by Killian Quigley
Published by Knopf, 2016 | 320 pages
There is a timelessness and a spacelessness in the sprawling creative vision of Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing. Breathtaking and rich are the tableaus of which it is comprised, the glimpses each give into the making and taking of breath, the improvisational and performative aspect of the generations of lives portrayed, the breathlessness of Black life in the wake of enslavement.
Homegoing traverses the generational shifts and geographic migrations—imposed, as almost always, by the structural, social, and economic conditions of Black life and death “in the wake”—of two bloodlines, both begotten by Maame, a Ghanaian woman and slave caught up in the ethnic conflict between the Asante and Fante peoples. Having tragically abandoned her first-born daughter to escape a fire, Maame survived to marry an Asante “Big Man” with whom she has her second daughter. Gyasi’s narrative then unfolds, following each daughter—Effia, the older (and the survivor of the fire), and Esi, the younger—and progressing by bounding through space and time. The narrative is arranged as a succession of paired chapters which briefly accompany first one, then the other, of Maame’s daughters’ own descendants. Crucial to the routes Maame’s bloodline(s) travel is the relation of each of Maame’s daughters to slavery: Effia, the wife of a British official involved in the early stages of British colonization and enslavement; Esi, once the daughter of a powerful village leader, captured during a raid, sold into slavery, and forced to experience the horrors of the Middle Passage.
Formally, the narrative decision to devote each chapter to portraying a specific moment in the life of Maame’s alternating bloodlines has a polarizing effect. There are no “sustained” engagements with the characters: each chapter follows a descendant through a series of significant moments in their lives; the chapters offer, in effect, glimpses and scenes of the legacies of trauma and love that emerge from Maame, Effia, and Esi’s lives. A number of reviews of the novel describe the effect of this panoramic structure as “distancing.” For these reviewers, the array of cracks and holes elemental to Gyasi’s alternating narrative creates problems of consistency and intimacy that hamper readers’ capacities to empathize and fully grow with any particular character. From this perspective, there is simply not enough time or space to adequately realize each descendant, and there is not enough room for Gyasi to flourish fully as a world-maker and character-creator.
This line of thinking is fundamentally, powerfully mistaken, failing as it does to grasp the essential genius of what Gyasi has accomplished here. Indeed, it is precisely Gyasi’s suturing of the dispersed fragments of Black life scattered across time and space into the single, if necessarily disjointed, “whole” of Homegoing that makes this work so profound. Far from being unique to Gyasi, this technique of constructing narratives from fragments—a necessarily fraught or vexed piecing together of a “whole” (theory, story, poem, song, choreography, etc.) from the fractured bits and pieces of Black life and death that characterize the irreparably limited (read: shattered) archive Black folk have lived, and still live today is at the very core of much, perhaps all, Black imaginative work: Black theory, Black literature, Black music, Black dance, etc.
Of course it is. How else to narrativize histories, families, traditions torn apart, lives taken from their homes, shackled, and sent to unknown and malevolent lands; how else to narrativize Black life and death, given that one of the antiblack world’s persistent strategies over time has been the reduction, misrepresentation, and erasure of Black life and death in, in relation to, and from narrativizations of history. In this sense, Homegoing’s narrative structure is bound up with the ceaseless struggle to “invent,” or to make—from shards and refuse—Black life, death and history into something sufficient, perhaps even “whole.” As such, Gyasi’s text partakes in the shared Black imperative towards invention or reinvention, the imperative to mitigate or outright undo the processes of dissemblance and dispossession that dismember the histories, realities, and political-ontologies of Black being.
Put another way, in choosing to only offer brief, but rich, glimpses into key moments or stretches of each pair of descendants’ lives, Gyasi engages with two tightly entangled thoughts about the nature of Black imaginative work: the desire for invention, and the refusal to fantasize. The former is perhaps best articulated by Toni Morrison during an interview in which she describes her motivations for writing her most brilliant work, Beloved. Having discovered so little about the life of Margaret Garner, from which she derives the novel’s narrative, Morrison expresses a kind of refusal of the limitations of the available realities of Margaret’s existence, remarking in the interview, “I refused to find out anything else about Margaret Garner. I really wanted to invent her life” (NYT, 1987, emphasis mine). Against the constraints of the absences and presences of information in the archive, Morrison invokes a desire to invent life, to invent fullness and humanity—to invent, at least, an imaginative clearing wherein the foreclosed possibilities of the fullness and humanity of the living might be opened or reopened (invented or reinvented) for Black folks.
The second influence with which Gyasi engages is a recurrent concern within Black thought to avoid a fantasizing that might compound the “processes of dissemblance and dispossession” that already fracture Black history and life. In “Venus In Two Acts,” Saidiya Hartman reflects on the desires and choices that framed “The Dead Book,” the 7th chapter of her most recent text, Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route. In the chapter, she recounts an incident in which two slave girls—one unnamed and another only referred to as “Venus”—were killed aboard the Recovery by Captain John Kimber, and the subsequent murder trial. Most of the available archive, the trial, and the historical narrative arranged by Hartman concerns the murder of the unnamed girl, but (only) two sentences make mention of “the other girl,” Venus. In “Venus in Two Acts,” Hartman confesses her desire to “save” Venus from the violence of erasure from the archive, contextualized in the context of a serious concern for the violence that would arguably be inflicted by filling in the blanks of Venus’s violent end. For Hartman, one of the most pressing dangers of a Black counter-historical fiction is the possibility of subjecting “the dead to new dangers and a second order of violence”; the violence, in other words, that comes with the familiar distensions, elongations, rearrangements, and derangements on which fantasies of “completion” or “wholeness” are ultimately erected. Instead, Hartman describes her project as that of “critical fabulation,” which attempts to perform “the double gesture” of “straining against the limits of the archive to write a history of the captive, and, at the same time, enacting the impossibility of representing the lives of the captives precisely through the process of narration” (emphasis mine).
We find echoes of this passage in Christina Sharpe’s “Black Studies – In the Wake,” in which she describes the “wake work” of Black studies as a “continued imagining of the unimaginable.” To paraphrase M. NourbeSe Philip, this is the work of searching for, arranging, and deranging the available fragments, glimpses, and blips of Black life and death—all swept up in the political-ontological, historical, and psychic wake of enslavement—while also attending to and even highlighting the lapses, gaps, and compulsory vacancies that inevitably and irreparably emerge in the process. It is an “unimaginable” or “impossible writing,” one that turns on the incompleteness, loss, and brokenness that makes fragments what they are. Elsewhere Hartman has asked: “What is required to imagine a free state or to tell an impossible story?” (emphasis mine). In answer, one might posit the composition of a counter-history to otherwise create, with a reverence and care for fragments.
Read in the light of this critical and literary lineage, the limited glimpses of each character’s life in Homegoing’s individual eponymous chapters are both a reflection of a fundamental characteristic of writing Black history (or narrative, or myth), and a channeling, or “enacting,” of the “impossibility” of redressing the constitutive brokenness of such an enterprise. It is this “double work” that properly characterizes Gyasi’s Homegoing. Against the imposition of neatness and continuity, against the all-too prevailing call for formal narrative closure, Gyasi presents a Black work that “critically fabulates” with inventiveness and restraint. It does not offer the soothing salves of closure and continuity precisely because closure or continuity are not constitutive of Black life, death, time, creation, trauma, or love.
There is an additional way to interpret Gyasi’s narrative approach. Myself and other theorists, united by our shared interests in Blackness, physics, and the ontologies of space and time (or, to be more precise, of space-time), have recently begun to argue that, viewed through contemporary ideas from cosmology and theoretical physics, Black being is most accurately understood when viewed as being without fixed or definitive temporal location or situatedness. Viewed through this critical lens, Gyasi’s narrative, though linear in its movement ‘down’ the bloodlines, respects the lapses, the breaks, the lacks, the fissures, and the fragments that characterize Black being’s “untimely” position. This is a reading, however, to flesh out in another place and time.
It is no wonder that Homegoing’s title is drawn from a belief in a return to origins or homelands through or following death. It is only via a recognition of, a reverence for, and perhaps a challenging or enacting of the deathliness—the social death, the death that is the very atmosphere of Black life—that the shards / stories might be carefully examined, might be read and grasped with care for all they hold. To briefly conjure again from Beloved, when the eponymous ghost triggers Sethe’s “rememory” by asking “where your diamonds?”, we might imagine the question aimed at us. And when we discover, as M. NourbeSe Philip has, that as Black people, our relation to the past—signified in Beloved by the diamonds—is fraught, that these jewels, in all their symbolic hardness and preciousness, succumbed to the shattering force of antiblackness (in the forms of enslavement, colonization, segregation, mass incarceration, gentrification, police brutality, microaggression-cum-daily-terrorization, limited access to healthcare and healthy choices, binary choices in presidential elections, generational trauma, and, last but certainly not least, Donald Trump—or, rather, what he embodies and promises), we find ourselves obliged to reckon with the preciousness of the remnants, with the harshness of the ceaseless and repeated breakings; we are bearers of the waters of both.
In Homegoing, every glimpse is at once glimmer and gap, wholeness and hole. Wholly to take hold of what Gyasi offers here, to hold it open, to hold open a space and a time in the imagination for the generations she makes, is to boldly go alongside her on a journey through the difficulties, the impossibilities, the joys, the discoveries, the love, and the trauma, that so uniquely characterize what it is and has been to be Black across the ages, and ages, and ages of terror. Gyasi’s epic takes seriously both the holes and the wholes of Black life and Black death in the wake of enslavement. She creates in Homegoing a radical, imaginative, and loving Black intervention, one that continues, refines and deepens the spirit of world-building, on pages and in streets, that Black folk perform in the name of the otherwise, the “unthought,” the impossible, the unimaginable.
Dr. John Murillo III is a graduate of Brown University with a PhD in English. His primary research interests include twentieth century black literature, afro-pessimism, critical theory, quantum mechanics, and cosmology. He is currently working to complete his manuscript, Quantum Blackanics: Untimely Blackness, and Black Literature Out of Nowhere, as well as a collection of essays, entitled Hunger/Hungry.