Book Club Guide—Homegoing, by Yaa Gyasi
Breakout literary star Yaa Gyasi touches on many connotations of “home” in this stunning debut novel. No matter where her characters take up residence—a tribal village in Ghana or the British castle outpost there, Harlem or Alabama—they are each searching for the elusive feeling of being at home, among their community but also in their own skin. In a series of chapters that read like stand-alone stories, the novel traces the lineage of two half-sisters born in Ghana, one who remains in Africa as the wife of a British officer and the other who is sold into slavery and sent to a plantation in the American South. Slightly autobiographical in parts (Gyasi hails from my own hometown, Huntsville, Alabama, and writes in detail about it in the chapter titled “Marjorie”), Homegoing is a timely, important commentary on race throughout our national and global history. As the chapters progress from the pre-Civil War era to Reconstruction to the 21st century, the novel explores the subtle and not-so-subtle racism that our society allows and supports. Meanwhile, alternating chapters open a window onto the African culture in Ghana and the complex forces that have shaped its people and its nationhood. This is a must-read for thoughtful book clubs. Below are some topics to guide your book club discussion.
Home, Coming and Going:
Almost all of these characters leave home, either by force or choice. Which ones have the most difficulty adjusting to the new place or life they find themselves in? Which seem most haunted by the idea of home?
How does the theme of escape play out in different characters’ lives (think particularly of Maame, Ness and Kojo, H)? What makes a woman like Akosua (James’s wife) believe she is her “own nation,” while a character like Yaw has to be told by his mother, “let yourself be free”?
Both Effie and Esi are given a “black stone, glimmering with gold” from the mother they share, Maame. What does the black stone represent as Effie and Esi pass it down to future generations? Why does Marjorie give her stone to Marcus at the end, and what is the meaning of that gesture?
Many of the characters bear scars: from whips, from fire, from needle tracks. What is the significance of the different kinds of scars? How do these characters think about and deal with the scars they carry (for example, Yaw’s facial scar or Ness’s scars on her back, or even Robert’s whiteness that covers his black heritage)?
Effia grows up believing her father Cobbe’s prophesy that she will have a sullied lineage. Generations later, Yaw’s mother, Akua, says, “There is evil in our lineage. There are people who have done wrong because they could not see the result of the wrong.” Does the family have evil in its lineage, and why? Is it a legacy one generation leaves the next? Which ancestors have committed the most evil acts, and could they have been avoided?
How does the Cape Coast Castle, with its upstairs rooms for the officers and its downstairs dungeon filled with slaves, represent the racist culture of Ghana, and of the world at large? What are Marcus’s and Marjorie’s reactions upon touring it?
The later-generation characters we meet in Part 2 are not confined to dungeons or owned as slaves. But, through their stories, what does the novel suggest are some modern forms of slavery?
The Ghanaian natives call the white man Abro Ni, or “wicked one, for all the trouble he had caused.” That name turns into “obroni,” the name applied to missionaries. Are the African people justified in conflating whiteness and wickedness? How does that impact their relations with white people and, by extension, the world?
Why does Marjorie tell her high school teacher she is not “African American”? What does her teacher mean when she responds that “here black is black is black”?
What do we learn about the difference between black and white in the chapter on Willie and her husband, Robert?
In his history class, Yaw teaches his students, “‘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.” Whose stories and whose voices is the novel attempting to recover?
What’s in a Name:
In the chapter about “H,” his wife Ethe tells him, “‘My mama gave me that name herself. I spent six good years with her before they sold me out to Lousiana to work them sugarcanes. All I had of her then was my name. That was all I had of myself too.'” What significance do names carry throughout the novel? (Consider James Richard Collins who is later called “Unlucky,” the character known only as “H,” Carson who becomes “Sonny,” and Akua who is labeled Crazy Woman.)
Fire and Water:
The chapter titled “James” focuses on the ongoing conflict between the Asante and the Fante tribes in Ghana: “His mother always said that the Gold Coast was like a pot of groundnut soup. Her people, the Asantes, were the broth, and his father’s people, the Fantes, were the groundnuts, and the many other nations that began at the edge of the Atlantic and moved up through the Bushland into the North made up the meat and pepper and vegetables. This pot was already full to the brim before the white men came and added fire. Now it was all the Gold Coast people could do to keep from boiling over again and again and again.” What is the basis for the tribal wars in Ghana? How do the British colonizers contribute to the conflict? How does James feel caught in the middle?
In the final chapter, the two familial lines descended from Maame unite in the characters of Marjorie and Marcus. What happens in their visit to Ghana? Why does that visit involve admitting their fears to one another—Marjorie’s fear of fire inherited from her family, and Marcus’s fear of water? Can each one overcome the fear, and how?