Across Time and Space

Published June 8, 2016

 

Yaa Gyasi began her debut novel, Homegoing (Knopf), the summer after her sophomore year at Stanford University. “I’d received a fellowship to travel to Ghana and research a novel,” the Ghana-born, Alabama-raised writer recalls. Initially, Gyasi, now 26, had planned to write about contemporary mothers and daughters, but when she visited an old fort used by British slave traders named Cape Coast Castle, everything changed: “As soon as I stepped into the castle, I knew what I wanted my novel to be about.”

Spanning almost 300 years and two continents, the compassionate and all-consuming story follows the descendants of half sisters Effia and Esi. Born in different villages—one in Fanteland, the other in the Asante Nation—in the 18th century, both sisters pass through the castle: Effia as the wife of its British governor and Esi as a captive waiting to be shipped to America and sold into slavery. Gyasi explains that one of the images that had the greatest impact for her was “the idea of there being Ghanaian women upstairs, either oblivious or just blocking out the fact that there were Ghanaian people downstairs locked in the dungeons.”

Each chapter in Homegoing, which comes out this week, focuses on a different descendant. As you become invested in each new protagonist and begin to grasp the socio-political climate surrounding them, Gyasi moves on to the next. “They all, more or less, came to the page fully formed,” the writer explains of her characters. “I did make a family tree,” she continues. “It had both sides of the family and then the name of the character if I knew it, the gender if I knew it, the time period that the bulk of the chapter would take place in, and one thing that was happening in the background politically, whether it was the Fugitive Slave Act or the Great Migration or the introduction of cocoa to Ghana.”

EMMA BROWN: I know you were born in Ghana. How old were you when you moved to the U.S.?

YAA GYASI: I was two going on three when we moved to America. We lived in Ohio, Illinois, Tennessee, and then moved to Alabama when I was nine.

BROWN: Was moving so much when you were little quite traumatizing?

GYASI: Yeah, it was. That’s a good word for it. Obviously it’s destabilizing, and I think it probably has a lot to do with the reason I became a writer. I was so well acquainted with loneliness and the difficulty of getting to know people. Books became my solace—the way I started to understand what people were like and the thing that made me a lot less lonely.

BROWN: Did you grow up writing stories?

GYASI: I grew up being an incredibly voracious reader, and for me reading and writing went hand in hand. I know that’s not true for everyone who loved reading as children, but I always wanted to see if I could do it. The first story I remember writing was actually for the Reading Rainbow Young Writers and Illustrator’s competition when I was seven. LeVar Burton sent a certificate with his signature on it; it was my most prized possession. I still have it. I had the bug kind of early. In the beginning I didn’t think there was anything unusual about it. I was just toying around. I didn’t take it very seriously until high school.

BROWN: Do you remember the first book you really connected with?

GYASI: In middle school I was really into Victorian literature. I loved Dickens, I loved Charlotte Brontë, and a little later on I discovered George Eliot. The first book I felt I was deeply moved by, and a book that informed my life, was Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison, which I read when I was 17 for class. It was probably the first book I’d ever read for class written by a black woman about black people. It was something I hadn’t realized before that I needed to read, and once I did it really opened up my world and made me realize I could do this professionally, that this was a possibility for me. That meant a lot to me.

BROWN: You worked on Homegoing for close to seven years. Were there periods where you were more or less into it, or was it pretty constant?

GYASI: Those first three and a half years I was less into it. I was still finishing up college, but also it took a lot of turns. At different points the structure was different, the characters were different. I threw out 100 pages in those first years because I wasn’t really landing on what I wanted to do and I was working on other things, so I was less focused. [Then] I went to the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. When I got there in 2012, I remember a friend saying to me, “If you have an idea for a novel, this is the time to start it.” I wasn’t teaching my first year—I had a fellowship, so I had every day to myself to work. I thought, “Let me really try to get my foothold into this book.” That was when I became more engaged with the novel and figured out the structure. That was where the beginnings of the novel as it is now took place.

BROWN: Did you have to cut a lot of pages after the first few years?

GYASI: No. I’m generally concise to a fault. Whenever I get feedback, it’s usually about how I need to make things longer or expand things, expand moments. It’s almost never about needing to cut. Homegoing is basically the length that it was when I sent it to editors.

BROWN: In an ideal world, would you prefer to keep your work to yourself until you have a draft? Or do you have certain people you like to bounce ideas off of?

GYASI: For Homegoing, because the chapters were so discreet and could be read on their own, I was more comfortable sharing things earlier on. One of my really good friends from college has read everything I’ve written since age 18. She’s a great first reader. She’s very encouraging and enthusiastic, and everything’s the best thing I’ve ever written. It makes me feel really good and be able to continue on. Once I had a complete draft of Homegoing I shared it with my boyfriend and one of my thesis advisors at Iowa, [Lan] Sam[antha] Chang, and they both gave me really excellent feedback that got me through the second and third drafts.

BROWN: Your father is French literature professor. Was it intimidating to give him a copy?

GYASI: It was intimidating. I’d never shared any of my work with my parents before. I didn’t have a precedent for doing it—I was just too nervous to. Once I signed with my agent I gave my dad the chapters that take place in Ghana just to get some feedback about whether they felt true to the essence of Ghana, and some basic fact checking about spelling and locations and names. He’s read about half the book, but not all of it. As soon as I get the finished copy I plan on sending him the first one.

BROWN: Each chapter focuses on a different character, and they are all very compelling. Were there any characters you started with and cut out?

GYASI: Everybody is as they were in the beginning. I wrote chronologically; I started with those first two characters, the characters that were most strongly on my mind after my visit to the castle. Then I did an outline and I tried to go where the story was taking me. I think Quey, chapter three, I completely rewrote, but everything else is basically the same.

BROWN: Was any one character easier to write than the others?

GYASI: They all posed different challenges. A lot of the challenges had to do with how much I knew about the time period and the people who would’ve been living in that time period. As I said, Quey was the hardest because I had a really difficult time finding any information about the children of these unions between British soldiers and Ghanaian women. There was one line in the book that I had been using for research called The Door of No Return by William St. Clair about how sometimes they went to school in England. I’d tried to track down books about them, about what they might’ve been doing, what their lives might’ve been like in England, and that really wasn’t panning out. It was the first time I felt stifled by the research, by not knowing a certain detail. I generally tended to privilege my imagination over historical fact but in that chapter, I felt like I couldn’t write unless I knew exactly what pair of shoes they might be wearing in 18th-century London. That was the hardest one. Ness’s chapter was an easier one, but maybe I just think that because I got to her after Quey.

BROWN: Did you always know where the present day descendants would end up?

GYASI: I didn’t always know where they would be, but I always knew I wanted them to connect in some way.

BROWN: Do you find it comforting that, even though these two half sisters lived such different lives and their descendants went in such different directions, they ended up in the same place?

GYASI: I suppose it is comforting. I think part of the reason why I wrote this book was because of my experience as a Ghanaian immigrant in America who ended up, of all places, in Alabama, one of those states where the effects of slavery are still so strongly felt.  My identity was formed by this constant attempt at navigating what it means to be black in America, what it means to be African American, what it means to be an African immigrant. Trying to figure out how those two identities are similar, how they’re different, what a bridge between them might be. That’s something I’ve always thought about. I do feel comforted, I guess, by the last two chapters and finding common ground in this very literal way.  

BROWN: Do you feel that, having mostly grown up in the U.S., you have a different relationship with what it means to be black than your parents do?

GYASI: Definitely. I think a lot of older African immigrants, or just black immigrants who grew up elsewhere, have a very different sense of themselves racially than immigrants like me. My little brother was born here and has never had a sense of himself as a Ghanaian from having lived there. We all relate differently to race. A lot of older immigrants will tell you that they didn’t grow up thinking about themselves as black, and why would they? If you come from a country where everybody looks like you, you don’t have to think about yourself racially. Then you go to America where race is the primary thing that defines you—particularly if you are black—and suddenly you’re thrust into America’s racial issues and having to figure out, “What does that mean for me, when I differ in so many ways—socially, culturally—from African Americans, to suddenly find myself in this new way?”

BROWN: Is ancestry important to you?

GYASI: A lot of people have asked whether this book has any autobiographical ties, and it doesn’t. I hadn’t really spent any time thinking about my own family’s ancestry or history in this way. It does interest me in terms of race, in terms of how arbitrarily formed it is. I think about Robert from Willie’s chapter—how he ends up passing as white and how his descendants will forever believe that they’re white and not know that they have this link to blackness in America. That really fascinates me—how mutable and how many questions there are about our identities and our past and our histories.

BROWN: People can be so proud of their ancestors and their achievements. Then when their ancestors weren’t so good, it reverts to this, “It’s got nothing to do with me. I can’t control the past.”

GYASI: Exactly. That’s also a part of your story. We have this way of trying to distance ourselves from these more negative things that happened in our history. People in the present say things as if they feel as though they’re better or more moral than people who lived in the past—if they had lived back then they wouldn’t have owned slaves. I don’t know. One of the things I hope this book does is to show the fullness of different individuals who are in these extraordinary circumstances.

BROWN: Do you think, as a whole, the world is getting better?

GYASI: I don’t know. We maybe value incremental progress a little more than we should. I don’t know how useful it is to say that race issues in America have gotten better if unarmed men can still be shot in the street for nothing. What does progress mean to Eric Garner? It means nothing. I really struggle with that idea. I would much prefer if we just pulled these problems up by the roots rather than let it take hundreds and hundreds of years for some small amount of progress to take place. I don’t think that’s a useful thing for people who are living in it.

HOMEGOING IS OUT NOW VIA KNOPF.