leftists of more of a socialist stripe, as well as lineage-knowledge-power types who tend to be more left-liberal — I don’t believe there is a redemptive arc in history. I don’t believe it in personal history and I don’t believe it in global history and I don’t believe it for any history in between. Even if we achieve global or galactic utopia, that won’t have any bearing on what happened before. Each moment of the past has its own validity, its own goodness or badness not transfigurable into something else by the future…
Well! We’ve gotten off the beaten path and it wouldn’t surprise me if Gyasi more or less agrees but still sees power and healing in ancestry stories. And why not! She hasn’t got my long line of potato-diggers and pogrom-dodgers and, eventually, settlers of stolen land and wage-slaves to look back on. I’m just relating why this maybe didn’t move me more. It wasn’t bad but I didn’t get that much into it.
I will say, I have some interest in the increasing intellectual/cultural prominence of immigrants from Africa and their children (presumably, soon enough, grandchildren et al) in American life. Yaa Gyasi is one such, the daughter of academics who came to the US from Ghana, and who has lived on both sides of the pond. Two funny tells of the “West African moment,” beyond the Nigerian and Ghanaian et al names you see on bestseller lists and TV. I used to listen to a podcast hosted by black men who made much of the supposedly privileged status of immigrant Africans and how they supposedly don’t play well with “American descendants of slaves,” which apparently is a buzz-phrase with online black reactionaries now? Also, the fell Amy Chua, jurist, pop-sociologist, possible procurer for Brett Kavanaugh, named Nigerian-Americans as one of six or so, like, “power-ethnicities” to look out for in the next few generations. Interesting portents! ***