The R(ead)sling List: Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

By Emma Soberano ’17

soberano@grinnell.edu

Yaa Gyasi’s “Homegoing” is more than a collection of short stories shaped into a novel: it is a family tree, whose trunk is split at the base but which rises, strong, for generations. At the root of the story are Effia and Esi, Ghanaian half-sisters separated by the eighteenth century’s burgeoning slave trade. While Effia and her descendants remain in Africa, Esi is captured and sold to the United States. Every chapter tells a piece of the next generation’s story, alternating between the two sisters’ kin, so that as soon as we have come to know one character, their chapter closes and we are shuttled across the ocean to hear from their parallel. In this way, we come to know seven generations, 14 men and women, and several centuries of history.

Gyasi weaves a tale that is both sweeping in its scope and intimate in its humanity. Through “Homecoming,” Gyasi recaptures a history which has been lost, denied, and deliberately destroyed, and returns it to the two sisters’ progeny, and to those whose families share similar stories – Africans on one side of the slave trade or another. To read “Homecoming” is to bear witness to history, to the twenty-first century results of chance and small choices made back in the eighteenth century.

While each new chapter brings with it a new voice, new troubles, laughter and sorrows, twining threads of love and longing link the whole novel together. “Homegoing” is at once a love story and a eulogy. The characters in Gyasi’s stories find strength in their love for family in its many forms: children, grandparents, partners, self, community. And every character is, in their own way, mourning the loss of a land untouched by white hands and cruelty.

To write a review of “Homegoing” is to inherently fail to do it justice. I cannot capture the full enormity of three centuries, the task Gyasi set for herself and achieved so beautifully, in a few hundred words. What I can tell you is that this novel moved me to tears, and made me smile at its cleverness.

Gyasi’s writing is clean and comforting, the prose itself easy to read even when the subject material is painful. A sorrowful undercurrent runs through the novel’s pages, but Gyasi takes time to appreciate the sweetness, anger, frustration, sensuality and joy which give each life its texture. Every character is fully fleshed out, and reading their stories is like hearing from long-lost friends or family members. Some stories are familiar, others new and unexpected, and all are beautiful and heart-wrenching. These are the stories of two families, but also of two countries, whose people weave in and out of each other’s lives, meeting and separating in surprising ways.

I knew almost immediately what wine I wanted to pair “Homegoing” with. Gewurztraminer is a rich and flavorful white wine, made from cool-climate grapes, and thus is sweeter-tasting. It is typically paired with spicy food, to help balance the heat, and so I thought of it when trying to balance the heartache so prevalent within this book.

The wine I chose, Fetzer’s 2014 Shaly Loam Gewurztraminer, does not have as much of the variety’s typical lychee scent, but maintains the characteristic sweet taste and floral smell. While there are definite tangerine notes, I was hoping for a tiny bit more acidity to go with the novel’s zing. Instead, the tangerine present is sweet, like a California Cutie (which may be appropriate, as this is a California wine). In addition to tangerines, peach is also very forward, and a hint of warm spices make up somewhat for the low acidity. Gewurztraminers often taste honeyed, and Fetzer is no exception – the honeyed sweetness of the wine pairs well with the affection Gyasi shows for her characters, and that which they show for each other.

Wine: Fetzer 2014 Shaly Loam Gewurztraminer, $10 at HyVee

Alcohol-free alternative: Go treat yourself to a smoothie from the Grille. Did you know you can mix flavors? My favorite combinations are peach mango and raspberry mango.


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