What might a family history look and feel like that, while not based strictly on genealogy, portrays in exquisite detail who one’s ancestors could have been? This is the project debut novelist Yaa Gyasi
undertook in her breathtaking debut novel Homegoing (Knopf, 2016). Perhaps her greatest impulse in creating Homegoing was articulated by one of the contemporary characters Marcus:
How could he explain to Marjorie that what he wanted to capture with his project was the feeling of time, of having been a part of something that stretched so far back, was so impossibly large, that it was easy to forget that she, and he, and everyone else, existed in it – not apart from it, but inside of it.
Homegoing takes readers inside this story of belonging by tracing two family lines, one in what is now Ghana, and the other in the U.S. during and following slavery. The lives of two half-sisters, Effia and Esi, who neither grew up together nor knew each other, were catapulted into drastically different directions when one was sold to a British slave trader as a wife, and the other was captured, then eventually sold into slavery in the U.S. The idea for the novel came to Gyasi when visiting the Cape Coast Castle in Ghana, where she learned of the luxurious upstairs quarters housing African wives of British slavers, directly above the hellish dungeons where captives were crammed for weeks or months before being marched through the Door of No Return onto a slave ship.
The book is made up of loosely connected stories that alternate between the two family lines over several generations. Each story reads like a separate short story, with only a few threads from previous stories helping the reader connect them. Effia’s descendants, while dealing with the wars and upheavals of the British and Dutch slave trade, then British colonization, maintain some sense of a coherent family memory, symbolized by a smooth stone necklace passed down from one generation to the next. Marjorie the present-day character who was born in Ghana and raised in the U.S., knows something of the stone and her ancestry:
It had belonged to Old Lady and to Abena…