'Homegoing' is a centuries-spanning epic of interlinked short stories

Yaa Gyasi’s powerful debut novel tells the story of two sisters, and their descendants, divided by the slave trade.

Homegoing Yaa Gyasi Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group 320 pages

In Yaa Gyasi’s powerful debut, Homegoing, two sisters wind up in The Castle in Ghana – the infamous port where slaves were transported. Neither knows the other is there. They will never meet – forever divided by the slave trade.

Effia lives above ground, married to a British soldier who pampers her and tells her the dungeon houses “cargo.” Like Bluebeard’s wife, Effia only finds out about what’s behind those doors much later.

Esi, unknown to her half-sister, is captured during a raid on her tribe and winds up in those squalid cells before being loaded onto a ship bound for America.

Their mother tells Esi that her people have a “saying about separated sisters. They are like a woman and her reflection, doomed to stay on opposite sides of the pond." 

In this case, the “pond” in question is the Atlantic Ocean. Over the next three centuries, their descendants grow up shadowed by the evils of slavery: Esi and her daughter Ness suffer horrific abuse on plantations before Esi’s grandson escapes to the North. In Ghana, Effia and her son prosper, uncomfortably, before her grandson runs away to try to live an untainted life.

Effia’s biracial son, Quey, has his own secrets to conceal as he follows his dad into the horror of the family business. Quey talks about growing used to the smell of human waste, “but fear was one smell that would stand out forever. It curled his nose and brought tears to his eyes, but he had learned long ago how to keep himself from crying.”

Gyasi has delivered something unbelievably tough to pull off: a centuries-spanning epic of interlinked short stories. Each character gets only one chapter, yet most are so vividly and empathetically drawn that you get a sense of both the span of their lives and the events that shaped it, from the Fugitive Slave Act to the Anglo-Asante wars.

She has a poet’s ability to paint a scene with a handful of phrases. Ness is disfigured by scars that cause her new owner’s wife to faint when she sees them. On the plantation, “[t]he sun scorched cotton so hot it almost burned the palms of your hands to touch it. Holding those small white puffs almost felt like holding fire, but God forbid you let one drop.”

One of the most memorable chapters belongs to H, a John Henry-type figure who was 13 when the Civil War ended. “War may be over but [slavery] ain’t ended,” a man tells him. Convicted for allegedly looking at a white woman, H is leased to the coalmines for 10 years, where he sees men whipped to death for coming up short on their daily quota. He earns the nickname Two Shovel H for wielding a shovel in each hand – saving a white man’s life by filling his quota. Also down there are Solomon, who got 20 years for stealing a nickel, and Timothy, who was arrested for telling a dog to quit barking.

“History is storytelling,” Yaw, Effia’s great-great-great-grandson tells his students. “We believe the one who has the power. He is the one who gets to write the story. So when you study history, you must always ask yourself, Whose story am I missing?”

In “Homegoing,” Gyasi poignantly and powerfully fills in 14 of those missing tales.

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