Some works of art slip into the world so naturally that it feels as though they were there already, waiting for somebody to notice them. Paul McCartney apparently woke up with “Yesterday” in his head and assumed that it was a tune he had heard somewhere before. While reading Homegoing, the debut novel from the Ghanaian-American writer Yaa Gyasi, I wondered whether she had experienced a similar sensation when she came up with the structure for this book. It seems so obvious, once you’ve read it, that it needed to be done, but the right artist had to be ready and Gyasi was the one.
In the first two chapters, we meet Effia and Esi, two sisters in what is now Ghana, in the late 18th century. Effia lives with her father and stepmother in Fanteland. The village chief, keen to build links with the newly arrived British, encourages her family to marry her off to James Collins, the white governor of the slave trading headquarters at Cape Coast Castle. Although she is a “wench” rather than a “wife” (wives are white), Effia has a relatively privileged existence, surrounded by fine furniture and silk hangings. Only now and again, when the wind changes, does she hear the cries from the dungeons, where the “cargo” is kept before shipping. When her son, Quey, is born, he is destined for a British education and a future as a slave trader.