Book Buzz: Homegoing

GyasiHomegoing by Yaa Gyasi

Growing up in warring Ghana villages in the late 1700s, half-sisters Effia and Esi are only dimly aware of each other’s existence.

Effia’s village on the Gold Coast (in what is now called Ghana) is a stopping point on the way to Cape Coast Castle, one of about 40 “slave castles” used to hold slaves before being sold in the Americas. When Effia is given in marriage to a white British lord, she ends up living at the castle. Unbeknownst to Effia, her half-sister Esi is captured and imprisoned literally beneath Effia’s feet for slave shipment to America through the Middle Passage.

Although Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing underscores how slavery caused family members to be lost to each other and how many African-Americans, unable to trace where on the continent they came from, have also lost ties to both country and ethnic group, it is also a novel about the tenacity of one family’s struggle to survive.

The stories of Effia and Esi and their descendants are told in alternating chapters, each character’s story a vignette that could almost stand on its own. Through the lives of Esi’s descendants in America, the novel explores life on slave plantations, as freemen in the North, in Harlem during the Harlem Renaissance, and in the prison and drug culture of modern-day America.

Effia’s descendants in Ghana wrestle with the implications of the slave trade within Africa, where warring villages captured members of the opposing group and often either kept them as slaves or advanced their economic interests by selling them to the British as slaves. Of this African complicity in the slave trade, Ta-Nehisi Coates (author of the NYT bestselling memoir Between the World and Me) tweeted, “[Homegoing] is the epic of the slave trade in all its ugly discomfort. Nobody clean. Nobody pure. Nobody white.”

Gyasi has said that she traced these family lines through three centuries because she wanted to examine something very closely over a long period of time, observing how it moves and changes. “In this case, that thing was slavery, and colonialism, and institutionalized racism.”

Born in Ghana, Gyasi’s family immigrated to America when she was two years old and she grew up in Huntsville, Alabama. Her interest in the diaspora developed from an awareness that, as an immigrant, her connection to the American story of slavery differed from that of her African-American friends.

While in college, Gyasi had the opportunity to travel to Ghana to research an idea for a novel. Although her intended research didn’t pan out, on a whim she toured the Cape Coast Castle and learned that sometimes British soldiers married local women.  She found the upper parts of the castle to be beautiful, but when she realized while touring the dungeons that the native women above were oblivious to the slaves being held beneath their feet, the seeds of this remarkable debut novel were sown.

Readers will find Gyasi’s Homegoing a breathtaking companion to Alex Haley’s Roots or Solomon Northup’s Twelve Years a Slave. Find it in your library’s catalog in multiple formats. If reading the eBook or listening to the audiobook, you may want to have a printed copy of the family tree from the front of the book on hand for reference to keep track of where you are in the transatlantic flow of this family through three centuries of history.

Lisa Gresham is the Collection Support Manager for Whatcom County Library System, where she selects nonfiction, large print and digital materials for adults.

(Originally published in Cascadia Weekly, Wednesday, July 13, 2016)