Set into motion by the horrors of the slave trade, this brilliant first novel has much to say about the human condition.
It illuminates the depravity and cruelty of which humans are capable – the true heart of darkness to which we are all susceptible– but also the love, generosity and hopefulness that constitute our finest qualities. The quest to suppress the former traits and accentuate the latter is the story of civilization, a quest that is, as this novel reminds us, far from completion.
This is a complex, vivid, heart-breaking, hopeful novel that traces the lives of 7 generations in 2 lines, stemming from half-sisters, Effiah and Esi, who never meet. Effiah and Esi are born respectively into Fante and Asante households in the S-Central region of what is now Ghana. The novel, as it concerns descendants who live in Ghana, revolves around relations among the Fantes, Asantes and Europeans.
Neither Effiah nor Esai has any control over her fate, which widely diverge. Effiah’s malicious step-mother contrives to make a lucrative deal that involves Effiah becoming the consort of Governor James Collins of Cape Coast Castle. Her half-sister has the misfortune of being captured by northerners and sold to the slave traders in Cape Coast Castle. Unknowingly, both sisters share the castle for a short time, Esi living in a disgusting dungeon while Effiah occupies Collins’ quarters well above the dungeons. Esi is eventually shipped to Alabama to work as a field slave, thus setting up the dual locales – Ghana and the United States – in which the novel is cast.
The story begins in the mid to late 18th C and ends in the early years of the 21st C. Each successive chapter focuses on one individual who represents one generation in the geneology. The chapters alternate between the genealogical line that remains in Ghana and the one established in the US.
The novel is essentially 14 linked short stories. Each chapter/story introduces the reader not only to a key descendant of the half-sisters, but also, through the descendants, to major historical events and movements in both the Gold Coast/Ghana and the US.
Through the stories set in the US, we witness the brutality of slavery, the degradation of reconstruction, the northern migration of blacks and their continued subjugation by whites, the civil rights era, the despair of ghetto life for poor black males in the 1970s and later, and finally the possibility of upward mobility and independence in the form of the star student, Marcus.
In the Gold Coast/Ghana, the reader is immersed in the vagaries of village life, the wars, instigated largely by the slave trade, which pitted Asantes versus Northerners, Fantes versus Asantes on occasion, and nearby villages against each other. We also learn something about how the slave trade was organized by the British, about the waging of the Ashanti Wars in the 19th C, about the onset of independence from the British, and about the immigrant experience of Ghanaians in the United States. This last experience is poignantly portrayed through the life of Marjorie, who feels neither African-American nor Ghanaian when resident in the US.
The two lines of descendants are eventually united as Marjorie, the Ghanaian immigrant, becomes romantically involved with Marcus, the brilliant student who represents the latest generation of the American line. Although I found the ending cathartic and moving, it is problematical for reasons I will soon relate.
Historical and Social Context
Whereas the events and circumstances of the 7 principal characters in the US context are familiar to Western readers, those concerning the characters in Gold Coast/Ghana will be unfamiliar to most. That can be a problem: without an understanding of the historical and social context, readers will have difficulty engaging with the Africa-based chapters. The novel might benefit from an explanatory foreword. For those who might be tempted to read the book, I offer the following background.
The novel’s action in Africa principally involves the Asante and the Fante. They are both Akan peoples. Akan refers to a civilization or meta-ethnicity. The 6 or 7 sub-groups have similar cultural features, all honour their ancestors and keep detailed genealogies, and they speak mutually intelligible languages. The Asantes have historically been the most powerful and well-organized sub-group headed by a kingship, the Asantehene. They live in south-central Ghana (Kumasi is their capital city), with the Fantes to the south, closer to Atlantic Ocean. The Asante Empire in the 18th and 19th centuries expanded to control much of what is now Ghana. Their ascendancy was a result of centralized political organization, a formidable army, and economic power arising from the gold fields they controlled and their intermediary role in the slave trade. But the Akans, though culturally similar, have never been a united group, divided by clashing ambitions and interests.
The slave trade was devastating for west and central Africa, as the novel graphically shows. The demand for slaves was a powerful incentive to raid weaker or unprotected rivals for captives. Disorder and destruction was widespread .In what became the Gold Coast Colony in the late 19th C, many of the captives were Akans, who were located closer to the coast than the Northerners. Many Akans were captured and shipped to the US south to labour as field slaves. Elements of the Akan vocabulary and culture survived in parts of the US and Jamaica throughout the 19th century.
Cape Coast Castle, which features in the novel, is one of perhaps 40 slave castles located along the coast of what is now Ghana. Built in the mid-17th C, this castle was initially involved in the export of gold and mahogany, in exchange for manufactured goods. By the 18th C, with the boom in demand for slaves in the New World, slaves became the biggest export. The Portuguese were the first to build fortifications along the coast, but they were displaced by the Dutch, Danes, Swedes and British. The bestial treatment of slaves in the castle and on the ships bound for the western hemisphere is beyond belief. That supposedly Christian Europeans, who took on themselves the mantle of a civilizing mission, could engage is such depravity is yet another sad example of our capacity for evil. The description of life in the dungeon during Esi’s sojourn is shocking, but accords with the testimony of European visitors of the day.
In the late 19th Century, the Asante resisted British incursions in a string of battles, some of which the British lost. Only late in the century did the British army and – in particular – the Gatling gun, prevail, and the Asantehene was sent into exile. The Asante continue to this day to play a pivotal role in Ghanaian political life.
In my view, and leaving aside the occasional anachronism, Yaa Gyasi paints an authentic portrait of central-southern Ghana over two centuries.
How does one go about assessing a novel made up of 14 dissimilar linked short stories? It is a challenge. Overall, I am awed by the scope and sweep and vivid characters evident in this fine first novel by a young Ghanaian-American writer. More specifically, I note the following exemplary or interesting features:
• I find it intriguing that Yaa Gyasi borrows the Akan attachment to ancestors and genealogies to provide the structure of her novel. Until quite recently, and perhaps even today, young Akans could recite their long genealogies. The author uses this cultural trait to brilliant effect.
• The reader gains a profound understanding of circumstances shaping the lives of black people in both Ghana and the United States over more than two centuries. It is an enormous achievement to capture and retain the interest of readers when authentically telling stories from long ago that concern, for many readers, unfamiliar regions of the world. The author succeeds because she sketches vivid character portraits and sustains memorable plots that link together the stories of succeeding generations on both lines. It is hard for me to say which characters I found most memorable. If pressed, Effiah and Esi and Marjorie are perhaps my favourites, but the sketches of other key individuals are also captivating. Marjorie is perhaps best sketched, but that is probably because the author’s own experiences as an immigrant to the United States inform this character’s actions.
• If you want to know how the slave trade worked in West Africa, and its effects both on the slaves and the societies from which they were wrenched, you need go no further than this novel. On the West African side, Gyasi chronicles the key role of Africans in the slave trade, as well as the depredations of the European slavers. In the US-based chapters, the effects of slavery and the racism it spawned are traced as late as the era of the civil rights movement in the US and thereafter. The story of Sonny’s tragic, but ultimately redeemed, life poignantly portrays the sadly self-destructive behaviour of some embittered, little-educated black males. But Sonny sirs Marcus, who escapes the cycle of poverty through a graduate scholarship at Stanford. The book ends on a hopeful note because Marjorie as well as Marcus – the two representing the latest generation of both sides of the family tree – have earned the promise of rewarding lives. We can hope, in the end, a tragic history can be put to rest and its offspring become masters of their own fates.
• If I wanted to criticize this novel, which truthfully I don’t, I would point to the author’s resort to coincidence to unite the two generational lines at the end. It is of course exceedingly unlikely that Marjorie would meet Marcus in Palo Alto, that they would become romantically involved, and that they would return together to Cape Coast, Ghana to jointly experience an epiphany. But, actually, I didn’t mind the coincidence, I was willing to grant the author some slack. I found the closing of the circle in the conclusion to be emotionally satisfying. Each of the protagonists confronts his or her most elemental fear – Marjorie of fire and Marcus of water. Fire and water, so basic to human life, have enormous symbolic significance in the novel. And then Marjorie gives the stone necklace – the family heirloom bequeathed originally to Effiah of the Ghanaian line – to Marcus. These symbols of transcendence and hope bring a fitting end to a novel that is filled, along with warmth and community, with so much pain and suffering.
This novel is truly one in which the epigraph, an Akan proverb, conveys the essence of what follows:
The family is like the forest; if you are outside it is dense; if you are inside you see that each tree has its own position.
Sounds like a must buy.
Going back to fascism: has anyone read the Five Germanys I have Known by Fritz Stern? A very informative and interesting book (with perhaps an excess of name-dropping) but there is section – I believe about page 534 – wherein he summarizes his essay trying to understand why Germans were ever “tempted’
by Hitler (tempted meaning attracted to that which is evil) and you cannot read what he described occurring in the 30s other than as being virtually identical to what is happening today.