Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing: P.O.V and Narrative Structure
The historical fiction, Homegoing, spans over three centuries and eight generations. Its author, Gyasi, assigns one chapter to each of the major characters and narrates each chapter from the perspective of the central character, a descendant from either side of Effia or Esi, half sisters born in the African Fante and Asante land where the Atlantic slave trade originates. Gyasi employs the third person limited omniscient POV and presents a balanced and panoramic view from the opposite side of slavery – one side running the business, profiting from it and eventually fighting against it on the African continent; and the other side being sold to bondage on the American continent. These individual voices come together and form a collective vantage point that allows readers to examine and ponder the slavery’s root causes and its dire consequences on the individual, the communities, and the race.
Esi, once the pampered princess of the Asante land, is captured by invaders from another village and was sold to the British colonizers. She was kept in the dungeon of Cape Coast Castle before being shipped to the American south. This is the starting point, a point of no return, to “Hell”, as Esi tells the reader: “When she (Esi) wanted to forget the Castle, she thought of things, but she did not expect joy. Hell was a place of remembering, each beautiful moment passed through the mind’s eye until it fell to the ground like a rotten mango, perfectly useless, uselessly perfect.” (28) Here, through the third person limited POV, the character reveals and articulates her inner thoughts and emotions: how desperate and futile she tries to cope with the inhuman condition in the dungeon by trying to remember her father’s compound, the respect her father, the “Big Man”, gets from his village, her suitors with bountiful of food and palm wines. The distance between the reader and the narrator is almost as close as with the first person narration. This close and intimate distance gives readers focus to fully stay in the character’s world at the particular time and space.
The POV works in tandem with the narrative structure of the book to solve the seemingly daunting and ambitious task the author intends to accomplish. Homegoing is an unique novel in a sense that the story is told through linked, episodic stories rather than through a central storyline. Each episode and its central character stands alone, representing the generation he or she belongs: on the American side, there are the sharecropper H for the Jim Crow South, Willie for the Great Migration, Sonny for the Harlem jazz scene in the late 20th century, etc.; and on the African side, there are characters for the exiled king, the warrior queen, and the crazy woman who kills her own two children, people who got caught in the human trafficking, tribal conflicts, and the wars that are turned to produce supply for the slave trade. Reading as a whole, it provides an all-inclusive picture of the history’s stories and lessons.
Towards the end of the chapter of Esi, Esi loses her mother’s stone before the British soldiers take her and other slaves out of the dungeon and march them to the boat. At that moment, the Governor of the Castle, Esi’s brother-in-law (unknown to Esi), looks and smiles at her. “It was a kind smile, pitying, yet true.” Esi tells the reader, “But for the rest of her life Esi would see a smile on a white face and remember the one the soldier gave her before taking her to his quarter, how white men smiling just meant more evil was coming with next wave.” (49) The advantage of using third person limited POV gives the author flexibility what to reveal and how. As the ending of this chapter shows, the zoomed-in moment gives much weight to the scope of the chapter and the whole story.
In the case of Homegoing, it seems that the story is choosing the point of view from which it wishes to be written. What is original and remarkable about the organizing structure of the book is that in each individual voice, readers hear the multiple. The chorus, as a whole, seems to be sung by a single voice, a God-like voice that connects the individual ones and raises them to an epic level.
Gyasi, Yaa. Homegoing. Ed. First Vintage Books. New York: Vintage Books, 2017.