On Resilience and African Literature in ‘Homegoing’ with Yaa Gyasi

Photo by Urvi Nagrani

One of the most anticipated books of the summer, Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing is on just about everyone’s TBR list. Beginning in 18th century Ghana, two half sisters embark on drastically different fates: one being married to British royalty, while the other is enslaved and brought to America. Each chapter introduces the stories of their descendants, creating at once a sweeping view of major struggles and experiences over the last two centuries, as well as intimate portraits of individual characters across the globe. Gyasi shared with us a little more about her stunning debut.

  1. Homegoing is so beautiful! How did the idea of this multi-generational saga, stretching from 1700s Ghana to present day New York, come about? How long did it take you to write?

Thank you! I started working on this novel in 2009. I’d received a grant from Stanford University to travel to Ghana in order to conduct research for a novel. While in Ghana, I visited the Cape Coast Castle for the first time. I took the tour and listened as the guide told us that the British soldiers who used to live and work in the Castle would sometimes marry the local women, something I had never heard before. From there, the guide took us down to see the dungeons where the slaves were kept, and I was struck by the fact that there could be free women upstairs who had only a faint idea of what would become of the women downstairs and how wildly different their fates would be. I worked on the novel for seven years.

2. You write about some of the most difficult and terrible things (rape, slavery, drug abuse, abandonment, etc.) with a tenderness and delicateness but without protecting or apologizing to the reader at all. Was that a challenge? If not, what were some of the challenges to writing this novel?

It was definitely a challenge to write about these difficult things that were happening to my characters. I think anyone who writes about or researches slavery opens themselves up to all manner of disturbing and terrible things. This country’s history is brutal and difficult, but I felt like if I was going to do justice not only to my characters, but also to all of the resilient black people who endured this brutality, then it was important that I not look away from any of the hard moments.

3. Some media outlets have been heralding your book as the beginning of a new wave of African Literature to hit the mainstream markets. Do you think that’s true? Why do you think there is a sudden interest for African literature in America now?

I don’t know if that’s true. African Literature has been vibrant and thriving for a long time now so I don’t know if it’s so much a matter of the wave hitting the “mainstream” (ie: The Western Publishing Industry) or the mainstream finally being willing to acknowledge the wave. My father’s a professor whose research interest has long been Francophone African literature. My house was dotted with books by African writers who never became widely popular. I’m not sure why there’s a sudden interest in African writing in America now, but I certainly welcome it and hope that it continues and that it keeps extending outward to include even more literature from underrepresented peoples.

4. One of the most impressive things about this debut is that you are only 26! What kinds of projects are you excited about in the future?

I’ve started a new novel, and I’m excited about it, though it’s hard because it’s so new. I’m just generally excited to read and write more. I feel really fortunate that I get to do this work that I’ve always wanted to do.

5. Finally, who are some writers you think more people should be reading?

There’s been so much good poetry lately. I love Ocean Vuong and Robin Coste Lewis. For fiction: Naomi Jackson and Angela Flournoy both had wonderful debuts in 2015 that I think everyone should read.

Yaa Gyasi was born in Ghana and raised in Huntsville, Alabama. She holds a BA in English from Stanford University and an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where she held a Dean’s Graduate Research Fellowship. She lives in Berkeley, California.

Homegoing is available June 7 from Knopf. Get your copy here!

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