Born in Ghana and raised in Huntsville, Alabama, Yaa Gyasi has written a captivating debut novel that embraces the world in all its complexity. Tracing the descendants of two sisters torn apart in eighteenth-century Africa, Homegoing stretches across time and continents, from the wars of Ghana to the coal mines of the American South and twentieth-century Harlem. It’s a riveting, kaleidoscopic tale about race, history, ancestry, and love that captures the troubled spirit of our nation.
Gyasi was recently honored as the National Book Foundation’s “5 Under 35,” and Homegoing won the 2016 National Book Critics Circle’s John Leonard Prize. During the 2016 Fall Chicago Humanities Festival, Gyasi conversed with Chicago poet Roger Reeves about writing, Ghanaian legacy, and her own family oral traditions.
Roger Reeves: It’s interesting that you start with Effia, the beauty. We start the book with beauty, but one of the first ways we encounter her is through incredible cruelty. There’s a way in which cruelty and beauty are constantly walking together. Intimacy and exploitation are also one in the same in the book. I wanted to ask you, Why begin with the beauty?
Yaa Gyasi: For me, the beginning of this book in particular, I wanted it to have this feel of a fable, or folklore to it. I liked the idea of these West-African narratives that play on a fabulist mode of storytelling. Something like Things Fall Apart by Achebe, where you can sense that the writer is telling you a story, so you feel a part of that story. In the beginning of my book, I wanted to have a character who had this fable-like beauty, but also I wanted that curse to happen. To bring in that play on having something of worth, this beauty, but at the same time, you’re cursed. That’s something I think we see a lot of in fairytales and folklore, and that’s what I wanted to do in the beginning.
Roger Reeves: This was a huge undertaking of a book. It’s through three centuries. Where did this begin? I know you were at Stanford, and you were writing there, and then you went to Iowa and continued at their Creative Writing program. How did you start to think about this generational story?
Yaa Gyasi: I knew I wanted to write a novel. In my sophomore year at Stanford, I got a research grant that they give to students so they can complete a research or academic project. I used mine to go to Ghana to conduct research for this novel. My initial idea was to write a book that centered around a mother and her daughter, so I thought it would be nice to visit the central region of Ghana where my own mother is from. But it was the only time that I didn’t feel inspiration was striking. I wasn’t very interested in the things I was seeing and doing. Kind of by chance, a friend came to visit. We were trying to think of touristy things to do, and decided to go to the Cape Coast Castle. While there, I took the tour that they give, and the tour guide started to talk about the British soldiers who lived and worked there, and how they used to marry the local women. Then we went to see the dungeons. It’s indescribable. It still smells faintly, there’s still grime all over the walls…. I think anyone who stands in the space is overcome with this sense of haunting, or grief and rage. For me, that translated into wanting to write this book. I wanted to write about that juxtaposition, the fact that you could have these free Ghanaian women walking above these captives underneath. That really fascinated me.
Roger Reeves: When did you come to the form of it? Part of the beauty of this book is the way it moves through each generation, and that is a unique structure.
Yaa Gyasi: The structure was the thing that took me the longest. In the beginning, I thought it would take on a more traditional structure. I thought it would take place in the present and then just flash back to 18th-century Ghana. The more I worked on it, I was more interested in being able to track things like slavery and colonialism that worked together and changed very subtly over a very long period of time. In order to do that, I felt I had to stop in as many generations as possible so we would be able to see this through-line. But it took me about three years to come to that structure.
Roger Reeves: Let’s go back to the Castle. How do you haunt the narrative with the it? In the beginning, the castle is explicitly there, but there are ways it still shows up, as a through-line like you said.
Yaa Gyasi: I read a lot of multiple-POV books, and I love them. One of the challenges of doing this book was that I knew it wasn’t going to cohere in the ways we were used to novels cohering. It wasn’t going to follow just four characters, or this small time frame. I was always going to be marching forward. It kind of feels the way time feels, in that you lose characters and they never come back. And I wanted that feel, the family feel. It was important to me that Effia and Esi and the castle and those kinds of things can be imprinted on each character as we move along so that the feeling of reading is more of a feeling of accumulation. Some ways that I played around was giving them a physical object that you can trace around, like the stone necklace. Another way was to play with water and fire. Fire for Effia’s lineage: her story starts with this village fire, and she’s known as the child of the fire. Each of her descendants are related to that fire in some way. Then for Esi, since she’s kept at the castle, and she comes through the Middle Passage, she has a relationship with water, and all of her descendants do as well. In that way you can remember those two ancestral characters in spirit even though they never get to reappear in the book.
Roger Reeves: What types of smells and threads were important? What materials did you think about using in storytelling?
Yaa Gyasi: Edward P. Jones is a hugely important writer to me. Nobody does time better than he does. He can hold so much time in a little amount of space. Since I knew my book would cover a huge amount of time, I wanted it to feel fast. I didn’t want it to feel weighted down. So I read him a lot, as well as others like Toni Morrison. I was thinking of physical markers that people bring with them, like the stone necklace. But I was also thinking of these invisible inheritances that we have within our families. Maybe things that you don’t know that you got from an ancestor. Not necessarily just physical things, but traumas sometimes. These were things I was thinking about as ways to connect and bring through the lines of generations.
Roger Reeves: There was a line early on that stuck with me. One nation group disfigured their children so that they wouldn’t be sold. And I thought, whoa. How does this generational disfiguration evolve over the course of the novel?
Yaa Gyasi: People have various theories as to why these scarifications happen. One of the prevailing theories was that yes, they didn’t want their children sold. For me, I was thinking about these things that we take with us and our families, even though we don’t understand where they’re coming from. We have a connection to something, either physical or spiritual or emotional.
Roger Reeves: Was there a storytelling tradition in your family? Can you talk a little about what you’ve inherited from your own family storytelling tradition?
Yaa Gyasi: My family is hugely into telling stories. That tradition I think is very important to this book. In the earlier chapters, in trying to research, I found it hard to find traditional written things about what the characters might be feeling and experiencing from the perspective of the Ghanaians themselves. I realized that so much of that reason must be because it was an oral storytelling tradition. So I wanted to give this novel an oracular feel. The other thing is that we are a nation of proverb tellers in Ghana. Everything has a proverb: the snake did this, the crocodile did this. I found one that suited the book very well, the one about the family being like a forest. That idea launched this book in many ways.
Roger Reeves: I want to bring back cruelty, because you do it incredibly well. A writer, in some ways, is a manager of cruelty. In Homegoing, there’s a lynching, and it happens in one sentence, but is still so striking. You seem to have an ethical concern with how violence is doled out. How do you manage that?
Yaa Gyasi: I thought about that a lot. Some writers are so good at making violent circumstances so lyrical and poetic. I love that, but I also am not that kind of writer. My sentences tend to be simpler. And some people go too far, and it becomes a show of the grotesque. I wanted there to be a balance: to make it as real as possible without distancing the reader from these moments. I was researching and reading about all of these historical things and remembering as I wrote that, at the end of the day, I could console myself that this was fiction, and that these characters aren’t real. And yet, for every bad thing that happens in this novel, there’s a corollary moment that happened to a real person, and that was far worse. When I’m writing, I ask myself, ‘oh did I go too far?’ Then you remember this piece of research and go, ‘No, I didn’t go too far.’
Roger Reeves: I feel like we’ve been circling this idea of archives, and absences of archives, particularly in the archive of slavery. You have an instance of what I call, queering the colonies. You queer the colonial with the relationship between two male characters. We don’t see a lot of queer relationships talked about in the archives of history, yet I was really glad you went there, because it had to have happened. How did you think about entering into the absence of the archive?
Yaa Gyasi: Going back to the beginning chapters, after my trip to the castle, I got this great book called The Door of No Return by William St. Clair that takes you through the castle, and the layout, and what certain wives would do. It allowed me to visualize a day in the life of this castle. But there was a very clear absence of the life of the slaves below. I asked myself, how do you give voice to those people that didn’t get a chance to tell you what their life was like? So I wanted to have a representation of families that were different every single time. Sometimes that was represented by queer love, sometimes by characters creating their own families without knowing their own parents, etc. I wanted to bring these types of stories to the fore: black love, black family, etc.
Roger Reeves: There are all of these representations of these folks of colors in the world, and you’ve found a way to manage these stereotypes. You do them with nuance. Did you ever think about it being too close to turning into the stereotype?
Yaa Gyasi: I did worry, yes. Each chapter is going to feel representational of that generation, because I gave myself a limitation of only giving each chapter 20 or 30 pages. I was strict about that because I wanted the novel to move with an urgency. One of the downsides is every character might portray a stereotype. I worked around it by making sure my first duty was to explore these characters with an intimacy and truth. To honor the lives of the people that were really living during those time periods. I was finding these moments to play off of these dualities that might exist.
Roger Reeves: There’s a quote from Abena about the slave trade, and her quote ends with, “Everyone was responsible. We all were. We all are.” This is such a telling moment, because it centers this presence of past cruelty. It felt like the veil of the book drops, and she’s speaking to us. How is this cruelty of the past still haunting us? How do we, and you, contend with this inheritance in the novel of the later generations, this complicity in the slave trade?
Yaa Gyasi: When I was in Ghana, it really struck me that this castle was only 52 miles from the town where my mother grew up. Yet, I had never heard about it. When I asked my parents, who are both descendants of ethnic groups in Ghana, about what they might have learned, they said they had never learned about it in school. In America, we at least learn about the history of slavery. Yet this giant monument to slavery is on Ghanaian land and there is a way they can still distance themselves from this truth. That seemed wrong to me. You shouldn’t have to take this tour of this castle to get this kind of information. We should always be thinking about our complicity, our relationship, and what that has left us. That was part of the reason I wanted to write this book. What slavery meant on both sides of the Atlantic.
Roger Reeves: I know this is what writers always hear, but I think we’re all wondering: What’s next? Have you gone in that direction yet?
Yaa Gyasi: I’ve been thinking of another novel. I’ve already started it, because I always like having two things going at once. Now I’m at this time in my life that is unlike any other time I’ve ever experienced, where I’m traveling a lot and doing public appearances and so I’m having to relearn how to sit and be still and write. Your guess is as good as mine as to when it’s going to be finished.
Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi
Penguin Random House
Published June 7, 2016
Yaa Gyasi was born in Ghana. She received her B.A. from Stanford and M.F.A. from the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. At age 26, she won the National Book Critic Circle’s John Leonard prize and the National Book Foundation’s 2016 “5 under 35” award for Homegoing. She lives in Berkeley, California.