Magazine article The New Yorker

Descendants

Magazine article The New Yorker

Descendants

Article excerpt

DESCENDANTS

A sprawling tale of a family split between Africa and America.

In Yaa Gyasi's debut novel, "Homegoing" (Knopf), a boy greeting the line of mourners at his grandfather's funeral encounters a beautiful girl. "Respectfully, I will not shake the hand of a slaver," she says, withholding the customary gesture of condolence. The boy, James, is dumbfounded. Both of them are West Africans, members of the Akan people, although she is Asante, from the interior of what we now call Ghana, and he is Fante, from the coast. "James had spent his whole life listening to his parents argue about who was better, Asante or Fante, but the matter could never come down to slaves," Gyasi writes. "The Asante had power from capturing slaves. The Fante had protection from trading them. If the girl could not shake his hand, then, surely, she could never touch her own."

"Homegoing"--the title is taken from an old African-American belief that death allowed an enslaved person's spirit to travel back to Africa--is rooted, like the Bible, in original sin. Unlike the Biblical transgression, however, the source of the curse that dogs an Asante woman's descendants through seven generations defies pinpointing and straightforward assessments of blame; you might as well shun your own hand. The wrongs done emerge from the muddled ethics typical of domestic quarrels, but their repercussions are vast. As one prophetic character puts it, "sometimes you cannot see that the evil in the world began as the evil in your home."

Here's how it starts: Sometime in the late eighteenth century, Maame, an Asante slave in a Fante household, flees into the bush during a fire, leaving behind her newborn daughter, who survives. Soon afterward, Maame marries an Asante "Big Man" and gives birth to another girl. The older daughter, Effia, stays behind in Africa, as the wife of a British official; her half sister, Esi, once the pampered darling of a powerful father, is captured by raiders from another village, sold to the British, and brought to America. Each chapter of the novel is narrated from the perspective of a descendant of either Effia or Esi, one representative for each generation, and the two bloodlines alternate up to the present day.

This ambitious form and Gyasi's determination to scrutinize the participation of West Africans in the Atlantic slave trade are the novel's chief strengths. Gyasi, who was born in Ghana and raised in Alabama, is twenty-six and a graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop. The bolder works of young novelists, like the more stylized performances of aging actors, often look better from a distance than in closeup, where cracks in the foundation start to show. Taken in as a panorama, "Homegoing" can be breathtaking. Marcus, Esi's great-great-great-great-grandson, pursues a Ph.D. in sociology at Stanford and strolls through a San Francisco art museum, but feels that his grip on his middle-class life lacks strength and significance: "The fact that he had been born, that he wasn't in a jail cell somewhere, was not by dint of his pulling himself up by the bootstraps, not by hard work or belief in the American Dream, but by mere chance." He doesn't know Esi's name or her story, a gap that only someone who has read the preceding three hundred pages can fully appreciate.

Meanwhile, Marjorie, Effia's descendant, who meets Marcus at a party in California, possesses her full family history, both in the usual way, as a collection of stories linked by genealogy, and in the form of a stone pendant, handed down from generation to generation. Maame gave a similar pendant to Esi, but the girl lost it in the fetid, nightmarish slave dungeons under Cape Coast Castle, the British fortress presided over by her half sister's husband.

Perhaps because "Homegoing" is more a collection of linked stories than a conventional novel, Gyasi tries to achieve continuity by leaning hard on recurring symbols like the stone pendant. Her American characters, in particular, lead lives starved of self-directed narrative, their fates dictated by people, institutions, and historical forces over which they have no control. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.