Yaa Gyasi sounds a bit unnerved by the prepublication buzz surrounding her stunning first novel, Homegoing, and the changes its enthusiastic early reception portend for her life.
“I’ve wanted to be a writer my whole life, so this is really the fulfillment of a long dream,” she says during a call to her home in Berkeley, California. She and her boyfriend, a writer she met when they were both at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, have recently moved to the Bay Area.
“I feel fortunate not only that my dream came true but that it’s coming true in such a huge way,” Gyasi continues. “On the other hand, the stakes feel really high in a way I hadn’t anticipated. I find myself being a lot more anxious than when I thought no one would read the book. I feel a lot of outside noise has come in now in a way that it never had before. I had always been writing for myself. And now it’s becoming more public. That’s definitely an end goal of a writer, to share their work with readers. But it is a little nerve-racking.”
Gyasi, who turns 27 in late June, spent seven years developing her first novel. Homegoing is a sweeping, emotionally and morally complex epic that begins in the 18th century in the British African colony that is now Ghana. There, two half-sisters—Effia from the slave-trading Fante nation and Esi from the Asante warrior nation—are born and live nearly intersecting lives without ever meeting. Effia is born during a violent fire. As a young woman, she is married off to a British official as a local wife and lives in the upper realms of the Cape Coast Castle, seat of British colonial power. Esi is sold into slavery and imprisoned in the bowels of the castle to await a harrowing journey over the ocean to the American South.
From there, in beautifully textured alternating chapters in which water imagery represents Esi’s line and fire imagery is linked to Effia’s, the novel explores the lives of these women’s descendants. Esi’s progeny live in the U.S. as slaves and then as free people under Jim Crow laws. Effia’s descendants remain in Ghana and experience the effects of British colonialism and bloody internal African warfare. In the end, in the 21st century, the two lines of descendants experience a poignant kind of “homegoing.”
“People in the present have a tendency to believe that we are necessarily better, smarter or more moral than the people who lived before us.”
“The thing that I was most interested in was the question of what does it mean to be black in America today,” Gyasi says. “So I was very much focused on those last two chapters. I wanted to get to the African immigrant and the African American today. When I first thought of this novel all those years ago, I thought I would toggle back and forth between the characters that make up the first few chapters and the characters that make up the last few chapters to show a then-and-now thing. But then at some point I realized that I was more interested in being able to see the way something moves over a long period of time, in this case slavery, how slavery dovetailed off into this colonialism and institutionalized racism depending on where and how you were looking.”
The novel is propelled by a profound and wrenching sense of history. Yet its characters are emotionally compelling rather than didactic. This is partly because of Gyasi’s “exploratory” style of research. “I didn’t want to feel stifled by the research or the need to get everything exactly, exactly right,” she explains. “I just wanted to have it be this atmospheric thing that was in the background, so that the characters were foregrounded and they were just reacting to a moment in history, as we do now. You know, things are happening around us, but they don’t feel like they always explain our actions and our choices.”
The novel is also shaped by Gyasi’s deep imagining of events and by her family’s experiences. Born in Ghana, she came to the United States when she was 2 years old. Her father is a professor of French and Francophile African literature, and her mother is a nurse. She is the middle of three children and the only girl. Before settling in Huntsville, Alabama, when she was 9, the family also lived in Ohio and Illinois. She went to Stanford University and won a Chappell-Lougee scholarship to travel to Ghana and research her novel.
“I’ve only been back [to Ghana] twice,” Gyasi says. “The first time was with my entire family at age 11. And the second time was when I was 20. I had just a very thin idea for a novel in mind. I had never been to the central region where my mother is from. So I wanted to spend some time there.”
Her visit to Ghana’s Cape Coast Castle was the revelation that inspired the novel. “The tour guide started talking about the fact that a lot of British soldiers would marry the local Fante women, and the children from these marriages were sometimes sent to England for school and then came back and started to form the region’s middle class. I’d never heard much about the Cape Coast Castle or about Ghana’s participation in the slave trade. All of this was really new to me. And then the tour guide showed us the majesty of the upstairs level of the castle. It’s beautiful. Then after showing us this upstairs level, he takes us down to see the male and female dungeons. That was also a very striking experience for me—kind of the literal upstairs downstairs thing. And I thought, OK, this is where I’ll start.”
Interestingly, Gyasi says it was reading Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude that gave her permission to write her hugely ambitious novel. “That’s such a great book to read, especially if you are about to write a big, messy novel with a lot of family. Just the idea that a reader can look back at the family tree and that doesn’t totally mess up their reading experience was something I got from that book. [Homegoing has a helpful diagram of the characters’ family tree at the beginning of the novel.] I heard from people who had grievances about how many years it was covering or that there are too many characters. But having read Márquez, I could always say he did it, and it was fine.”
Gyasi adds, “People say that first books tend to be more quiet. They tend to be a lot more autobiographical. But I grew up in Alabama. I was a Ghanaian immigrant. When I was in Ghana, I didn’t feel Ghanaian. When I was in America, I didn’t feel quite American. I was kind of living on the edges of these two identities. I’d always been interested in that, and in what we had in common—the African American and the African immigrant. In that way, this book feels incredibly personal to me.”
Asked about the legacy of slavery that Homegoing explores, Gyasi says, “When we talk about slavery today, there’s a sense that it’s this thing that happened a million years ago, so why do we feel like it has any effect on our life today? And I always think that’s a ridiculous way to think about it.
“People in the present have a tendency to believe that we are necessarily better, smarter or more moral than the people who lived before us. We wouldn’t have done this awful thing. We would be the ones who stand up and say, ‘Not me.’ But in the moment I think that is a much harder thing to do. So I was really interested in the people who could say that or who tried to say that, whether they were successful or not. I did want to have their voices in the novel as well. Hopefully, this book is an addition to the conversation about why we still need to think about it today.”
Author photo credit Michael Lionstar.
This article was originally published in the June 2016 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.