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Q&A with Yaa Gyesi, author of HOMEGOING

I was fortunate to hear Yaa Gyesi answer questions about her new novel Homegoing at Politics & Prose a few weeks ago. (Here is my review of her book.)

Here is what she had to say about Homegoing and her writing process.

Q: What was the inspiration for writing the novel?

A: I went to visit Cape Coast Castle in Ghana in 2009 on a grant from Stanford. The inspiration for the book was instantaneous once I got there. I knew that’s what the book would center around. British soldiers would marry local woman and live upstairs, and slaves were kept in the dungeons below. The castle is majestic and beautiful, contrasted with what was going on downstairs.

Q: Did you feel the weight of a spiritual presence there?

A. Yes. The place is haunted. How many people died there? They had no light, air or food.

Q: Your book focuses on the experience of women.

A: It is very hard to erase the pain of these people’s lives. Very little has been done to make amends for what they went through. When you go there, you feel grief and rage. How could this have happened for so many hundreds of years?

Gyasi YaaQ: Homegoing is not a bitter novel. Were you conscious of the emotional demands you were making on your readers?

A: I did not want to ascribe blame. I wanted to show the complexity of the situation. There are no villains or heroes here; it’s a nuanced representation of how people came to evil circumstances.

Q: Do we all bear responsibility?

A: Yes, you’d have to wonder what would have happened if ethnic groups in Africa had banded together and fought back? We all had responsibility for stopping it before we did.

Q: What research did you do for Homegoing? How did you pick the Ashanti tribe? How did you establish the chronology for the book?

A: I picked the Ashanti tribe because they were central, inland and incredibly powerful. They were feared by both English and Africans. They won a lot of wars against the British. The Fanti are coastal, and would also sell people to the British. The two tribes would invade each other’s villages and sell the captives. I wrote chronologically, and would research what was going on in the background so that I could put it in the book. I didn’t want the book to feel stuffed with research.

Q: The book has one storyline in Africa and one in America, with 14 characters across separate sections.

A: I knew I wantd the book to end in the present tense, talking about the African-American experience. I made as many pitstops in between as possible. I needed it to cohere.

Q: Did you think of the different chapters as short stories?

A: No. The book always felt novelistic in scope. It felt complete and holistic. The chapters can be read separately but the point is what they all look like together.

Q: Did you ever second guess this structure and feel like you needed to write it in a more traditional way?

A: I started it in a more traditional way, but it wasn’t working. This structure suited me better.

Q You have a lot of different cultures in this book.

A: I grew up between cultures. I didn’t feel Ghanaian or African-American enough. This is the physical manifestation of straddling two worlds. I wouldn’t have written the book if I hadn’t been born in Ghana and grown up in Alabama.

Q: Who are your literary inspirations/heroes?

A: Toni Morrison – Song of Solomon totally got me started. Edward Jones. Jhumpa Lahiri.

Q: This is a story of disruption, where so much is lost. But there is hope too.

A: Diaspora is hugely important to me. My sense of self, racially, was confused. I was cut off from African culture and left for college asking a lot about diaspora. My trip to Ghana was a chance to connect with my own roots. The slave trade fractured families so completely. What did that mean for the future and our legacy?

HOMEGOING by Yaa Gyasi

One of the books with a lot of buzz going in to BEA this year was Homegoing, by Yaa Gyasi. It is definitely one of the hot books of June, and for once, I actually read a book right when it came out! Shocking.

9781101947135Homegoing is a sweeping book about the legacy of slavery in Ghana that covers 300 years tracing the ancestors of two half-sisters. One, Effia, married a British colonist and moved to a life of relative luxury, while her half sister, Esi, is sent to America ship via the slave trade, where her children and grandchildren are raised as slaves. The book follows the two threads of the family tree as the generations are born and the decades pass. The chapters alternate between Ghana and America, with each chapter devoted to one person from each generation.

Homegoing is an admirable novel, and I enjoyed it and am very glad that I read it. Gyasi powerfully depicts the shameful legacy of slavery and racism in so many contexts, providing a rich and, at times, almost unbearably painful picture of how deeply they have affected society over the last few hundred years. The African chapters trace European colonization, the slave trade, tribal warfare and poverty, while the American chapters loko at slavery, Jim Crow, racism, the Great Migration and the civil rights movement. The two threads come together in the end, when the present day descendants of Effia and Esi meet and decide to return to Ghana and, unwittingly, the place where their ancestors were originally entwined.

This is not a light read.

I commend Gyasi for her meticulous construction of these parallel paths, and how the dual plots unfold in lockstep despite the thousands of miles and cultural abysses that separate them. Her chapters are almost like short stories, since each one introduces a new character (and a new type of injustice), but the stories are linked both in theme and in genealogy. I think that the wide cast of characters may have made the book less enjoyable for me, as every time I had to re-establish where I was in the family tree (luckily included at the front of the book) and the historical context for the latest installment. This construct made the book a little harder to get into.

At the same time, I learned a lot that I didn’t know before, such as that freed slaves in the South were routinely convicted of petty crimes and forced to work in coal mines for years to pay off their fines, effectively reestablishing slavery despite its illegality. There is a lot of unforgettable horror in here, but there is also love and hope. Homegoing is not a simple book: Gyasi offers a textured portrayal of black Africans who traded their own people to Europeans and light-skinned black Americans who forsook their roots and abandoned their children to avoid the impact of racism.

I listened to Homegoing on audio. The narrator, Dominic Hoffman, ably handled both continents, adopting one accent for the African chapter and another for the American ones. I thought he did an excellent job. HIs voices for men, women, children, white, black – all seemed accurate and authentic.

Overall, I really recommend Homegoing. It’s not a beach read, so save it for when you’re looking for something you can really think about and digest.

(I went to a Q&A with Yaa Gyasi a few weeks ago, which I will write up here in a few days.)