If you've been paying any attention to pop culture, you've probably noticed an uptick in slavery narratives, particularly in Hollywood. The most recent is the History channel's remake of "Roots," the iconic 1970s miniseries based on Alex Haley's book; the fall will see the publication of Colson Whitehead's novel "The Underground Railroad." This is a thick, thorny topic, in part because black representations are so limited that the subgenre has become strangely dominant with just a handful of titles.
But I also wonder why there aren't major works about slavery all the time — somehow World War II stories appear more central to our national narrative (it's almost like we find white people more interesting than black people). Slavery is not only fundamental to American history, it's the terrible direct inheritance of an entire population.
In her debut novel "Homegoing," Yaa Gyasi explores the damaging effect of the slave trade on a family split between the U.S. and the Gold Coast of Ghana across 200 years. With a few exceptions, even the most extravagant multigenerational novels seem to top out at three or four generations, capturing characters whose lifetimes overlap, who have time to get to know and interact with one another. "Homegoing" covers seven generations in 300 pages and is, for the most part, a blazing success.
Of course, there are reasons most novels don't follow 14 point-of-view characters scattered across modern history. Aside from sheer technical difficulty, this structure demands a great deal of sacrifice from the individual characters, who are allotted only 20 to 30 pages apiece. "Homegoing" is, in essence, a novel in short stories, so each chapter is forced to stand on its own, and inevitably, some chapters fare better than others.
But the same can be said of Jennifer Egan's "A Visit From the Goon Squad" and Elizabeth Strout's "Olive Kitteridge," both of which won Pulitzers — these novels can work, despite structural limitations. The sum of "Homegoing's" parts is remarkable, a panoramic portrait of the slave trade and its reverberations, told through the travails of one family that carries the scars of that legacy.
It all starts with Effia and Esi, daughters of Maame, both born in what is now Ghana in the mid-18th century, when the Gold Coast slave trade was in full swing.
Effia is the product of rape — Maame, an Asante woman, was a slave to her Fante father, and on the night of Effia's birth, Maame set fire to his compound and fled, leaving her daughter for Asanteland, where she married and gave birth to Esi. Maame's escape sets the entire novel in motion, making the rape a sort of original sin. Effia's father "knew then that the memory of the fire that burned, then fled, would haunt him, his children, and his children's children for as long as the line continued."
Without it, Effia wouldn't have married the British governor of the Cape Coast Castle; her half-sister — entirely unknown to her — wouldn't have been captured and imprisoned in the castle's dungeon while she lived upstairs in relative comfort. While Effia stays on in Africa, Esi is sold into slavery and shipped to America, and both lines of their family become embroiled in the filth of history, their lives determined by the sins of individuals, of peoples, of nations. As one great-great-granddaughter tells her son, "Evil begets evil. It grows. It transmutes, so that sometimes you cannot see that the evil in the world began as the evil in your own home."
"Homegoing" is not a book that flatters white people, but neither is it a book about sweet, virtuous black people at the mercy of a racist world. As one of Effia's descendants, who leaves his slave trading family to become a farmer, explains to his fellow villagers, "Asante traders would bring in their captives. Fante, Ewe, or Ga middlemen would hold them, then sell them to the British or the Dutch or whoever was paying the most at the time. Everyone was responsible. We all were … we all are."
The characters are, by necessity, representatives for entire eras of African and black American history, and while this means some of them embody a few shortcuts (a budding writer pens an on-the-nose poem; a PhD student works on his research; one poor soul is burdened with portraying every topic pertinent to Harlem in the 1960s), they are not ciphers. Gyasi infuses them with individuality and allows them to breathe, flaws and all. In one of my favorite moments in the book, a character visits his mother for the first time in decades, never having forgiven her for the (truly awful) event that caused their separation. She kneels before him, and he "knew she was crying by the wetness of his feet."
Mothers and sons, husbands and wives, brothers and sisters — they all tend to lose each other in "Homegoing." They're separated both by history — war, slavery, imprisonment — and the tragic stuff of individual life — abandonment, resentment, heroin.
These losses are more pronounced for the U.S. branch of the family, where enslaved children are sold away from their parents. Over the course of just a few generations, we see Esi's line become slaves, then black Americans with no way to know their roots lie in Ghana. Meanwhile, Effia's descendants remain in Ghana until they're good and ready to come to the States on their own terms — 200 years after Esi, presumably by plane.
When her black high school teacher asks her to talk about what it means to her to be African American, Marjorie — like Gyasi, born in Ghana but raised in Alabama — responds, "But I'm not African American." As a recent immigrant, she feels the gap between her and her black classmates: "[They] were different from Ghanaians, too long gone from the mother continent to continue calling it the mother continent." Marjorie is in more or less full possession of her history, as well as of a highly symbolic black stone pendant — one of two passed down from Maame, one given to each daughter. Esi's pendant remains buried in the dungeon of Cape Coast Castle.
In a lecture on the idea that "History Is Storytelling" (another shortcut, for sure, but an effective one), Yaw, a teacher tells his students, "[W]hen you study history, you must always ask yourself, Whose story am I missing? Whose voice was suppressed so that this voice could come forth? Once you have figured that out, you must find that story too." Gyasi's characters may be fictional, but their stories are representative of a range of experience that is all too real and difficult to uncover. Terrible things happen to them; they're constantly cleaved apart, and in the process, cut off from their own stories. In her ambitious and sweeping novel, Gyasi has made these lost stories a little more visible.
Cha is the author, most recently, of the novel "Dead Soon Enough."
Knopf: 320 pp., $26.95