Who Stays and Who Is Taken: Yaa Gyasi on “Homegoing”

Yaa Gyasi Side by Side Crop

“The night Effia Otcher was born into the musky heat of Fanteland, a fire raged through the woods just outside her father’s compound. It moved quickly, tearing a path for days. It lived off the air; it slept in caves and hid in trees; it burned, up and through, unconcerned with what wreckage it left behind, until it reached an Asante village. There, it disappeared, becoming one with the night.”  (Read more here.)

Yaa Gyasi’s debut novel Homegoing  fuses family history with the history of the enslavement of Africans, following the story of two half sisters and their descendants, moving between the a revelatory historical narrative of life on Africa’s Gold Coast and a corresponding intergenerational American saga that takes in the politics of village life, the vibrancy of 20th-century Harlem and many more brilliantly drawn settings.  Homegoing brings the legacy of slavery into a subtly dramatized dialogue with the enduring pain of American racism, all encapsulated with the moving and complex portrayal of a family’s journey through decades and centuries.  The result is one of the most celebrated novels of 2016, and the emergence of an exciting new voice on the literary scene.

This summer, Yaa Gyasi and her editor, Jordan Pavlin, sat down in front of an audience at Barnes and Noble’s Upper West Side Manhattan store, to talk about the origins of Homegoing, its roots in history and its meaning for 21st-century readers.  The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Jordan Pavlin: Where on earth did this amazing story come from? Can you talk about the genesis of the idea, and a little bit about Cape Coast Castle?

Yaa Gyasi:   Sure. In 2009, my sophomore year at Stanford, I received a grant to travel to Ghana and conduct research for a novel. I had a different idea in mind. I wanted to write a novel about mothers and daughters, and I thought it would be nice to go to my mother’s home town in the central region of Ghana. But that idea wasn’t really panning out, and a friend came to visit, and we decided, kind of on a whim, to go see the Cape Coast Castle, which I had never seen before and never really thought about before deeply.

It was while at the castle that I took the tour, and the tour guide started to tell us about how the British soldiers who lived and worked in this castle at that time would sometimes marry the local women. From there, he took us down to see the dungeons where the slaves were kept before being sent out on the Middle Passage. I thought how crazy is it that there could be women up above married to these British soldiers, walking around, kind of unaware of what would become of these women in the dungeons. So this book really started for me with thinking about those two first sisters, the half-sisters, that start the book—that juxtaposition of the one who gets to stay and the one who is stolen and taken away.

JP:   How did you proceed? It covers such a vast expanse of time. Did you know the structure when you began? Did you write chronologically?

YG:   In the beginning I had a more traditional structure. I thought that the book would take place in the present, kind of with the last two characters, though I didn’t know them at the time, and then just flash back to those two sisters in the 18th century. I probably wrote about 100 pages or so like this, until I got to Iowa and I realized I didn’t like those pages. So I kind of threw everything out and started over again.

I realized that what I was more interested in doing was kind of showing how something can change subtly over a very long period of time—in this case, 250 or so years. So I wanted to write about slavery and colonialism and institutionalized racism, but as they moved and changed over time. So once I realized that was the project I was more interested in, I decided that I needed a different kind of structure, one that would allow me to stop in as many places as possible, so I could look at it from different years and from different angles.

Once I landed on that, I probably wrote the first two chapters just kind of as you see them. They didn’t change much from then to now. Then I made a family tree that I put above the desk. That tree just had either sister on either side, and then had the descendent, the name of the descendent if I knew it, and then the time period during which the bulk of the chapter takes place, and then maybe just one thing that was happening politically or historically in the background of that time period. Something like the advent of cocoa farming in Ghana, or the Fugitive Slave Act. Then I wrote chronologically, and when I got to a new chapter, I would just find research texts that kind of centered around whatever that thing was that I had decided I wanted to look up about the time period. I did just enough research to feel as though my imagination was sparked, and then I would close the book and try to just write from there. So I like to say that my research was wide but shallow, just a little bit of a lot of books.

JP:   One thing that I find so remarkable about the book is the way it really does make history visceral and immediate, and by taking us through so many generations you create a sense of the inexorable. You capture the contingencies of accident and fate, the things that had to happen in one generation to make other events happen in succeeding generations.  In something like six generations down the line, we find one of the novel’s most incredible characters teaching a class called “History Is Storytelling.”

I want to quote from that. He’s teaching this class, and this character has a scar across his cheek, and we see in one of the novel’s opening chapters the origin of that scar. But now, many generations later, this character himself has no idea how he’s become disfigured. He asks his students to tell him the story of the scar, and everyone comes up with a different idea of how he might have gotten it. Then this character says, “Whose story is correct? We cannot know whose story is correct, because we weren’t there. We believe the one who has the power. He is the one who gets to write the story.” So when you study history, you must always ask yourself, “Whose story am I missing?”

When I got to that point in the novel, I  had goosebumps because I felt that this is the story that we are missing. And I wonder to what degree you felt that, and whether it was your intention at the outset to sort of shine a light on the problem of history.  I have read in interviews you’ve done that, in the course of your research, many of the books you read about Ghana during this time period were written by white British men. So I’m curious about how you begin to fill in those blanks.

YG:  That was something that I was definitely thinking a lot about. A book that I began my research with was titled The Door of No Return by William Sinclair. It’s a book that takes you through the castle, so you get to see what the life of the soldiers might have been like. It has a chapter on the women, a chapter on their daily activities, a chapter on the children. But what it was missing was a chapter on what was going on down below—a chapter on the slaves. I thought this book was my opportunity to lend a voice to a group of people who had been silenced, who hadn’t had an opportunity to tell their own stories. The British brought their written language with them to Ghana. So there are a lot of stories, I think, that went untold. Or at least unwritten, unrecorded. They were told in other ways. So I felt like it was important in this book to have a chapter that takes place in the dungeon, so that we can see something from a perspective that is often not there.

JP:   This is a book about time, and how you are putting all of this history towards the purpose of illuminating the present moment. Can you talk about how this ties into the present moment, or what your intention was there?

YG:   Initially I’d wanted it to be a more traditional novel that was set in the present. But then I realized that it’s easy, kind of, to not take into consideration the full scope of history when you’re talking about the present, to not understand how it is that we got to be here. It was really important to me that if I was going to write a book that dealt with the legacy of slavery, that I would be able to show it from the beginning to the end, not just what it meant in the 18th century in Ghana and America, but what it means now to Ghanaians and to Americans. So as I wrote, this project just ballooned outward and outward, and I kind of just let it, and tried to see where it would go and what it might look like to have a book that could hold a lot of time and a lot of places and a lot of characters all at once.

JP:   I know that one of the things that many reviewers have remarked upon, one of the things that Ta-Nehesi Coates was most compelled by, was your willingness to address the complexity of the time, and notions of complicity, and the idea that we are all implicated. Can you talk about that?

YG: I felt, again, if I was going to tell this story, I couldn’t just avoid talking about the parts of it that make me uncomfortable. So I felt like I really needed to take a look at the ways in which Ghanaians were complicit in the slave trade, not in a way to put blame on anyone, but to tell a more fully-rounded story than the one that we usually hear. I always say to you that I didn’t want this to be the kind of book where you could leave it thinking that you very clearly understood who the villains and who the heroes were, because I don’t see it that way. I don’t think the situation was very black or white, literally black or white. I wanted it to have more nuance and more complexity than that. Because while people were exploiting other people, they were also being exploited, and I wanted that roundness to be in the story as well.

JP:   Also, there’s a very strong sense that permeates the entire novel of dislocation. There is one scene that I found particularly fascinating, where Sonny, who is a character in 20th Century Harlem, he asks his girlfriend why she calls herself Imani. She says, “It has nothing to do with Africa.” He says to her, “It has nothing to do with Africa but you’re using an African name?” She says, “We can’t go back to a place we haven’t been to in the first place. It isn’t ours any more.”

But the reader experiences this in a completely different way, because we see this line that stretches back generations, a line that is obscured certainly to them but we see it quite clearly. I just found this very provocative way of confronting the question of home, where home is, and the title itself.

YG:   Traditionally, the term “homegoing” refers to slave funerals. The idea was that once a slave died, their spirit could return home to whatever country they had been stolen from. Many African-Americans still use that term today—“Homegoing.” I thought that was particularly resonant for a book that was trying to kind of create a home for a very large family. I think one of the huge tragedies about slavery, though there are many, was just the fact that these families got fractured in such ways so completely that they didn’t even know where whole sides of their families ended up, and a lot of African-Americans still don’t know which country on the Continent they came from. So this book was a kind of attempt to restore home for both sides of this family who maybe got lost along the way.

JP:   You were born in Ghana and raised primarily in Huntsville, Alabama. I’m curious to know how much of the drive toward the exploration of this particular theme comes from your own experience, and what your own experience of home has been.

YG:   I felt really displaced growing up. I am Ghanaian, but I came to America so young that I don’t really have a sense of myself as a Ghanaian, and I so rarely went back. I left when I was 2. We went back all together as a family when I was 11. Then I didn’t go back again until I went by myself for that trip in 2009. So large parts of my family, I don’t see every day. I don’t know them well. So in many ways, that trip in 2009 was about kind of me getting a chance to reconnect with my roots and to feel this kind of large familial connection that in a lot of ways I had been cut off from. Growing up here, I felt like I was never really Ghanaian enough for Ghanaians, and never really African-American enough for African-Americans, and kind of trying to figure out how to navigate those two worlds and straddle those two lines. I think that was really important to me. This book has all of my questions in it, all of my questions around racial identity, ethnic identity, what home means, what family means. That’s something that I was always searching for.

JP:   What do you hope people will take away from this novel?

YG:   I think the thing that I most wanted this novel to do was to show that people who are caught in these really difficult, traumatic situations, things like slavery, things like the Holocaust — It happened to individuals who are just like us, people with hopes and dreams and fears just like we have, not to a nameless, faceless mass. Each chapter is happening to a person, so you get to see a face who is attached to the Fugitive Slave Act, a face who is attached to the Great Migration. So you can’t leave this book not feeling it, not feeling the weight of what 250 years of institutionalized racism leaves a group of people. That was really my biggest hope for this book.

JP:   Well, I certainly think you’ve achieved that and will achieve that.  I have to ask, because this is your first novel and you are so young: Were you always a writer? When did you know?

YG:   Yes, I was always a writer. I was born in Ghana, and then we lived in Ohio, Illinois, Tennessee, Alabama. So we moved around a lot, and I had a really hard time making friends, so I became obsessed with books. They taught me everything that I know about people, about empathy. In a real way, it felt like books were my best friends. Very early on for me, reading and writing went hand-in-hand. I always wanted to see if I could do the things that I was reading. The first story that I ever wrote, called “Just Me And My Dog,” I was 7, and I wrote it for the Reading Room Young Writers and Illustrators Competition.

JP:   Did you have a dog?

YG:   I didn’t have a dog. It was fiction. It was an indictment of my parents for not allowing me to get a dog. But Levar Burton framed my certificate and sent it back, and I kind of felt like I’ve arrived. That was a big moment for me. But I didn’t really understand when I was younger that writing was a profession that you could have, that you could do it as your job. I always thought I’d do something else and then write on the side. It wasn’t until I read Song of Solomon when I was 17 that I realized that not only can do this, but you can do it brilliantly and beautifully. So Toni Morrison’s work was a real kind of turning point in my life, where I saw a black woman having this kind of a career and being so successful at it. It really made me feel like I could at least try. So that’s kind of when I started telling other people that I wanted to be a writer, and by college I had basically decided.

JP: Other important books to you, literary touchstones?

YG: I really love the short stories of Edward P. Jones. I love James Baldwin. Chinua Achebe. Chimamanda Adichie. I have a lot of heroes.

JP:   As your editor I have to tiptoe a little around this question, but I know all of us here are very curious to know what might be next.

YG:   I’ve started working on another novel. I always like to have something that I can move to so I don’t have to stress out about the other thing that I’m working on. This one has been in the works for a while. It’s still in the very early stages. It feels a lot different already than this book. I’ve only written the one book, but I already get a sense that each one is going to be really different and the process of writing each one is going to be different. You kind of have to relearn how to write. So that’s where I am right now.

JP:   I’m sure I speak for everyone when I say we just cannot wait to see what comes next.