'Homegoing' traces the roots of slavery on both sides of the ocean

'Homegoing' by Yaa Gyasi
'Homegoing' by Yaa Gyasi
Courty of Knopf

Yaa Gyasi's novel "Homegoing" begins with sisters who never meet: Effia and Esi are born just a few years apart in eighteenth-century Ghana, at the height of the slave trade.

Raised in two different villages, their existence is a mystery to each other, and history splits them apart. Effia marries a white British man who oversees the Cape Coast Castle, through which thousands of slaves are funneled. Esi is captured in a village raid, and sent to the dungeons, just feet below her sister's gilded life.

Their separation becomes transcontinental when Esi is sold to American slaveholders, and sent to the cotton fields.

Gyasi's sweeping novel follows the sisters' descendants generation after generation, pulling readers all the way from the 1700s to modern day. Each chapter jumps to the next branch of the family tree, following Effia and Esi's children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren and so on.

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The divide between the family can't be mended.

"That was one of the hugest tragedies of the slave trade — that way it fractured these families in irreconcilable ways," Gyasi told MPR News host Kerri Miller. "You have a group of people who not only were ripped from the land they come from, but were ripped from each other in permanent ways. A lot of times you have African-Americans who can't trace their families back past their grandparents or their great-grandparents."

Gyasi immigrated to the United States from Ghana with her family when she was two. She returned on a research trip when she was 20, gathering inspiration for the novel that became "Homegoing."

The spark of the story came from a visit to one of the castles that dotted Ghana's coast during the slave trade.

Elmina Castle in Ghana
The Elmina Castle on the coast of Ghana was an important stop on the Atlantic slave trade route.
Issouf Sanogo | Getty Images

"I took the tour and the guide started to talk with us about how the British soldiers who lived and worked in the castle during this time would sometimes marry the local women — and then he took us to down to the dungeons."

Gyasi was "struck with these mixed emotions of rage and grief and a deep sadness to think about the fact that there were people that were kept in these dungeons for months at a time, waiting for this uncertain future." After months in the overcrowded dungeons, many were packed onto ships in deplorable conditions, bound for the Caribbean or the U.S.

These parallels lines, of the British men's local wives and of their captives, winds through "Homegoing."

As Gyasi leaps from generation to generation, she crafts tales of perseverance, hope and despair in the face of a lost family tree and a violent history.

"There really isn't a way to write a book about slavery and its lasting impact and not write about suffering, and not point a light at all of the different ways that people suffered," Gyasi said. "Studying slavery and studying this history is just a continual lesson in people's capacity for great evil."

For the full interview with Yaa Gyasi on "Homegoing," use the audio player above.

Homegoing Homegoing