Powell’s Interview: Yaa Gyasi, author of “Homegoing”
Yaa Gyasi’s novel, Homegoing, is a marvelous debut, particularly given the author’s youth (Gyasi is 26 years old). But her voice is remarkably confident and assured, spanning generations and centuries. Homegoing is the story of Esi and Effia, two half-sisters unknown to each other in 18th-century Ghana. Esi becomes the wife of a slave trader; Effia is abducted as a slave, bound for America. Each sister’s story, and the stories of their descendants up through the present day, is told in rich, precise, poetic language. Ta-Nehisi Coates raves, “Gyasi’s characters are so fully realized, so elegantly carved — very often I found myself longing to hear more….I think I needed to read a book like this to remember what is possible. I think I needed to remember what happens when you pair a gifted literary mind to an epic task. Homegoing is an inspiration.” And Phil Klay, author of Redeployment, writes, “Homegoing is a remarkable feat — a novel at once epic and intimate, capturing the moral weight of history as it bears down on individual struggles, hopes, and fears. A tremendous debut.” We are proud to feature Homegoing as Volume 59 of Indiespensable.
Jill Owens: How did Homegoing begin?
Yaa Gyasi: I started this novel in 2009. My sophomore year at Stanford, I received a grant called the Chappell Lougee that they give to sophomore students to complete a research project the summer between their sophomore and junior years.
I wanted to write a novel. I wasn’t sure exactly what I wanted to write about. I had one idea in mind and went to Ghana to start the research for it. That quickly didn’t pan out, and so I was kind of bummed about it. Then a friend came to visit, and we decided on a whim to go to the Cape Coast Castle, which was the first time that I had even been to the castle, and really the first time I’d ever thought about what happened in it.
The tour guide started taking us around the upper levels, which is really beautiful. There were these cannons facing out to the water, and the beach is gorgeous. There’s a church. He started to tell us about how the British soldiers who lived in this castle would often marry the local women, which again was something I had never heard about before. I had never really thought about the ways in which the Ghanaians were interacting with the British at that time period.
I was fascinated by all this stuff that he was saying, and then he took us down to see the dungeons. Obviously that space is incredibly different from the upper-level space. I was immediately struck by how these Ghanaian women could be upstairs walking around oblivious to what was going on underneath them. I knew pretty much immediately that that was what I wanted to write about in some capacity, but it took me a while to get there.
Jill: How much research did you have to do? How long did you stay in Ghana?
Gyasi: I stayed in Ghana only for that summer, the summer of 2009. I’d just turned 20. Then, after that, all the rest of the research was done at the library with books. The University of Iowa school library was really helpful.
I started with a book called The Door of No Return by William St. Clair, which is a book that basically takes you through the entire Cape Coast Castle. It has a chapter on the women, a chapter on soldiers, a chapter on children. It was really helpful for me to try to inhabit that space during that time period.
Jill: How did you decide to structure the novel — to focus on these two half-sisters and their families, and move back and forth between the two?
Gyasi: The structure was the hardest part by far. When I say that I started in 2009, I probably didn’t land on the structure until 2012. It took me a long time to figure out what I really wanted to do. In the beginning my idea was to go back and forth between the present day and the 18th century — so the first two chapters and the last two chapters, the characters that make up those sections.
Then at some point my thinking changed and I realized that what I was much more interested in was being able to see something move and change over a very long period of time. In this case that thing was slavery, and colonialism, and institutionalized racism.
I wanted to be able to look at that, but through individual characters over a very long period of time. Once I realized that that was more of my goal, it was easier to whittle down the structure to this alternating pattern between the two sides of the family.
It took me probably three, three and a half years to get there.
Jill: How did the different characters come to you? Were any of them present in that initial form, or did one lead to the next as it was going chronologically?
Gyasi: The first few were present in the initial form. I had always known that I wanted to write about the wife of a British soldier, and a woman who’s kept in the castle as a slave. That was the genesis of this book. I knew, also, that I wanted to end up in the present. While I didn’t have the last few characters sketched out in my mind, I knew roughly where I wanted the book to end up. I guess I knew those characters in that way.
For everything else, I let myself be led. I didn’t really outline this book, but I did make a family tree pretty early on. After the first maybe two chapters, I made a family tree and put it on my wall above my desk. It had either side of the family on either side of the page. The name of the character if I knew it. The gender if I knew it. The time period in which the bulk of their chapter would be taking place. Then maybe one thing that was happening in the background politically or historically during that time period, so the Fugitive Slave Act, or the Great Migration. Something so I knew that once I got to that character, I could find a book around that topic and start to research the time period a little bit.
That’s how I went about it. I didn’t know too much in advance because I wanted to give myself room to have things change, but I did know about those first two characters from the beginning.
Jill: In terms of having the political or historical events matching up with different time periods, how did you think about incorporating those historical aspects into the fiction?
Gyasi: That was a hard thing for me, particularly because a lot of the stuff that takes place in Ghana in the earlier years of this novel are things that aren’t written about very extensively. If they are written about, they’re not really written about from the Ghanaian perspective, understandably, because they didn’t have written language when the British came.
A lot of the books that I was reading were written by British men. I felt like I had to piece together the other side of the story based off of this one side, which was the only side to have a voice. That was hard for those earlier chapters.
I really wanted for this novel to… I didn’t want it to feel stifled by research. I think sometimes with a historical novel you get the sense that the author took a lot of great care with the research, but sometimes you can feel as though there’s no room for the character to surprise you or do something different.
The way I put it was that I didn’t want to become obsessed with trying to find out what color of shoes people would be wearing in the 18th century. [Laughter] For me, I wanted the research to feel atmospheric, really backgrounded, as though it was informing the characters’ lives but not crushing them. I wanted the characters to be the main focus in the foreground of this.
Jill: What you were saying about reading the books written by British men reminds me of what Yaw was explaining to his students, that history is storytelling, and it’s the winners who get to write the history.
I really like the idea that he thought of himself as a teacher in the tradition of the village dancers and storytellers of the village. I was wondering two things: Is that a role that teachers had in Ghana, that they are seen in that tradition? And storytelling as a part of culture is very important in the book in general. How do you think about that in terms of your writing?
Gyasi: I’m not sure if that’s the role that teachers feel as though they have in Ghana. I never went to school there, so I don’t really have a sense of what it’s like on that side of the Atlantic in terms of what it’s like to be educated there.
But I do know that storytelling is really important there, and I come from a family of people who love to tell a good story. I think in a lot of non-Western literature, in a lot of African literature, the voice of storytelling — that kind of oracular nature of a story — is more privileged than it sometimes is here.
I’m thinking of, for example, Achebe, where you could basically read Things Fall Apart aloud to someone and it would feel like a well-told oral story. I really like that quality. I wanted to be able to imbue this book with as much of that as possible.
Jill: As a reader, you get these brief spells with the characters, and then you move on to the next one, which sometimes left me longing a little bit for more time with these people. Did you have that experience while writing at all? Did you have characters that you wanted to stay with longer, that were your favorites to write about?
Gyasi: I don’t know if I had favorite characters. Something that really fascinated me while writing was how much I was also learning as I was researching the characters. For example, during Willie’s chapter, I started reading a lot about the paper bag test, which is something I had never really heard about before. That became like a pleasure of writing her chapter, which is learning this new thing. So sometimes I would go down these rabbit holes of researching something that actually only made up a very small part of the chapter.
But I guess, in terms of whether I was sad to leave a character, no. I think usually — I don’t know how else to explain it other than that it was a feeling I got, that I was like, Okay, this character feels finished to me. I’m ready to move on.
As I was writing, I told myself that with each chapter, I didn’t want to give too much weight to any one character. In terms of length, I wanted them to be similar. Twenty to thirty pages, I think, was the limit that I gave myself as I was writing, and some were a little longer and some were a little shorter.
But I kind of wanted them to all feel equally weighted, though I know when you’re reading, readers are going to connect with different characters.
Jill: It does feel very balanced in that way.
Fire haunts the book down through all of the generations. How did that image come to you? What interested you about making fire a continuing theme?
Gyasi: I don’t think that I was really aware that I was making it a continuing theme as I was writing, especially not in the beginning. I’m sure I was by the time I started revising.
But I guess this book really did start for me with that, the image that’s on the first page, of this great fire and the villager saying that the child was born of the fire. That was a very strong, strong image for me when I first started.
I felt like all of Effia’s descendants were also children of this great fire, and so in some way, I wanted them to all connect back to that. On the other hand, I felt like all of Esi’s children were children of water, Esi being taken along the middle passage to start a life in America, and so I was trying to balance these two things, the fire and the water, in the chapters.
Again, I’m not sure how cognizant I was in the beginning that that’s what I was doing. But at some point, I did realize that and tried to bring it out as much as I could.
Jill: Your language is gorgeous, and the empathy with which the characters are written is very moving. Some of the random things that caught me were Esi wondering why the trees were green and not blue because they brushed the sky; and later, in a very different tone, Esi feels another woman urinating on top of her and it trickles through both their legs. Then Willie’s observation that Harlem was about the sky, but Pratt City was underground, which I loved.
How did you think about your language and your prose?
Gyasi: That’s another thing I’m not sure how much I’m thinking about in the moment.
For me, when I write… I know everybody’s different, but for me, it’s a pretty slow process and I read my sentences a million times. I’ll write a sentence and then I’ll read it like five times and then I’ll change one word and then I’ll read it aloud another five times and then I’ll add another sentence. That’s kind of how I go about it.
But the reading aloud is really important to me; I’m always interested in how my sentences sound. I feel like I can catch things with my ear a little better than I can by looking at it. I privilege, a little bit, the musicality of the line.
But in terms of how I land upon different phrases, I don’t know. That’s one part of the mysticism of writing, I guess.
Jill: I found a video of you online reading a poem called “The Bible.” Did you start out writing poetry? The way you’re talking about your prose, it sounds like you’re listening to it with a poetic ear, certainly.
Gyasi: I didn’t start out writing poetry. I’m one of those people who knew most of their lives what they wanted to do. What I wanted to do was to be a fiction writer. I read an insane amount as a child, and pretty quickly for me, reading and writing went hand in hand.
I know that’s not true for every big reader, but I always wanted to see if I could do what I was reading. In fact, I think the first story I ever wrote was for the Reading Rainbow Young Writers and Illustrators competition when I was seven.
Jill: What was it about?
Gyasi: It was called, “Just Me and My Dog.” It was this thinly veiled critique of my parents for not letting me get a dog. LeVar Burton signed my certificate and sent it back. It was a big deal for me. That was really my trajectory. It was always about fiction.
In high school, I had one of those really great English teachers who taught us poetry for the first time really well. Before that, I hadn’t thought that I really liked poetry. I always thought that poetry was this thing that was meant to keep you out, that it wanted to be purposefully obscure and complex in a way that didn’t allow you to understand it.
She assigned us “Sisters” by Rita Dove. I remember being like, “I don’t get this.” She looked at me and she was like, “It means what it says,” which is such a simple thing to say, but it really did blow my mind.
I was like, “Oh, maybe I do like poetry,” and so I spent a few misguided years in college writing really bad poetry. That video is from a poetry class that I took at that college. My teacher recommended me to this guy who was making these poetry videos, so I did one.
I stopped writing poetry in college, and moved back to fiction. I still read poetry a lot, though. I think that there’s a lot to be learned when writers cross genres, just to see what everybody’s doing.
Jill: Similarly to one of the last characters in the book, you were born in Ghana but raised in Huntsville, Alabama. Is that right?
Gyasi: Yes, that’s right. I was born in Ghana, lived there until about two and a half, and then we lived in Ohio, Illinois, Tennessee, and then moved to Alabama when I was nine. I lived there until college.
Jill: Do you have any memories of Ghana? Two and a half is really young, I know.
Gyasi: I have no memory of it at all. Sometimes I think I remember something, and then I don’t know if it’s an actual memory or somebody’s told a story so much that I’ve started to visualize it.
Jill: Was that the first time you went back, for your research?
Gyasi: I had gone back once before with my entire family the summer after sixth grade. We all went and visited both of my parents’ hometowns. My father is an Ashanti, he’s from the Ashanti Region, and my mother is Fante from the Central Region.
We went to both of their hometowns and spent most of our time in Kumasi. That was the first time I really formed any memories in Ghana. That was a pretty short trip, and I didn’t go back until I was 20.
Jill: I was thinking about your poem a little bit, and also the role that Christianity plays for several of the characters in the book. It has a pretty negative connotation for a few of them, especially because they’ve been rejected from it, in some cases. What was your relationship with Christianity and/or other religions growing up?
Gyasi: I was raised Pentecostal. I grew up going to church every Sunday and Wednesday, and also I sang in the church choir. If I was singing on the worship team, I would have rehearsal for that. I was a pretty active church member.
For me, the most beautiful part of church has always been the music. Willy’s chapter was a real pleasure to write, because I think I do get that joy from singing in church. At the same time, I’m a totally lapsed Christian. I haven’t been to a church in years and years.
Jill: I thought it was interesting that the fetish priest told Akua, “Maybe the Christian God was a question, a great and swirling circle of whys.” Do you want to expand on that idea at all?
Gyasi: I don’t know. I think that the questioning that Akua is talking about is something that I definitely went through and probably a lot of people go through. Sometimes it can be tamped down or discouraged by the different religious leaders that you have, as though if you were to question God he suddenly disappears.
I think it might be more interesting to say that the questions are a part of him — that it’s okay, maybe this is part of the point. There’s actually a really great essay by Ayana Mathis that she wrote for Guernica called, “What Will Happen to All of That Beauty?” that I read last year. She had a similar point which I thought was really interesting.
Jill: How did you choose the proverb for the epigraph: “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”? It’s very fitting and beautiful.
Gyasi: We have a million proverbs. It’s hard to keep track of them. That wasn’t one that I had heard of. I remember at some point during researching this novel, I was like, I want to look up as many proverbs as I can. I did, and I stumbled on that one, and it struck me so hard, and I felt like it was definitely the epigraph for the book.
It felt like it said a lot, obviously, about family. This book is, at its heart, about family. I thought about it also in terms of looking at time, again. You could say that regarding things that are happening in the present, we don’t understand why they’re happening — why race relations are the way they are today in America. But if you start to look at it closely, you see that everything has its precedent, everything has its place. I felt like it spoke both to some of the larger themes of the book and the literal representation of family.
Jill: It occurred to me towards the end of the book that in one way, it’s sort of a book of love stories. Sometimes that’s more between a mother and her children than the two parents, and sometimes it’s not in that way either. But because we’re getting to the next generation, there are these stories of how two people fall in love.
There is a hopefulness to that, even against the backdrop of so much awfulness happening.
Gyasi: That was something I didn’t realize until later, too. My thesis advisor at Iowa was the first to point that out to me. She was like, “I think these are love stories.” I think that’s totally right. I suppose on a practical level, I had to do it to show how the next generation was made, where they came from. But it’s a great way to think of these chapters.
Jill: Lastly, what are you reading and enjoying these days? And what are you working on next?
Gyasi: I hadn’t read the Elena Ferrante Neapolitan novels until I moved to Berkeley in August. I started them probably in September, and I think I finished them all in two months, they were so good. So I read those. Right now I’m rereading Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys, which is an old favorite of mine.
I also recently reread The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin, after having read Ta-Nehisi Coates’s brilliant Between the World and Me. I also read Voyage of the Sable Venus, a book of poems by Robin Coste Lewis that won the National Book Award last year. That was really beautiful.
As far as what I’ve been working on, I have started a second novel. I’m not too far into it, but it feels a lot different than the first one.