Homegoing, by Yaa Gyasi, begins with the story of Effia and Esi, two half sisters born in different villages in the eighteenth century Ghana. Effia is forced to marry a rich Englishman, while the sister she never knew is sold into the slave trade and boards a one-way ship to America.
The novel spans centuries, tracing the sisters’ lineage through the generations, beginning at the height of the slave trade and navigating its way to twentieth century Harlem, New York. Effia’s family sees years of warfare and colonialism on the Gold Coast. Esi’s children are born into a life of slavery, working American plantations. It’s a tale of two halves.
The need to call this thing “good” and this thing “bad,” this thing “white” and this thing “black,” was an impulse that Effia did not understand. In her village, everything was everything. Everything bore the weight of everything else.
The remarkable scope of this novel is breathtaking. It follows a family tree, from its deep roots to the tips of its branches, growing in wildly different directions but nevertheless connected. Each character we meet, at every knot along the trees’ branches, is deserving of an entire novel of their own. Every vignette demonstrated the link between past experiences and present day, on an individual and societal level, like a ripple effect flowing through the pages.
Homegoing addresses the themes of freedom, family, history (and who gets to shape how it’s told), racism, marriage, betrayal, parenthood, morality, fate – the list has no end. Gyasi’s use of language and phrasing is incredibly affecting, presenting intensely emotive and important subjects in a stark, direct and poetic way.
“What could be worse than dead? But all around him, the evidence was clear. Only weeks before, the NYPD had shot down a fifteen-year-old black boy, a student, for next to nothing. The shooting had started the riots, pitting young black men and some black women against the police force. The news made it sound like the fault lay with the blacks of Harlem. The violent, the crazy, the monstrous black people who had the gall to demand that their children not be gunned down in the streets.”
I’ve never read a book that traces history, from the beginnings of the worst atrocities, to near present day, exposing the deep routed social injustices that stem from the past – or if I have, nothing quite compares to this. I can imagine (and hope) that years from now, Homegoing will be studied by students around the world. It’s an unforgettable read and a future classic.