Critical Family History Book Review: Homegoing

Yaa Gyasi, HomegoingWhat might a family history look and feel like that, while not based strictly on genealogy, portrays in exquisite detail who one’s ancestors could have been? This is the project debut novelist Yaa Gyasi undertook in her breathtaking debut novel Homegoing (Knopf, 2016). Perhaps her greatest impulse in creating Homegoing was articulated by one of the contemporary characters Marcus:

How could he explain to Marjorie that what he wanted to capture with his project was the feeling of time, of having been a part of something that stretched so far back, was so impossibly large, that it was easy to forget that she, and he, and everyone else, existed in it – not apart from it, but inside of it.

Homegoing takes readers inside this story of belonging by tracing two family lines, one in what is now Ghana, and the other in the U.S. during and following slavery. The lives of two half-sisters, Effia and Esi, who neither grew up together nor knew each other, were catapulted into drastically different directions when one was sold to a British slave trader as a wife, and the other was captured, then eventually sold into slavery in the U.S. The idea for the novel came to Gyasi when visiting the Cape Coast Castle in Ghana, where she learned of the luxurious upstairs quarters housing African wives of British slavers, directly above the hellish dungeons where captives were crammed for weeks or months before being marched through the Door of No Return onto a slave ship.

The book is made up of loosely connected stories that alternate between the two family lines over several generations. Each story reads like a separate short story, with only a few threads from previous stories helping the reader connect them. Effia’s descendants, while dealing with the wars and upheavals of the British and Dutch slave trade, then British colonization, maintain some sense of a coherent family memory, symbolized by a smooth stone necklace passed down from one generation to the next. Marjorie the present-day character who was born in Ghana and raised in the U.S., knows something of the stone and her ancestry:

It had belonged to Old Lady and to Abena before her, and to James, and Quey, and Effia the Beauty before that. It had begun with Maame, the woman who had set a great fire. Her father had told her that the necklace was a part of their family history and she was to never take it off, never give it away.

Esi’s descendants experience the brutality of Southern slavery and continued violent circumscription of Black lives imposed by U.S. racism. Unlike Effia’s descendants, they experience many more ruptures of historical memory from generation to generation. For example:

Jo used to worry that his family line had been cut off, lost forever. He would never truly know who his people were, and who their people were before them, and if there were stories to be heard about where he had come from, he would never hear them.

In the end, two distant relatives – Marjorie (whose life is based loosely on the author’s life) and Marcus – having no idea they share common ancestry, meet in the U.S. They travel to Ghana where they visit the Cape Coast Castle, and the nearby coast where Marjorie’s grandmother explains the family began and where spirits of the ancestors return.

One may say that this novel is not strictly family history in that the author invented characters and details of their lives. Yet, the characters, having been set within times, places, and events that did occur, breathe life into history. Further, by being based on a well-researched plausible history the author’s life rests upon, the book creates a sense of who went before, on whose shoulders she stands.

None of us can unearth the fullness of the lives of our ancestors, and some of us are able to discover very few details indeed. Does this mean that we have little or no remembered history? Gyasi offers an alternative: research the contexts in which people lived, then use everything you have learned from that research and also in your own family to craft characters who lived in those contexts, and whose lives are consistent with what you do know. In so doing, you may be able to construct quite deep and nourishing roots for not just yourself, but also for others who share much of your past.


  1. Paula Elliott says


    Thanks so much for your thoughts on this wonderful book. Over the holidays I loved reading it and taking time to update, probe my family information on I was energized to dive back into my family tree while visiting a good friend who knows how to navigate a wide variety of data bases. This person knows much more than I about the search process. I was happy to use the time to reboot and sharpen my research “chops”.

    When elder family members are no longer accessible, for whatever reason, new pathways to seek out information are often hard to recognize or to appreciate. “Homegoing” vividly, reveals the socio-political and cultural forces that obsecures or viciously cuts off access to family members. I will now revisit Gyasi’s, stories, thanks to your comments, with refreshed eyes. My point, all of us, for a myriad of reasons need support from multiple sources to pursue our critical family histories. Your comments are right on time for me and I am grateful.

    You remain a consistant and generous source of encouragement to extend and enrich reflection on ways teachers can explore their stories and, by doing so, to better serve their students.


  2. Hi Paula, It’s so delightful to hear from you! Yes, dive back into it! I hope to see you in the near future. Hugs!!

  3. Thank you for your encouragement Christine. I have been searching for a way to write about my family and their friends without knowing much about their backgrounds and cultures. Many of these people made an impact on U.S. history but were written out of the history books (because of their beliefs, and the fact that they often fought the status quo). This gives me a good idea about how to tackle what I feel might be instructive stories for the coming generations. An example – students might want to know about the man who single handedly stopped the embargo of the legitimate government of Spain who were fighting the Fascists. Anyway, thank you so much!

  4. Thank you so much, Joan! I’m glad this book offers a way of telling stories from your own history. Learning about the man who stopped the embargo would be fascinating!!

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