“Homegoing” By Yaa Gyasi — The Far-Reaching Impact Of The Transatlantic Slave Trade On Family Into Present Day
Yaa Gyasi’s first novel “Homegoing” is an incredibly gripping, complex novel, revolving around the characters of a family tree that reaches back from present day to roughly 250 years in the past. Gyasi tells the story of these family members over several generations, while depicting the impact of the transatlantic slave trade on their history as well as its far-reaching consequences on their lives on Africa’s Gold Coast and in the US.
Gyasi was born in Ghana and then moved to the United States with her family as an infant. She got the idea for the novel on a trip back to Ghana’s Gold Coast, when she visited its still standing slave castle and heard its gruesome history. She learned how the slave traders lived in the top levels of the castle with the wives they had taken from the nearby villages and thus, basically living on top of the slaves, who were crammed into the castle’s dungeons in inhumane conditions and waiting to be shipped of to the American continent.¹
Inspired by the reports she received, the author created the narrative of two half-sisters, whose lives are separated by circumstances. The novel alternates between the accounts of their respective lives and those of their descendants. Both girls are daughters of an Asante woman named Maame. Her first daughter Effia was fathered by the Fante man Cobbe, who owned Maame as a slave. After she ran away from her life in slavery and back to her native Asanteland, she had her second daughter Esi with Big Man, an Asante warrior.
As the very beautiful Effia is married off to the colonist and slave trader James Collins, to live and start her lineage at the slave castle, her half-sister — whom she never gets to know — is imprisoned in the dungeon, shipped to the United States and sold off into slavery. Consequently, the two lineages develop into very different directions. Both lines of descendants are depicted in seven chapters each, which are titled with the names of their main protagonist. Gyasi tells their difficult, painful experiences and lives, full of hardship, in intriguing detail, thereby creating complex characters that do not fit into stereotyped boxes. Diving into the struggles of the slave trade, the slave labour on plantations and forced labour in coal mining, Gyasi makes sure not to paint one-sided figures, but people with depths, varied emotions and moral conflicts.
Even though the paths of the characters vary deeply, the themes of family and heritage are exceptionally strong in every chapter, as the relationships between parents and their children are laid out, families are ripped apart and bonds are severed. Nevertheless, the importance of family and the notion that bonds can be repaired, is notably promoted. In several instances, however, the novel makes it evident that the concept of “family” does not necessarily need to be a bond by blood, but can also be rooted in affection and protection.
Throughout the novel, the act of passing on customs and cultural heritage is displayed as an important but arduous task. Effia’s lineage, which continuous into present day Ghana, is more successful in passing on cultural values and the indigenous language Twi. Even the last descendant of her line, Marjorie, who grows up in the States, can speak the langue of her ancestors. The strong connection to her grandmother in Ghana is being held up through regular visits. Passing on their cultural heritage is significantly more strenuous and at some point impossible for Esi’s descendants. As Esi gives birth to her child, while she is already enslaved and she is severely beaten for giving her girl a Ghanaian name as well as speaking to her in Twi, Esi starts to refrain from that practice and chooses a new name for her daughter that is rooted in English — Ness. The daughter is taken away from Esi at an early age and in turn looses her own son on the run from their masters. This leaves the son to be brought up by a fellow former slave, making it impossible for him to be educated on the culture of his ancestors by his own family. Only Marcus, the last of Esi’s line is able to attempt to reconnect to his ancestral roots and reunite the family tree.
Gyasi also centres the novel around the themes of prejudice and discrimination as well as its discrepancies on the two depicted continents. As Effia’s descendants, are being judged for their connection to working in the slave trade, Esi’s lineage faces the struggle of discrimination and prejudice that many black people still face today. The difficulty of getting adequate education, job opportunities and the problems that arise for interracial couples as well as the phenomenon and advantage of “passing as white” are detailed in a broad spectrum.
When I visited Ghana’s Gold Coast and the Cape Coast Castle several years ago, I felt deeply touched and impacted by the its history. The impression this historic place left on the author resulted in a touching, deeply resonating family saga that embarks on various, beautifully crafted storylines. Though living out their lives on different continents, the characters and their stories remain linked through the novel’s themes and symbols, only to be intertwined once more towards the end.
¹ See interview with Yaa Gyasi by Penguin Books UK:
GYASI, Yaa. Homegoing. Viking (Part of Penguin Random House UK), 2016.