Saturday Features

A home of one’s own

  • Ghana-born author Yaa Gyasi unravels the convoluted dynamics of slavery in a novel that spans two continents and eight generations
- Richa Bhattarai

Oct 27, 2018-

Home Going, the debut novel by Ghana-born author Yaa Gyasi, begins like distant lore—a myth, a dream even. It is the late eighteenth century in West Africa, when Effia Otcher is born into “the musky heat.” Soon after, her stepmother marries her off to the British Governor of the Cape Coast Castle for thirty pounds up front. The story lulls readers, readying them for descriptions of an idyllic marital life that awaits Effia, the acclaimed beauty.

Instead, evil creeps in as soon as Effia reaches her new home. Feeling a breeze hit her feet from small holes in the ground, she asks her husband, James, “What’s below?” The mangled Fante word that comes back to her is “cargo.” This is how Effia, and the readers, learn that James is a slave trader. In the castle’s dungeon, captive Africans are stacked on top of each other, bathed in their own bodily excretions, tortured and traumatised into a lifetime (and more) of bondage.

One of the slaves brought into the dungeon is Effia’s half-sister, Esi—though neither sibling is aware of this twist of fate. As Effia and her descendants lead their life in relative ease, Esi and her progeny are thrust into ever-growing misery and penury. In tracing their life stories, the novel’s initial canvas grows bigger and broader till it ends up humungous, encompassing two continents and eight generations all seeking a place to call home. We follow Maame’s offspring as they are led along the Gold Coast of Africa through the Middle Passage to America, and from Ghana to the raucous, drug-infested streets of Harlem in New York.

The novel is almost too ambitious to be conceived of—can three hundred pages and the narratives of fourteen characters even begin to unravel the convoluted dynamics of race and slavery? In that, it makes a brave effort. Each of the characters reminds us of both horrifying and strengthening truths of African-American legacy, lest we forget: lashes for speaking in one’s own language, a breaking of the neck for struggling to break free of hell, arresting couples in mixed marriages, the systemic continuation of slavery and segregation after feeble attempts to abolish it, the great migration, the Civil Rights Movement, Jim Crow laws, the Harlem Renaissance. For each of the great and small changes in Afro-American heritage, Gyasi chooses a character to share their story so real and personal, so close to you, that you are forced to pay attention.

Gyasi’s gift for words, a lyricism and loveliness of structure that charms and intrigues, is evident from the very first page of the novel. Her descriptions are unusual and unexpected, her hold on her characters complete, and her mastery over evocation precocious. Her research is diligent, if open to debate and questioning. No detail is too minor to be overlooked. Showing us the intricate scars on a slave’s shoulder, Gyasi writes, “Her scarred skin was like another body in and of itself, shaped like a man hugging her from behind with his arm hanging around her neck.” A hundred plus years later, her descendent fares little better, for he knows “in his body, even if he hadn’t yet put it together in his mind, that in America the worst thing you could be was a black man. Worse than dead, you were a dead man walking.”

The people finally allowed to tell their own stories in the novel are alive, breathing, living around all of us. They make us want to linger on and hear more of their tribulations, even as we beg the writer to end their suffering. This juxtaposition remains with us as we near the ending to this massive undertaking: will Gyasi choose theatricality, poetic justice, a deus ex machina? Will the closure leave us feeling anticlimactic? Till the very last line, Gyasi leads readers on, forging a destination that is as unique, and yet as familiar, as the path her novel treads.

Home Going does not fully escape a trap of its own making. Its sweeping attempt to capture a colossal concept is wont to allow gaps and loopholes. At times, we come across bland political statements devoid of grace that do not seem to belong to this particular novel, sometimes a character almost turns into a caricature, a few more additions and it could well be a stereotype. Characters change and churn in such a way that a less attentive reader may not be able to keep track. Specific experiences are inserted into the novel as if in a textbook, almost to tick off a box on a list of issues to be dealt with. Ma Akua, who has grieved all her life and has passed her hurt on to her son, suddenly tells him, “Be free, Yaw. Be free.” As if it were that easy to explain away the invisible shackles that bind you to memory. These asides and aberrations mar a novel that is otherwise bold, brave and resourceful.

It is inevitable that the novel is compared to similar works: in the way female characters head the story and weave it around themselves, it is immediately reminiscent of Toni Morisson’s classic, Beloved. The family saga branching out from an African sold into slavery was also the theme of Alex Haley’s hugely popular Roots. The injustice meted out to African characters in the novel will remind readers of Tom from the much-loved To Kill a Mockingbird. Even when preceded by such enduring and formidable literary works, Gyasi holds her own, making incidents and characters in her novels gleam and stand out with the amount of research and dedication that she spends on retelling them.

As if in return for the toil that has gone into its writing, Home Going demands equal investment from the reader. It is not a novel that can be, or is to be, read lightly. It requires patience, empathy, and an unwavering acknowledgement of the devastating repercussions of the slave trade that divides the world to this day. It also calls for concentration—take a step back from the two meandering family trees, sometimes revealed in mere quick strokes, and you lose track of who is who.

Fiction that brims with piety, pathos and passion, yet manages to give us sobering history lessons without being tedious or uncomfortably preachy—it is a rare combination. Home Going is a novel to be prized, discussed and added to curricula for attempting to lay bare an alternate history of the African-American people in so humane and compassionate a manner.

Author: Yaa Gyasi

Publisher: Penguin Random House

Pages: 300

Price: Rs 800

Published: 27-10-2018 08:44

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