The Merriam Webster Dictionary defines trauma as an emotional upset or a behavioural state resulting from severe mental and emotional stress or physical injury. It has also been known in psychology, that trauma can induce behavioural disorders that are passed down from one generation to the other. This aspect is what Yaa Gyasi’s debut novel Homegoing (Viking, 2016) explores.
Homegoing is a novel about two half siblings in pre-colonial Ghana; Effia and Esi. Effia is sold off as a bride to a British slave trader James and Esi is sold off as a slave and sent away to America. What follows then is a series of stories from descendants of the two, all the way to present-day Ghana and present-day America.
Entrenched in these stories are traumatic experiences that each generation of the two siblings goes through. The different levels and forms of suffering they experience not only pile up as each generation is born, but also gets embedded deep in their lives, whether they know it or not. It is seen through Beulah, Esi’s great grandchild and the daughter of Kojo, a free man whose parents try to run away from their slave master, only to be captured, tortured and his father Sam, hanged.
“In the other room, Beulah starts whimpering in her sleep. The child has night terrors. They come at unpredictable intervals: one after every two days and another a month later. Some days they are so bad she wakes up to the sound of her own screams or she has scratches on her arms from where she’s fought invisible battles. Other days she sleeps still as death, tears streaming down her face, and the next day, when asked what she’s dreamt about, she shrugs
It is also seen in Marcus, also Esi’s descendant:
“[Howard’s] cane kept hitting at [Marcus’s] foot, and for a second Marcus felt as though at any moment, the man would lift the cane all the way up toward the ceiling and send it crashing over his head. He couldn’t guess why he felt that way…”
The instances of trauma can be traced back to Esi’s experience in the slave dungeon at the Castle, where she and other slaves are kept, and spread to the present, as the drug-filled life of her descendant, Sonny. On Effia’s side, her trauma begins when she is born—a huge fire ravages the land. Her trauma extends when Baaba, her adoptive mother refers to her as nothing.
“You are nothing from nowhere. No mother and now no father….what can grow from nothing?”
It is in James, Effia’s grandson, that the impact of the circumstance is visible. James, unable to tolerate and continue with the slave business his grandfather is dealing in, fakes his death and runs away to live anonymously with his wife Akosua in Asante land. Their daughter, Abena, seems to have been born with a streak of bad luck, which makes the villagers blame her for all the faults of the land. But later, she goes on a journey to find out more about her life only to return home and appreciate her aging parents even more.
While it seems like a series of unfortunate events, the characters in the book are interlinked with love, and sometimes tenderness for each other and that gives me a bit of hope as a reader. It is as if from these terrible traumatic processes, we are able to decipher what love is not and try to define what love is and how it should be portrayed.
As much as the harrowing stories against the backdrop of changing centuries were gripping, the emotional connection to the characters was very fragile. I was completely taken in by the emotions evoked in the story’s opening; but the subsequent stories ended too soon. The reader does not necessarily identify or relate with the characters in question. Their struggles are too superficial, their victories too. And when the reader is just getting into the essence of the struggle, the writer moves on to another character. In a sense, the whole story becomes a disjointed collection of interlinked shorts.
One would say it was an ambitious project for a first book but Gyasi seems to use it as a means to show the disjointedness in life; that stories sometimes can be interrupted yet still continue with different manifestations. The same can be said in the use of shifting tones, which seem to shift with each change in the scene and character—something that reminded me of Barbara Kingsolver’s Poisonwood Bible, where Kingsolver opts for tone alternation in telling the stories. But unlike Gyasi, Kingsolver opts to continue with each character’s story, giving a more detailed interaction between each character and reader.
But all is not lost. Gyasi seems to draw us back to the beginning. The book ends with the meeting between Marcus, a descendant of Esi and Marjorie, the descendant of Effia, and a trip down to Ghana. In a twist of fate, both of them are scared of the same things that had such an impact on their ancestors: water for Marcus and fire for Marjorie, confirming indeed that some fears are passed down to generations.
It is also at this point that Gyasi seems to suggest that revisiting history, and knowing the truth about our existence is the key to healing. In this sense, it was Homegoing for both of them: going back to Ghana and getting to face their fears.