Why You Should Read Stanford’s Mandatory Reading for First Years: Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

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Photo via Stanford News

Stanford University’s “Three Books” program encourages incoming first years to read three selected titles before beginning the school year. This year, Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi was chosen as one of them. Gyasi’s debut novel details the lasting effects of slavery, both culturally and generationally. It spans over three centuries and seven generations beginning with two half sisters: Effia and Esi in Ghana. Effia marries a white man and moves to the Cape Coast Castle, notorious as a slave-trade center. Merely a few floors below Effia, her half-sister, Esi, is kept in captivity in the castle’s basement and eventually sold into slavery in America. This sets the rest of the book in motion, closely following the two different lineages.

Gyasi includes a total of 14 different characters in the novel, with each allotted one chapter dedicated to them. Some chapters focus on one particularly important period in their life, while others span their whole childhood and more. While this choppy narrative is a bit difficult to keep up with initially, its impact is profound. Through this structure, Gyasi includes several important historic and cultural moments, which would have been impossible if she’d chosen to limit the number of characters. These important moments include the slave trade, convict leasing, the Great Migration, and the Harlem Renaissance, to name a few. This means that Homecoming reads less like a novel and more like interconnected short stories.

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Photo via Paperback Paris

This narrative structure not only allows Gyasi to explore the numerous historical experiences of being black in America, but it also reveals the reverberating effects of slavery on families in both the United States and Ghana.

“I didn’t want my writing to be about pretty flowers in a field. I wanted to be engaged with the world around me.” – Yaa Gyasi

Through masterful storytelling, Gyasi creates experiences that transport readers back in time. For example, while the slavery chapters are not pleasant to read, they are written in acute detail creating a powerful reading experience. With important themes that range from family to race and racism, Gyasi does not shy away from the tougher topics but rather tackles them head-on, creating a distinctive reading experience. Gyasi stated, “I didn’t want my writing to be about pretty flowers in a field. I wanted to be engaged with the world around me.”

In an era of “fake news” and “alternative facts,” it is important to keep in mind who holds the power in choosing which stories are told. As one character, Yaw, explains to his students, “[W]hen 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.” Homegoing brings forth that suppressed story, writing about the devastating effects of slavery from 14 different point of views in different time periods of time. Gyasi highlights these suppressed voices to show the search for their identities, their roles in society, and for a place they can call home.

Read the Homegoing eNotes summary and study guide with characters, themes, and quotes.

If you enjoyed Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi, be sure to check these additional titles: