At this point I’ve seen people bash this book so much that I’m not even sure anyone wants to read any more “reviews” on it. That being said, here’s a review on it!
I did not hate the book. Several people said it was trash. Several others said that while the book wasn’t horrible, it left them unimpressed. I think I fall into the latter category, while also wanting to admit that I kind of enjoyed it, especially around the middle to the end, and I also think that this novel is immensely relevant for the culture, and I shall explain why soon. But before that, I too have some issues. Let me start with the least: the cover.
Aren’t we tired of the “African book” color scheme yet? The yellows and oranges are really starting to irritate me whenever I see them. (LOL, as I was writing this, I noticed Swing Time also has that color scheme. But at least that one doesn’t have a sun on it. Can’t we have a blue cover? With a moon? Is there one already? I don’t know.)
Now, let’s talk about the publicity. Yo – if this is the kind of hype Alfred A. Knopf would give to young writers of African descent, could they publish me too, pretty please? The hype was ridiculous! I have seen the most successful marketing for Homegoing than I have seen for any “African literature” (I may be using this term more broadly than it is conventionally used) book in like, forever. I feel like its publicity was even more successful than Swing Time’s! Also, I can’t remember what the publicity for Americanah was. But I could almost physically feel the anticipation for Homegoing and the consistent reiterations of people who wanted to read the book before and after it came out…only to be met when they finally got their hands on it with “Effia”, “Cobbe” and “Quey”.
My absolute biggest problem with the book was the characters – including but not limited to their names. Effia, Cobbe and Quey. I just can’t understand why their names are spelled like that. Author’s creative license? Taking liberty with the idea that Anglicized literacy culture wasn’t fully formed at the time these characters were in their prime? I mean, I don’t have a problem with people deciding to onomatopoeically transcribe their names. I like spelling my day name as “Ewuraefua”, which isn’t common (by which I mean I’ve never seen anyone else use it), I love Efya’s branding, and I have an uncle who more-or-less renamed himself Quesy when he was young. But what I want to know is, if someone who has little to no idea of what Ghanaian culture is actually like reads this book, would they walk out of the pages thinking, “Yes, Quey is a fairly common Ghanaian name”? I mean, Ghanaians might be able to figure out what Yaa Gyasi’s doing with the names (even if it takes a minute to click, like “Quey” did for me), but what about everyone else? And I know this is kind of a sketchy subject because of the idea of all the rest of the English-speaking world having to “explain” ourselves/our culture but when Americans/British people write about theirs, they do not explain, assuming that all readers already know. And when we don’t, we have to find out ourselves. And it is not like I am asking Yaa Gyasi to spoon-feed non-Ghanaian readers. But I can hardly imagine myself as a non-Ghanaian bothering to Google “Quey”, and either way, I don’t know what I’d find. [Note: I just Googled it, and got the definition “young cow”. Consider me deceased.]
But another issue about the characters is that there were too many of them. It seemed that the intention was for each to get their shine in their respective chapters, but this was not a very big book, and for a book this size, the number of “main” characters just might have been overambitious. Unfortunately, I don’t know if any other method of storytelling could have done what Yaa Gyasi intended for the story to do, but the narrative style was complicated. It was a 3rd-person that felt too much like a 1st person narrative sometimes, which was confusing because I could barely remember whose chapter I was reading from, and found myself occasionally wondering if it mattered at all. After reading the book, I still cannot tell you off-head who is related to whom or how. I just might have given up on the novel if not for the availability of the family tree in the front pages. But because of how quickly the chapters jumped, I felt that some of the characters didn’t form fully enough for me to feel their humanity. A few of the earliest characters felt like shadows. They were almost allegorical – which I think is a bad thing for a novel.
I will come back to the characters, but speaking of allegory, there was something about the narration that made me uncomfortable. There was a lot of proverbial talking that struck me as… amateurish (I think I said something similar about the use of parables or something in “Under the Udala Trees”). I know West Africans are famous for their proverbs and stuff but there was something about their placement or usage that didn’t sit right with me. (I am almost scared to write this because there’s a thing about proverbs that I’m trying to incorporate into a story I’m writing, and whenever it comes out, perhaps years from now if ever at all, I fear that someone may say something similar about my work. But in life, you say what you mean, take risks, and deal with the consequences when they arrive so…) I don’t even have examples of these proverbs to illustrate what I mean because whenever I saw them, I just kind of side-eyed them and kept going.
I have an interesting (kind-of-positive?) observation about the characters, though: As the story went on, from the middle to the end, I think the characters started to become more real – specifically the characters in America, closer to the year of today. My hypothesis about this is that it is easier to write naturally about characters you can relate to by the experience of your own reality. If Yaa Gyasi has never known by experience what it means to be a Fante woman in pre-colonial, pre-Ghana Ghana, it would take a lot of imagination – not just research, which I think several people agree she did a lot of – to bring these characters to life. But for a final character like Marjorie, who grew up in the US but had contact with Ghana and felt a conflict in identity, her personhood was far more credible than the earlier characters’. I suspect it’s because Gyasi could pour herself into a character like that. I don’t know. For sure though, the characters after the beginning made me begin to enjoy the book more.
Now, in a way, this book was refreshing. I haven’t read very widely or very much in my life, but I know I haven’t read a book like this before. It probably classifies as historical fiction, yet still stretches out into the modern day. And it’s not immigrant fiction, at least in the conventional sense. Judging by how many people resonated with Siyanda Mohitsuwa’s post about a year ago about being over African immigrant fiction, I suspect that many people were looking forward to a book that wasn’t that, even from a “diaspora” writer. And this wasn’t that (in my opinion)! I really appreciate what it’s doing as a novel.
For me, it was like the book was building a bridge that was easier to understand than, for example, a history book that explains what the routes of the slave trade were. For me, that part of history has been like passively knowing it, but not truly able to feel it or imagine it. The fact that there were individual characters in “Homegoing” with actual names, actual personalities and a family tree that could be easily represented on a page at the beginning of the novel was fantastic for me. I like knowing where things and people come from and being able to make connections. I like that things are reduced from a large, unimaginable scale of huge numbers and long years of slavery, to the almost-simple history of one or two families. In fact, I don’t think I like it when authors try to do some mass-representation. It makes human individuality invisible. This book was the first book that ever brought things full-circle for me, almost literally. I saw people from Ghana taken, selling and sold, gone abroad and returning to Ghana (or not at all), back where it all began. I was finally able to connect, through fiction, African-Americans to Africa, even if those characters themselves didn’t know where they came from; I did, and that was satisfying for me.
I’d recommend this book to an African-American who has trouble understanding his/her connection to an Africa with a tangible culture, and I would also recommend it to an African who has, like me, had trouble visualizing the root of the relationship of common heritage between African-Americans and Africans.
“We believe the one who has the power. He is the one who gets to write the story. So when 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. From there, you begin to get a clearer, yet still imperfect picture.”