Sisters bound by blood, separated by slavery

Homegoing. Yaa Gyasi. Knopf. 320 pages. $26.95.
Homegoing. Yaa Gyasi. Knopf. 320 pages. $26.95.

Told in two parts, Yaa Gyasi’s impressive debut novel opens in 18th-century Ghana and travels between the lineages of two half-sisters, Effia and Esi. The 26-year-old Gyasi — who was born in Ghana but raised in the United States — wanted to explore what happened in both countries as a result of the slave trade. Through missionaries, tribe leaders, slaves, gospel singers, traders, shipyard workers, students and more, seemingly disparate lives are connected by a finespun narrative.

While intricate in plot and scope — the sisters’ bloodline is traced over seven generations — the idea of roots, belonging and returning home is central to all of the characters. Homegoing begins in Ghana with Effia, born the same night as a raging fire. She’s considered to be a bad omen, especially by her stepmother, Baaba: “[…] I think she was cursed in that fire, a demon who will never become a woman. […] What creature is that beautiful but cannot be touched?”

As a teenager Effia is sold by her father and married to a British slave trader, and together they live in Cape Coast Castle, one of many castles and forts that housed dungeons used as holding cells for captives (the novel was inspired by a visit Gyasi made there when she was 20). Not until after her arrival does she understand the nature of where she is, and when she does, the moment is haunting: “Then, carried up with the breeze, came a faint crying sound. So faint, Effia thought she was imagining it until she lowered herself down, rested her ear against the grate.”

Even more eerie is the fact that she has no idea that she’s living above Esi. Captured and imprisoned, trying to survive in a place where there is little food, no space to lie down and the constant threat of rape by her captors, Esi discovers that her life is split into “before” and “now”: “Before the Castle, she was the daughter of Big and his third wife, Maame. Now she was dust. Before the Castle she was the prettiest girl in the village. Now she was thin air.”

After the stories of Effia and Esi, each chapter of Homegoing spends time with one character from each generation. On Esi’s side, we follow descendants through the gruesome Middle Passage to various cotton plantations, fully immersed in the terrors of overseers, attempts at escape, the Fugitive Slave Act and the complications and disappointments of the Great Migration. Gyasi manages to make each story feel intensely personal and shows a willingness to stay in the uncomfortable moments. Ness, who is moved from Mississippi to an Alabama plantation, has physical proof of the times: “[…] her scarred skin was like another body in and of itself, shaped like a man hugging her from behind with his arms hanging around her neck. […] Ness’s skin was no longer skin really, more like the ghost of her past made seeable, physical.”

Because there are few accounts of 18th-century life from the Ghanian perspective, much of Gyasi’s writing for those sections was inspired by William St. Clair’s Door of No Return, a reference to the portal in the Cape Coast Castle through where slaves were lowered onto ships before being sent across the Atlantic. Despite the lack of source material, there’s a nuance to such characters as Quey, son of Effia and the British trader, forced to carry on in his father’s line of work even though it leaves him unsettled: “On this shore, watching the canoe push off, Quey brimmed with the same shame that accompanied each slave departure. What had his father felt on his shore?”

While Quey’s struggle is internal, there are other characters who actively and vocally disapprove of the practice. Akosua, the love interest of James (son of Quey) is deeply opposed to the slave trade, which she explains to him early on in their courtship: “I am proud to be Asante as I am sure you are proud to be Fante, but after I lost my brothers [to war], I decided that as for me, Akosua, I will be my own nation.”

Coming full circle, Gyasi ends the novel with two characters set in the present: Marjorie, a descendant of Effia in Huntsville, Alabama, and her boyfriend, Marcus, born in the U.S. and a descendant of Esi. The two visit Ghana and the Cape Coast Castle together, a symbolic right of passage that isn’t easy but necessary in examining the truth of their (and our) shared history.

In direct opposition to the death, displacement and fragmentation of so many individuals and families as a result of the slave trade, Homegoing serves as a modern-day reconstruction of lost and untold narratives — and a desire to move forward. Having both sides of one family journey home together more than 300 years after the fact is the start of a new truth, a new chapter.

Dana De Greff is a writer in Miami.