“There’s more at stake here than just slavery… It’s a question of who will own the land, the people, the power. You cannot stick a knife in a goat and then say, Now I will remove my knife slowly, so let things be easy and clean, let there be no mess. There will always be blood.” – pg. 93
Yaa Gyasi’s award-winning début novel, Homegoing (Vintage), provides a heart-wrenching glance into the depth of the generational trauma wrought by the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Gyasi masterfully ushers the reader through seven generations of the descendants of two half-sisters, Effia and Esi. Born in neighboring villages in eighteenth century Ghana, they grow up completely unaware of each others’ existence.
The trajectory of their lives, and the lives of their family lines, are radically shaped by the circumstances Effia and Esi find themselves in: one is captured and sold into slavery; the other marries the white man who runs “the Castle” where the captives are held before being placed on ships to whatever fate has been decided for them. While one sister navigates the clash of cultures as a wife in the Castle, below her feet in the dungeon her half-sister is shackled and striped of every comfort and decency.
Each chapter alternates between Effia and Esi’s descendants, giving life to the stories of those impacted by both sides of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. While one line must carve out their own survival in a country that was built on the systems of their enslavement, the other must reconcile with their own complicity.
Gyasi skillfully maneuvers between the two family lines and crafts each character with their own voice and challenges unique to their place and time. As we move through the two branches of this family tree, Gyasi keeps the stories from feeling disjointed by threading through reoccurring symbols and objects. Descendants experience dreams and fears that appear to the reader as echoes from the tragedies of previous generations.
The rapid pace at which the reader moves through the timeline and is acquainted with each character creates a familiarity with the rich history of both sides of this family. With an intimate look into each character’s life, we have access to a past that has been torn from some of the descendants by their exploiters; exposing a tragedy too often forgotten by those whose families were not impacted by the horrors of the Middle Passage and the Atlantic slave trade: the loss of family history.
The ambitious scope is successfully grounded in the structure of Gyasi’s novel. This narrative approach allows the reader to grasp the enormous impact of this loss, while giving us an intimate look into how systems of white supremacy continue to affect each generation. This novel is a must read for those who do not know what it is like to have years of family history taken from them. With compassion, Gyasi brings attention to the wounds of the slavery era that are too often left out of history class.
If you’d like to dive into the vibrant and expansive world crafted in Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi, you can order a copy here from Porter Square Books in Cambridge, MA or check out your local bookstore!
Image of author Yaa Gyasi from americanacademy.de
Vicki Barclay is the Editor-in-Chief of Serpentine Literary Magazine.