Homegoing (2016)

by Yaa Gyasi

In the late 18th century, in the African region that became Ghana, two half-sisters’ lives took different turns. One was sold into slavery and taken to America. The other stayed in Africa as the wife of a British colonial official involved in the slave trade.

Homegoing, Yaa Gyasi’s début novel, features their descendants down to the present. The book unfolds more like a collection of related short stories than a traditional novel. The tale is told chronologically, generation by generation, with chapters alternating between each woman’s descendants.

For American readers already knowledgeable about the history of enslavement, emancipation, Jim Crow, and the civil rights movement, the US chapters will be less eye-opening than the African ones. Gyasi indicts not only the British and the Americans but also the inland Asantes who captured their compatriots and the coastal Fante who traded them. Subsequent African chapters range over tribal wars, droughts, cocoa farming, white missionaries, colonization, revolutionary movements, and independence.

The title Homegoing is taken from an old belief that an enslaved person’s spirit could travel back to Africa. The novel concludes with a hopeful trip back to Ghana by living, distant American cousins.

Gyasi was born in Ghana and came to the United States as an infant in 1991 so that her father could complete a PhD at Ohio State University. He subsequently joined the University of Alabama faculty, and she grew up in Huntsville. She said that Homegoing was inspired by a 2009 trip back to Ghana. It  received the National Book Critics Circle's John Leonard Award, the PEN/Hemingway Award for best first book, and the American Book Award for contributions to diversity in American literature, and it earned Gyasi a National Book Foundation “20 under 35” award.