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Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

I’ve been indulging in nostalgia – looking at family photos taken in Ghana in the early 1960s, and at images on Google of the visit by Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip in 1961 – an exciting event I vividly remember. If you get to be old enough you become part of history. All of this because the novel Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi has turned out to be the book of the summer 2017.

Recommended to me by my staff and many customers Homegoing is the story of the history of the Gold Coast, now Ghana, told by many voices, from the 1700s to the present day.

The novel begins in a village, somewhere near present day Kumasi, with the story of Effia, born in 1754. A British soldier comes to an Ashante village to buy a young girl as his bride. Though he has a wife in England, this young woman will be his life long companion in Africa. A not uncommon practice across the British Empire. He is stationed at the British Garrison at Cape Coast Castle where the slave trade is doing a thriving business.

 African entrepreneurs are working with the British to capture members of competing tribes, who are then held at Cape Coast Castle before being loaded on to ships bound for America.

My father tells me that we did visit Cape Coast Castle but I have no memory of this place that is now a major tourist destination. I do clearly remember spending holidays at Winniba beach and also visiting Takoradi, a port where there would sometimes be ships bringing such delicacies such as butter and bacon in tins from Denmark. Cape Coast Castle lies directly in between, so we would have been there quite often. Looking at the photographs, now and then, the beach is magnificent – and the last view of Africa for hundreds of thousands who were forced to leave as slaves.

Yaa Gyasi imagines each generation from the time of Effia to the present day, each one moving history forward with their own story, some in America and some in Africa. History is unfolded as each character’s story is told, some discovering that evil begets evil; others, that those who follow are not at fault for the actions of their ancestors, and that forgiveness comes before peace.

We come to understand through this novel and these characters the sense of displacement that many Black Americans feel even today - neither African nor American.

From the remote villages of the Gold Coast we travel to Harlem in the 1960s, when “in America the worst thing you could be is a black man”. There are sad stories of those who have fallen into lives of drug use and hopelessness, unable to find a place for themselves in the predominately white world of the United States of America – the only home they know. But, others through education find a safe and satisfying life for themselves and can help to make constructive change for others.

The final character, a young woman who I suspect is a thinly disguised Yaa Gyasi, travels to Ghana regularly to visit her grandmother and finally accepts that though she was born in Ghana she has been “too long gone from Ghana to be Ghanaian”.

As interesting as I found the long ago history told in this novel, it was the more recent time and the struggle of the black population in present day America that I found most poignant.

 

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