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  • Children of Fire and Water:Motherhood, Migration, and Home in Yaa Gyasi's Homegoing
  • DeLinda Marzette (bio)

Through a multi-layered plot that follow the diasporic journeys of seven generations, Ghanaian-American author Yaa Gyasi's Homegoing traces the lineage of two sisters, Effia and Esi, from the Cape Coast castle of 17th century Ghana to the brutal racism of the 19th century American South, and 20th century American North. Each generation is indelibly marked by the insidious, far-reaching horrors of British colonization, the African slave trade, the middle passage, plantation existence, Jim Crow coal mining life, and the socio-economic insecurity in the urban center. Ultimately, through a kind of literary ancestor worship, Yaa Gyasi creates a narrative of healing that employs the natural elements of fire, water, and stone as tropes that configure within the themes of motherhood, Diasporic migration, and home in her 2016 novel Homegoing.

The importance of fire emerges early in the novel and is both symbolic and foreboding. Fire surrounds Maame's village and signals the cursed birth of her daughter Effia who is estranged/separated from her sister Esi. The narrator describes,

The night Effia Otcher was born into the musky heat of Fanteland, a fire raged through the woods just outside her father's compound. […] Effia's father knew then that the memory of the fire that burned […] would haunt him, his children, and his children's children for as long as the line continued. The villagers began to say that the baby [Effia] was 'born of the fire' and she was the reason her wet nurse, who'd just given birth, had no milk.1

Aside from its direct association with Maame and Effia, fire is closely connected to the European colonizers as it mimics their presence in both Fanteland and Asante Ghana. The narrator states,

[T]he fire raged through the woods […] [moving] quickly, tearing a path for days. It lived off the air; it slept in the caves and hid in the trees; it burned up and through, unconcerned with what wreckage it left behind.2 [End Page 102]

Just as the fire stealthily emerged, destroyed, and left a permanent trail of burns and scars upon the Fanteland landscape, so too was the British soldiers' role in proliferating human trade, inciting tribal wars, and ultimately leaving similar destruction and loss in their wake. A telling Ghanaian proverb about ground nut soup likewise associates whites with fire. Effia's grandson James recalls that:

[H]is mother always said that the Gold Coast was like a pot of ground nut soup. Her people, the Asante's were the broth, and his father's people, the Fantes, were the ground nuts, and the many other nations that began at the edge of the Atlantic and moved up through the bushland into the North made up the meat and pepper and vegetables. This pot was already full to the brim before the white men came and added fire. Now it was all the Gold Coast people could do to keep from boiling over again and again and again.3

Another intriguing and haunting use of fire occurs two generations later with Effia's great, great granddaughter Akua. During her pregnancy with her third child, Akua begins to have intense nightmares of consuming fire. They are so disturbing that she fears sleeping at night, but the dreams continue and become more vivid. The fire eventually transforms into the figure of a woman who is searching for her children. The narrator reveals,

In [Akua's] dreams the fire was shaped like a woman holding two babies to her heart. The firewoman would carry these two little girls with her all the way to the woods of the Inland and the babies would vanish, and the firewoman's sadness would send orange and red and hints of blue swarming every tree and every bush in sight.4

When the fire begins to take on a female shape, the thought of ancestors and African cosmology immediately came to mind. In Introduction to African Religions and Philosophies, author John Mbiti maintains "that the ancestors are associated with their land, the piece of nature that...


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pp. 102-108
Launched on MUSE
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