Book Review – Homegoing, Yaa Gyasi

 

Capture d_écran 2017-08-23 à 1.40.14 PMYaa Gyasi’s Homegoing assures me more than ever of the importance of storytelling! Outside being Fante and being more than able to relate to a lot of occurrences in the book including the refreshing use of Fante diction, I am happy that through this story a lot more people will be exposed to the immensely rich aspects of Ghanaian culture. The story is set in southern Ghana, Gold Coast in the narrative, and highlights not only the peculiarities of the group of people called Akan, (Fante and Asante encompassed) but also thoroughly educates readers on the dynamics of the slave trade and other equally important historical events that happened concurrently in the West and Africa, specifically the Gold Coast at the time of the slave trade. This post’s main aim is to highlight parts of the narrative that unravel the parts of Ghanaian culture that lie subtle yet remain pivotal aspects of who we are as a people and how these parts add to the wealth of cultural information this novel holds.

Proverbs

Each page in the book somehow reminds me of my childhood and events witnessed as a child such as eating with one’s fingers, lounging in the courtyard making small talk and listening to inconsequential neighborhood or family gossip or using terms of endearment such as ‘odo’. In the opening of the novel is a proverb that basically talks about the difference between the stark truth and impressions, facades or appearances. The fact that every family looks like a dense united front (forest) yet a close exploration of this ‘forest’ shows the reality of separation since each ‘tree’ (family member) is literally standing alone and apart from the other trees. So, in essence, each family has its own problems that divide them no matter how good or unified they look in the public eye. I dare say this reality of family differences gets more chaotic with extended families. What makes these family troubles more dramatic is the fact that the more traditional the setup, the more the fire is stoked since the partakers in the snags live literally next door to each other usually in a huge enclosed compound. Therefore, this pettiness continues until someone decides to begin thinking differently. I have witnessed my extended family go through these valleys and some of the occasions have been funny and others not so funny.

Anecdotes

In some Ghanaian homes, certain didactic anecdotes are told and passed on to children to serve as deterrents mostly with the general aim of preventing accidents or discouraging some actions. The moral of these stories help us understand why those actions need not be done hence these stories have a cause and effect structure which is meant to directly influence the listeners’ choices. In the novel, there is a brief story of a woman that carried hot oil around her home and ended up scalding her husband who lay in the woman’s path; the woman was banished as a result and later became known as a witch etc. Growing up, I heard stories of losing good luck if one swept at night. This anecdote and Yaa’s anecdote of the hot oil form part of the culture of telling didactic stories with the aim of keeping children safe. The truth behind the discouragement of carrying hot oil around over distances in your home is to avoid accidents. Sweeping at night, on the other hand, is also discouraged to avoid the sweeping away of precious possessions because the logic is that at night visibility is low as compared to the day.

Belief systems

I didn’t even know that the Fante and Twi languages and tribes are branches from one and the same Akan tree! It only made sense then to me in a huge eureka moment that this is the reason behind both languages sounding so similar with only vocabulary variations. How shameful that as Ghanaian, I thought I was very informed about my culture and pride. Happens there’s only so much I  know. I also liked the way a whole page of writing was dedicated to explaining the essence of matrilineal dominance in both Asante and Fante lines. A man is more interested in his sister’s children and considers them more his priority than his own children because his sister is born of his mother but his wife is not; so interest in nieces and nephews guarantee the maintenance of property in the ‘mother’s house’ versus wealth being lost to ‘outsiders’.

Adulterated expressions

Obroni is a term anyone who grew up Ghanaian would know otherwise you probably grew up under a rock . However, this word which originally read as ‘Abro ni’ has gone through stages that have finally brought it to the way we say it now. ‘Abro’ translates to wickedness or malice or the act of knowingly doing what is wrong. ‘Abro ni’ then goes directly to mean a wicked person. This two-word expression gradually becomes the one word we use today; ‘Obroni’.

In addition, I never really understood the full meaning of the pronounced gesticulations of the Adowa dance, I mean we definitely can’t understand everything right? sometimes you just gotta appreciate and leave everything at that but then Aunty Yaa Gyasi gives that insight into one of the meanings of the hand gestures in the Adowa dance. In the novel, a character did the Adowa and hands were brought up and over ‘as though ready to receive and give back to the earth.’ In that particular scenario in the story, the people had gone through a long phase of famine and the ground/Asaase Yaa had finally been able to bless them with abundant food and harvest, therefore, the little hand movement repeated severally in the dance became a direct symbol of appreciation or acknowledgment of everything they owned as a people having come from Asaase Yaa. In the Adowa dance, every dancer has a unique message they use their body to communicate,  one of which is this special hand movement which is a gesture of thanksgiving.

Reinforcement of traditional Practices

The story ends with two people who are attracted to each other. The interesting twist to this is that the two are related. Yaa ends the story with their returning to Ghana and taking a dip in the deep blue sea. Yet the reality of these two people being related hangs on the reader’s neck and we itch to see how this knot will be unwound. Like the proverbial two halves of one fruit, these two characters are from the same family, lost over years and decades and reunited by some random working of fate. Though Yaa leaves us in need of a sequel to satisfy our curiosity about what would happen between these two characters, the part of the book where we are left shows us the potential for love between these two characters.

The reinforcement of traditional practices is highlighted at this point and gives us food for thought because up until this point, Yaa’s character’s have married with no background checks whatsoever. One of the things that make Ghanaian marriages different is the exhaustive background checks done to ensure that incestuous relationships are not allowed to happen. The novel’s end forces a particular line of thought which encourages a renewed appreciation of some of our traditional practices.

Final thoughts

Yaa Gyasi’s book is a wealth of information about slavery and the aspects of history that are not too easy to talk about today. It is insightful material for anyone who wishes to learn more about slavery, Africa, Ghana and an intimate narrative that brings the reader into the story, allowing for active participation and not a dormant reception of information.  We are on a journey with the characters, feel their pain and relive moments from the slave trade.

Most importantly, the story removes readers from the impersonal and mostly detached and factitious way that our schools teach slavery. Slavery is reduced to a narration of facts and dates and fails to show the cultural-emotional extent to which this bit of history meant to many groups of people over long periods of time and even until today.

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As a lover of the literary arts, I keep piling up reasons that ground my deep interest in this art. Below are a number of reasons;

Literature becomes a vehicle through which many topics can be discussed in a not too rigid way helping for the flexible accumulation of knowledge outside technical material

Literature exposes a people, their thought processes/social consciousness/belief systems, and culture….. this thought aligns with the first point…

We learn about own selves through literature, some works can emphasize what we already know and enhance our understanding of self.

Also, check out the post on Willie Lynch’s How to make a Slave as it aligns with several aspects of Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing.

 

 

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