Family Tree

A family tree opens Yaa Gyasi’s debut novel Homegoing. It comes, no doubt, from the family tree Gyasi tacked on her wall while she was writing Homegoing. That tree was her map into her story. Generation by generation, across 300 years of West African and African-American history. Homegoing is breathtaking in its ambition.

Maame is the matriarch who stands at the head of the family tree. Her two daughters, Effia and Esi, form its branches. Effia’s half of the family is destined to become slave traders. Esi’s half becomes the slaves to be traded. Slave ships link the two halves of the family. Fire drives them apart.

The night Effia Otcher was born into the musky heat of Fanteland, a fire raged through the woods just outside her father’s compound. It moved quickly, tearing a path for days. It lived off the air; it slept in caves and hid in trees; it burned up and through, unconcerned with what wreckage it left behind, until it reached an Asante village. There, it disappeared, becoming one with the night.

Yaa Gyasi, Homegoing (Penguin 2016)

Gyasi records the fates of Maame’s descendants using stand-alone vignettes for one member of each generation. There is little narrative glue that ties one chapter to the next, other than the reader’s knowledge that all of the characters are blood relatives. Thanks to the family tree, we see Gyasi move back and forth between Effia’s descendants and those of Esi’s.

A machete under the bed

The half-sisters, Esi and Effia, grow up in separate villages. Their stories mirror each other. Both have fathers who are Big Men, accustomed to sleeping with a machete under the bed in order to protect the family. Both girls leave their ancestral villages, never to return. Effia marries the British governor of Cape Coast Castle. Esi, too, goes to Cape Coast Castle but her quarters lie in the dungeon.

The mud walls of the dungeon made all time equal. There was no sunlight. Darkness was day and night and everything in between. Sometimes there were so many bodies stacked into the women’s dungeon that they all had to lie, stomach down, so that women could be stacked on top of them.

Esi

Home is no longer a reality. It becomes a dream of before and after slavery. It takes the shape of a black and gold pendant lost in the river of shit inside Cape Coast Castle. To conjure up home, Esi speaks Twi to her daughter. But the master of Esi’s Mississippi plantation forbids it.

He’d given Esi five lashes for every Twi word Ness spoke, and when Ness, seeing her battered mother, had become too scared to speak, he gave Esi five lashes for each minute of Ness’s silence.

Ness

“Wide but shallow”

In an interview, Gyasi described the research that went into Homegoing as “wide but shallow.” This may have been why, for me, the second half of the novel was not as satisfying as the first. It was too easy to recognize the historical moments in US history that Gyasi had “pegged” for her novel. Marcus, a PhD student at Stanford, articulates the problem.

How could he talk about Great-Grandpa H’s story without also talking about his grandma Willie and the millions of other black people who had migrated north, fleeing Jim Crow? And if he mentioned the Great Migration, he’d have to talk about the cities that took that flock in. He’d have to talk about Harlem [and] crack everywhere [and] the “war on drugs” [and] the harshest prison system in the world.

Marcus

In the rush to cover all this historical terrain, the African-American characters lose the complexity of their West African brethren. Willie is a woman who dreams of singing but ends up in a Harlem church choir because her skin is too dark. Her child, Sonny, becomes the resident crack addict. Marjorie, a descendant of Effia’s, and Marcus, on Esi’s side, bring this novel to a predictable close.

One reviewer has suggested that the family tree is the problem. That Gyasi needed to “tell” (rather than “show”) in order to glue her narrative together. I would have loved to see Gyasi chuck the glue. Forget about a character like Akua, the “crazy woman,” whose dreams explicitly link Effia’s line to Esi’s. Trees don’t grow inward. They reach for the sky.

1 Aug 2021 | Karen Kao