The author on accessibility, black desire, and holding space for complex histories.
Photo Credit: Michael Lionstar.
Somewhere in the obscurer recesses of YouTube is a dimly lit video of a then–nineteen-year-old Yaa Gyasi reciting her poetry before an unseen audience. “I was nine years old when I moved to the buckle of the bible belt,” she begins, delivering each word evenly and deliberately. “I wasn’t sure if I believed in God, but I believed in his music.” What follows is four minutes of unflinching insight into the yearnings and cruelties of the Southern church, punctuated by gleeful outbursts from her stunned peers. It was through this clip, passed to me by a close mutual friend soon after its recording, that I became aware of Ms. Gyasi—of her quiet self-possession and nearly irresistible command of language. While I immediately grasped the seriousness of her talent, I could not know that, already, the seeds of Homegoing, her debut novel out this June from Alfred A. Knopf, had been planted. Nearly seven years on, and with a BA in English from Stanford and an MFA from the Iowa Writer’s Workshop under her belt, Gyasi still knows how to stun a crowd.
The book at the center of her newfound fame, which has propelled her to such cultural main-stages as the New York Times best-seller list and The Daily Show, is a multi-generational epic spanning 250 years of Afro-diasporic history. Comprised of sixteen vignettes, most of which could stand alone, Homegoing tracks the descendants of two half sisters—one sold into slavery in the American South, the other left behind to struggle for self-determination in British-controlled Gold Coast (present-day Ghana). It is at times a difficult read, not because of Gyasi’s narrative voice, which is consistently warm and inviting, but because of the particular histories she so dutifully recounts. The traumas of the cotton plantation, of the convict-leasing system, of the color line, and of tenement housing are all rendered in intimate detail as lived realities, rather than as symbolic signposts.
That Ghana’s Cape Coast Castle, a key port in the British slave trade, figures prominently throughout Homegoing seems altogether appropriate. It was, after all, Gyasi’s first visit to this eighteenth-century fortress-turned-museum, back in the summer between her sophomore and junior years at Stanford, that inspired her to look more closely at the murky history of African complicity in the slave trade. “I was really struck,” she recalls, “by how much anger I felt at the fact that we don’t talk about these things.” But the dungeons and parlors of Cape Coast also provided Gyasi, who was born in Ghana and raised primarily in Huntsville, Alabama, with a prime vantage point from which to survey the rift at the heart of the African diaspora.
I spoke to Gyasi, who now lives in Berkeley, California, by phone earlier this summer. Despite being in the midst of her first whirlwind book tour, she was both gracious and eager to engage.
—Imani Roach for Guernica
Guernica: I wanted to begin by quoting one of your own characters back to you. In one of Homegoing’s later chapters, we meet Yaw, a teacher living and working in Ghana on the eve of independence. At the start of each school year, he writes “History is Storytelling” on the blackboard for his students. Do you see Homegoing as a work of history?
Yaa Gyasi: I definitely see Homegoing as a history of sorts. When I was researching this novel, the problem that I kept running into, especially for the earlier chapters, was that I couldn’t find anything from the Ghanaian perspective. I found books written by British men about what life might have been like during that time period, which makes sense because the British brought the written language with them. I was particularly struck, for example, in reading William Sinclair’s The Door of No Return [about the slave castle at Cape Coast, Ghana], that the emphasis was almost entirely on the soldiers and the people who lived upstairs, while an entire class of people—the slaves, the Ghanaians who lived around the castle—were voiceless. Homegoing felt like I was trying to give voice to a group of people who don’t get to tell their side of the story as often.
Guernica: Many of the book’s richest details do come from this early period and concern things that are largely undocumented and even, in a sense, unknowable. Were you at all daunted by the task of writing the minutia of everyday life in eighteenth-century Ghana or Gold Coast, for example?
Yaa Gyasi: Being able to rely on my imagination and not having to be beholden to the truth, or to facts, in the same way that I was in some of the later chapters was actually freeing for me! There is so little written about that time that I didn’t feel stifled by the research, so it was probably the most fun part.
Guernica: We’ve already started to touch on your research process a bit, but this is clearly a meticulously researched novel. How did you prepare to write Homegoing, and what kinds of sources did you consult along the way?
Yaa Gyasi: I should begin by saying that I got a research grant from Stanford called the Chappell-Lougee that they give to sophomore students to complete a creative project the summer between sophomore and junior year. I used mine to go to Ghana and research a novel. It wasn’t supposed to be this novel, but it ended up being this novel because I went to the Cape Coast castle and was really taken with it.
I was struck by many of the things that the tour guide was saying—specifically that the British soldiers married the local women, which is something I had never heard before. Also we were lead from upstairs in the castle to downstairs, where I got to see where they kept the slaves before sending them out on the middle passage. So that trip was really invaluable in sparking my imagination. It was also invaluable in the sense that, because I didn’t grow up in Ghana, I don’t have as much of a familiarity with what it might feel like to be there on the ground every day. That trip really helped me give myself permission to write this book.
From there I probably wrote 100 pages that I threw out when I got to Iowa and just started over again. I started, as I mentioned before, with that book The Door of No Return, which was a great resource on the Cape Coast Castle. It had a chapter on the women, a chapter on the children, a chapter on the layout, and it helped me get my head around what it would have been like to live and work there in the eighteenth century.
I wrote probably the first two chapters without any kind of outline or anything. Then I made a family tree that I put on my wall, which had the characters’ names, if I knew them, their gender, if I knew it, the time period in which the bulk of each chapter took place, and just one thing that was happening historically or politically in the background of that time period. So, I would take something like the beginning of cocoa farming in Ghana or the Great Migration and use it as my entry point to do research.
I wrote chronologically, so at the beginning of every chapter, I would stop, take a look at the family tree, get a couple of books, and read until I felt like my imagination was sparked enough to get going. I like to say that my research was wide but shallow. I read a little bit of a lot of things because I really wanted to not be restricted.
Guernica: Aside from your reading and your initial trip to Cape Coast, did your research take any other forms? Did you conduct any interviews? Were you ever in a dusty archive somewhere?
Yaa Gyasi: No, I didn’t do any interviews or go into the archives. If I had a question about life in Ghana more generally, I would ask my dad or my brother. But mostly I consulted a lot of books and a lot of online articles.
Guernica: Homegoing is largely concerned with the weight of sin that the Fante and Asante people of present-day Ghana bear for colluding with the British in the transatlantic slave trade. Was it difficult for you to address this aspect of Afro-diasporic history without slipping into a moral indictment?
Yaa Gyasi: No, because I don’t think in absolutist terms. I don’t really believe that this is about “good people” vs. “bad people.” I think we have a tendency in the present to moralize about our ancestors in a way that suggests we would have been better or smarter had we been around during their time. And I just don’t believe that’s true. I think that everyone is really complex, and sometimes you do bad things because you don’t understand how bad they are; sometimes you understand how bad they are, but it the most expedient or economically advantageous thing to do, so you do it anyway. Just thinking about humans as fully-rounded, complex people with the same hopes and dreams and capacity to make mistakes that we have made it easier to not be didactic or wag my finger at my characters.
African complicity in the slave trade is something that we don’t really talk about. People whisper it, but the conversation doesn’t usually go past there. And, you know, I’m Ghanaian, but I grew up in America, so my relationship to what it means to be black is completely different than that of my parents. I was really struck, in going to the Cape Coast Castle, by how much anger I felt at the fact that we don’t talk about these things. We have a huge monument to slavery on our land where we have to see it every day. They aren’t the ones who have to look at it everyday. So why not say a little bit more than we usually do?
Guernica: In the process of researching and writing about the history of slavery on both continents, were you ever surprised, either by what you discovered or in how you reacted to it?
Yaa Gyasi: A lot of things surprised me as I was researching, mostly because I think we don’t talk about them enough. One thing that was really shocking to me was learning about the convict-leasing system of the period right after the Civil War. The chapter in which I write about it takes place in Alabama. I grew up in Alabama and had never heard about it before. So much of this history gets buried. Maybe we can only hold so much at a single time. I don’t know what the reason is, but our short-sighted view of history really does us a disservice and enables us to perpetuate these awful systemic and institutionalized problems that we have today. Were we to try and hold it all at the same time, maybe things would be a little better.
Guernica: The standard blurb that gets repeated about your book is that it is a story of two sisters, separated by the slave trade, and of their descendants. When I actually read the book, I was surprised to discover that the sisters in question do not interact and in fact are completely unknown to each other. Why did you choose to locate your narrative within a single family tree, and why did you choose for that tree to be broken from the very start?
Yaa Gyasi: That was mostly a factor of wanting to talk about both the Asante and the Fante and their relationships to slavery. My father is an Asante and my mother is a Fante, so I know both of those ethnic groups the best out of those that would have been around Cape Coast at that time. The only way that I could figure out to make one sister Asante and the other Fante was to have this break in the family. I don’t know how vital for the story it was that they not know each other, but in terms of me being able to talk about both of these ethnic groups, it felt important to have them fracture early on.
Guernica: I think it actually works beautifully because it starts out already complicating the notion of family.
Yaa Gyasi: Right! Yeah.
Guernica: Love, desire, and sex feature quite prominently in many of these vignettes. Because Homegoing is an intergenerational story, sex is in part an explanatory device that allows us to see how each new generation comes into the world. Beyond that, what motivated you to take up these themes?
Yaa Gyasi: During the first draft, it really wasn’t that deep. And I did need to find a way to have these families happen—to show the next descendants. So I needed people to connect and to want and to have sex. But when I finished my first draft, I gave a copy to my thesis advisor at Iowa, Sam Chang, who said, “You know, I think these are all love stories.” I hadn’t thought about it in that context before, but it totally makes sense that there is some aspect, not necessarily always of romantic love, but of desire, of family building [in every chapter]. There are single-parent households and two-parent households and queer parents; every possible way that you can make a family exists in this book.
Guernica: Did you have any misgivings about centering desire in a novel that is otherwise “about” the intertwined legacies of transatlantic slavery and colonialism?
Yaa Gyasi: No. I think desire is incredibly important because of the ways in which your personal desire [as a black person] has historically been pitted against these forces outside of your control. “I want to be with my wife, but what happens when the Fugitive Slave Act passes, and she’s taken away from me?” And then these stereotypes we have about black men not being there for their families have their roots in the constant stealing of the men, the constantly removal of black people from their families. So though I wasn’t really aware of it initially, once I noticed it, it was something that I wanted to bring out and think about a little bit more.
Guernica: Somewhat relatedly, I couldn’t help but notice your insistence on beauty throughout the book. Almost every single one of your protagonists is described at one point or another as being beautiful—often exceptionally so. Why is that?
Yaa Gyasi: There is something to be said about the beauty standards that I grew up with in America being so different than beauty standards in Ghana. People that I knew in the Ghanaian community who everyone found absolutely stunning were not seen as stunning on the other side of things in America. There is one character, for example, who is described as having a really big gap, but she is also beautiful because gaps are beautiful where I come from. I was just playing with that and trying to diversify the standards of beauty—to have everyone look a little different but still qualify as beautiful.
Guernica: Homegoing starts with a proverb, and you pepper proverbs throughout the chapters set in Ghana. Even in the American storyline, you often have your protagonists speaking proverbially in these moments of pithy truth-telling. Why did open your novel in that way, and how do you see proverbial speech functioning within it?
Yaa Gyasi: Proverbs are inescapable if you are writing from West Africa. There are just so many proverbs. I didn’t begin [writing] the novel with that epigraph. I wrote about half of the way through and stopped and thought, “I’d like to look up some proverbs.” I found that one [“The family is like the forest: if you are outside it is dense; if you are inside you see that each tree has its own position”] and felt like it really encapsulated everything that I was trying to do with the book, so that became my epigraph.
I had been thinking about this book, in the early stages, as a series of fables and folk-tales—more fabulous on the Ghanaian side, more folkloric on the American side. And in part that was a way for me, again, to give myself permission to write this huge story that covers an insane amount of time and to give myself permission to enter into the lives of these people who lived in a time period for which there is so little to go off of. So I felt like, maybe it can be a little fabulous!
Also, a lot of West African fiction has this really oracular, larger than life nature to it, and I wanted the Ghanaian sections to feel not Western, not exactly like Western literature, even though obviously I’m in America and this book is being published in America. I wanted it to have an allegiance to African literature. And I wanted the African-American side to feel true to African-American traditions of storytelling and folklore and all of that.
Guernica: In terms of American authors, your relationship to Toni Morrison’s work is fairly clear and well established. Of the West African authors whose work you’ve read, either in preparation for this book or in the normal course of your life, to whom do you think Homegoing is most indebted?
Yaa Gyasi: For the West African side, I have to go with the most common answer, which is [Chinua] Achebe, Things Fall Apart. First of all, I love dealing with a complex idea with the most simple, beautiful prose, so that it doesn’t feel inaccessible. The thing I love about that book the most is that I could just hand it to anybody, anybody who doesn’t like reading, and they would still like that story even though he’s dealing with this incredibly complex theme. I learned a lot from that book and a lot from him as a writer.
These days I’ve been reading a lot of [Chimamanda Ngozi] Adichie, as have so many of us I’m sure. But I was really struck by Americanah and by her willingness to engage with African Americans as a black immigrant, which I think a lot of African writers who get popular in America do not do. So I was also super excited about her work.
Guernica: And did this book allow you to explore your own particular relationship with American blackness? Knowing you in even the small way that I do, it was very tempting to see you in the character of Marjorie, the bookish teenager being raised by her Ghanaian immigrant parents in 1990s Alabama.
Yaa Gyasi: So, no, I’m not Marjorie. I do share the most similarities with her character and also with Marcus’s character [from the final story in the American bloodline]. A lot of the things that they feel are things that I’ve felt before. Marjorie differs from me in that she has a really strong connection to Ghana still. She goes back every summer, she stays with her grandmother, she speaks the language, and those things are not true of me. I’ve only been back to Ghana twice since I left when I was two. I don’t speak the language of my parents, so those things are different, and I feel like she’s her own person.
Guernica: How did you handle moving from a set of stories that are so removed from your own experience in time and space to places and events that overlap so significantly with the details of your own life?
Yaa Gyasi: You know, I always had in mind that this book would end up in the present. Initially I thought it would take place entirely in the present and just have flashbacks to the eighteenth century and skip all of the in-between parts. Later, when I got to Iowa, I realized that what I really wanted to do with this novel was to look at how something moves really subtly over a long period of time. Obviously in this case that “thing” is slavery and colonialism and institutionalized racism. But the book was always for me about the present and about those final two characters—about what life is like for the black immigrant and for the African American now. I wasn’t too concerned in the beginning with how I was going to get there, I just knew that I was going to get there.
I definitely felt a lot more ease with those later chapters, just because I’m more familiar with the time period and with what the people might be thinking and feeling.
Guernica: You’re dealing with the legacies of slavery and colonialism over time, yet you write very little about the colonizers and slavers themselves. European characters in this novel are few and far between. Why is that?
Yaa Gyasi: That just felt necessary to me. This book was not written for or about white people. It is for and about us black people—West Africans, African Americans—and it felt important to me to not center whiteness ever in this novel.
Guernica: “The Church” appears in stories on both sides of the Atlantic, though never in a prescribed way. Can you explain a bit about the book’s attitude towards western religion?
Yaa Gyasi: I grew up Pentecostal, in Alabama, but in a predominantly white church. Meanwhile, I had a father who would be whispering in my ear: “You know, if the British hadn’t come, we wouldn’t even be Christian.” So I was constantly hearing things and then having them refuted, which made my relationship to religion really complicated. But then all of the things that I love about religion, namely the music and the idea of worship, really brought me a lot of joy and still make me feel connected to the church. I understand them really well, and I understand why they might bring somebody comfort.
I totally get a character like Willie [who migrates, along with her husband and child, from an Alabama coal-mining town to a Harlem tenement during the 1920s]. I understand what music has done for her and what the church has done for her; I understand why they are important to her life. But then I understand why somebody like Akua [an unwed mother who clashes with missionaries in colonial Gold Coast], might have questions about religion, questions about God. I never wanted to be prescribed or didactic, because it didn’t seem as useful as being more complex, more open, and therefore able to hold both the joy and beauty and the confusion and tragedy that religion brings to people, all at once.
Guernica: Your writing is very sensory. Particularly in the early chapters, but really throughout the book, you introduce your readers to the material reality of some incredibly harsh lived experiences. Were you concerned about these sections feeling puerient or pornographic?
Yaa Gyasi: I just felt like people had lived these things, and I would be doing them a disservice if I looked away in any way or let the reader off the hook at those moments. I want you to have to look at it. I don’t really love it though when I’m reading something and I feel like the author is romanticizing trauma. It starts to feel more about the writer and what they can do than about the actual experience.
Whenever I start to feel manipulated by an author, or feel them reaching their hand into the work to twist something, I always immediately step out of it. I really wanted to avoid that for the more difficult sections of this novel. I want you to look at it, but I don’t want you to see me manipulating these characters for my own purposes or to make you feel something more intensely.
Guernica: It is a commonplace now in certain circles that in order to present traumatic histories, personal or collective, one must avoid traditional linear narrative in favor of fractured or non-sequential time. In Homegoing, by contrast, time behaves quite regularly, and it would seem, quite intentionally so. Why did you choose such a straightforward, chronological structure for the book?
Yaa Gyasi: Because so many other aspects of this story were wild and messy and big, I wanted it to be easy to follow. I felt like if I arranged the stories in a weird order it might allow the reader to say, “OK, I’m giving up on this.” I really didn’t want it to feel too hard for anybody. I didn’t want anyone to fall out of the story because of something that I did that I could have done differently. If you aren’t a big reader, you can still read this book and not feel like I am playing a trick on you.
Guernica: From my perspective, that was such a gift! When you were writing the book, to what extent did audience factor into your decision making process?
Yaa Gyasi: Not much. When I started writing the book, at like 20 years old, I didn’t know that anybody was ever going to read it, so in that way I felt really free to do whatever I wanted. At Iowa, when I was workshopping chapters, I became aware that people would read it even if it was never published; at least my classmates would read it. That added another layer of attentiveness to audience, but I wasn’t really thinking about it beyond what people say about writing for yourself. Who am I as an audience member? In that way it was easy to say, “This book isn’t going to center whiteness,” because I’m not white. It’s easy to say that this book is going to focus on being accessible and fun and easy to read because those are the kinds of books that I like. So I just brought myself to the table every day, as both writer and audience, and hoped that other people would feel the same way that I did eventually.
Guernica: Even though this is a book that has been six-plus years in the making, is there anything special about the particular moment that we are in now, either politically or literarily that you feel like you are in dialogue with?
Yaa Gyasi: Yeah, I think a lot of interesting things are happening now. There are a lot of writers who are focusing on the slow and systemic building of different aspects of racism in America. Obviously, I’m thinking about [Ta-Nehisi] Coates’s writing about housing and “The Case for Reparations,” but also Isabel Wilkerson’s writing about the Great Migration. Nikole Hannah-Jones is doing a lot of great work on education. These writers are taking a very long view of American history, and their works have been really exciting. I think it’s cool that my book is coming out now that this kind of work is starting to gain more traction and be more a part of the conversation in America. Hopefully my book adds to that.
Guernica: A lot has been made of the scope and ambitious nature of Homegoing in relation to your relatively young age. Acknowledging that this is question that young male writers (and particularly young white male writers) rarely get, I nevertheless wanted to ask where the confidence to approach such an enormous undertaking on your debut novel came from?
Yaa Gyasi: It was never an issue for me. I never felt like I couldn’t do it just because I was young. I don’t have that bone in my body that says I can’t do something because of whatever limitation people want to place on me after the fact. And because I was in a really beautiful, fruitful artistic community at Stanford, all of my friends were working on different projects that addressed things I was interested in. I could say to any of those people: “Hey, I want to write this book that covers 250 years of history in both Ghana and America,” and they’d be like, “Yeah, sure, that makes total sense!” So I just felt really supported by my community. It wasn’t until later that people started to say “no” to me about whether or not it was possible.
Guernica: Speaking of getting early encouragement. You wouldn’t be the writer you are today if your journey hadn’t begun much earlier than your time as an undergrad at Stanford. When did you first have the inclination that you wanted to be a writer, and at what point did you feel like it was actually possible?
Yaa Gyasi: I first had the inclination very young. I read an incredible amount as a child; I was constantly reading. I remember going to the library and being told that if I couldn’t finish a book in two weeks I would need to re-check it and thinking, “who needs two weeks to finish a book?” because I would read several a day. Pretty early on for me the joy of reading went hand-in-hand with wanting to know if I could do it, if I could write.
I think the first thing I ever wrote was for the Reading Railroad young writers and illustrators competition when I was seven, so really early on I was thinking about writing. But I didn’t really understand that it was a profession or something that you could do with your life until I was a little older. The decisive moment when I knew, “this is what I want to do with my life” came in high school at age seventeen when I read Song of Solomon, which was the first book I had ever read by a black woman. I was really struck, not just by the fact that the book is beautiful but by the idea that I could write about people who looked like me. Being able to see someone like me do it and do it so well, and do it better than so many of the other writers that I had been reading at that time, made me feel like “OK, I can do this too. I can try it at least.”
Guernica: This may be a perverse question to ask since your first novel was just released this summer, but what is your next project?
Yaa Gyasi: I’ve already begun writing another novel, but it’s very early. It’s set in the present. It’s going to be a lot different from Homegoing. Obviously every book is different, and you’re kind of learning on the job every time. It’s still in the very early stages, and I’m kind of superstitious about telling people what it’s about, but yeah, I’ve already started something new. Hopefully after things start to calm down for me a little bit I can dig my heels more into this next novel.
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