“And in my village we have a saying about separated sisters. They are like a woman and her reflection, doomed to stay on opposite sides of the pond.”
(Abronoma AKA Little Dove to Esi) – Yaa Gyasi
It follows the lineage of two sisters Effia and Esi who have never met, and how their lives took different paths; doomed to stay on opposite sides of the pond. It explores themes of race, slavery, war, identity, power and family dynamics. The book is structured in a way that each chapter is told from the point of view of a character. Each chapter narrated by a different descendant of the sisters. Normally, this structure would be infuriating as the reader might feel like they need more depth into their favourite characters (this happened to me whilst reading this book). However, it worked and it’s perfect for this book because puts a name and provides a clear separation of the individual experiences; each character had their own moment in history. Bonus; Yaa Gyasi created a family tree that makes it easier to follow the characters and their experiences.
There are many powerful aphorisms and interactions throughout the book.
When Effia and Eccoah who both were married to the British slave traders and lived in the Castle spoke about the slaves that were kept beneath the dungeons in the castle, Eccoah said to Effia “There are women down there who look like us, and our husbands must learn to tell the difference.”
Before Esi was taken as a slave, her family had a house slave Abronoma whom they called Little Dove. In response to Esi defending her father’s actions towards his ill treatment of her, Little Dove said, “Your mother was once a slave for a Fante family. She was raped by her master because he too was a Big Man and big men can do whar they please, lest they appear weak, eh?”
Fiifi and Quey where he attempts to put a stop to Quey’s constant pestering about a trade agreement for the British government: “When one bird stops, the other one starts. Each time their song gets louder, shriller. Why do you think that is?” “Uncle, trade is the only reason we’re here. If you want the British out of your village, you have to … ” “What you cannot hear, Quey, is the third bird. She is quiet, quiet, listening to the male birds get louder and louder and louder still. And when they have sung their voices out, then and only then will she speak up. Then and only then will she choose the man whose song she liked better. For now, she sits, and lets them argue: who will be the better partner, who will give her better seed, who will fight for her when times are difficult. Quey, this village must conduct its business like that female bird.”
Ness, Esi’s daughter as she picks cotton, “She thought of the act of cotton picking as se had since the day she saw Sam’s head, like a prayer. With the bend, she said, “Lord forgive me my sins.” With the pluck, she said, “Deliver us from evil.” And with the lift, she said, “And protect my son, wherever he may be.””
Effia to her grandson James, “But if we do not like the person we have learned to be, should we just sit in front of our fufu, doing nothing?”
Ma Aku to Kojo AKA Jo, “The white man’s god is just like the white man. He thinks he is the only god, just like the white man thinks he is the only man. But the only reason he is god instead of Nyame or Chukwu or whoever is because we let him be. We do not fight him. We do not question him. The white man told us he was the way, and we said yes, but when has the white man ever told us something was good for us and that thing was really good?”
James to his daughter Abena, “There should be no room in your life for regret. If in the moment of doing you felt clarity, you felt certainty, then why feel regret later?”
H’s cellmate to him, “You think cuz you all big and muscled up, you safe? Naw, dem white folks can’t stand the sight of you. Walkin’ round free as can be. Don’t nobody want to see a black man look like you walkin’ proud as a peacock. Like you ain’t got a lick of fear in you.”
Akua to the fetish priest, “if God was so powerful, why did he need the white man to bring him to them?”
Yaw to his students, “We believe the one who has the power. He is the one who gets to write the story. So when you tudy history, you must always ask yourself, Whose story am I missing? Whose voice was suppressed so that this voice could come forth?”
Willie to her son Carson AKA Sonny, “White men choose for black men too.”
Mrs. Pinkston to Marjorie, “Here, in this country, it doesn’t matter where you came from first to the white people running things. You’re here now, and here black is black is black.”
Marcus when he visited the dungeons below the castle where they used to keep women slaves. “Them. Them. Always them. No one called them by name.
Finally, it seems Yaa Gyasi highlights that the pitfalls of the ancestors are just as important, and influences future events. True to its title, she ended it by reuniting Marjorie (descendant of Effia) and Marcus (descendant of Esi) and taking them back to Ghana, where it started, to face their fears. Homegoing could easily be my best read of 2019.