Yaa Gyasi’s debut novel Homegoing was released in June to much acclaim. Spanning 300 years, Homegoing is about two half sisters born in eighteenth century Ghana and their families. Ms. Gyasi chats with us about the books that have influenced her, writing, and why she wanted to tell this story.
Nana-Ama Kyerematen: How did you get the idea for the novel?
Yaa Gyasi: I got the idea for the novel by taking a trip to Ghana. I got a grant from Stanford University to travel to Ghana and conduct research for a novel. I had a different idea in mind, but that wasn’t really working out. A friend came to visit and we decided to visit the Cape Coast Castle; that was the first time I had ever been to the Castle. While there, I took the tour and the guide showed us the upper rooms and talked about how the British soldiers would sometimes marry the local women, which was something I had never heard before. And then from there, he took us down to see the dungeons. This novel really started for me with that juxtaposition of the idea that there could be a woman upstairs and a woman downstairs who have no idea about the other’s fate.
NA: The novel starts out in eighteenth century Ghana and describes how Ghanaians lived at that time: the different ethnic groups, their interactions with each other, their traditions, what they ate, their worries, etc. Tell us about the research that went into that.
YG: There isn’t a ton of research available for those earlier sections in terms of what people wore and ate, but I did use a few books that were very helpful to me.
A handbook on Ashanti Culture by Osei Kwadjo was really helpful for some of those earlier sections. There is another book called The Fante and the Transatlantic Slave Trade by Rebecca Shumway, it was very helpful for the Fante side. The rest was extrapolated from what I already knew about present day Ashanti and Fante culture and then I tried to extend it backwards.
NA: When I was growing up in Ghana, my grandmother who is Ashanti, will sometimes talk about how the Ashantis were involved in the slave trade, but it was a bit of a taboo subject. I think of it as “the unspoken history of Ghana.” What are your thoughts about portraying that part of our history?
YG: It’s something that was met with a lot of resistance. When I asked people about it, there were more whispers than straight answers. It was something that made me a bit uncomfortable, yet having taken the tour of the Cape Coast castle and hearing all the things that the guide said, not just the atrocities that the British committed, but also all the atrocities that we also committed, it struck me that you shouldn’t have to take this tour in order to hear this story, it should be readily available. I felt that it was an important story to tell.
NA: Ultimately, the novel is about family, lives and what people have endured. What is the message that you want your readers to take away from this novel?
YG: The real tragedies of slavery, especially for the African-American side of this family [in the book]. Slavery fractured their families in irreparable ways and it cut them off from brothers, daughters, and mothers in ways that they couldn’t come back from. Many African Americans don’t even know what country on the continent they come from. It struck me that structuring this book as family was a way of restoring the family tree, even if Marcus, this last character doesn’t know he is a descendant of a Ghanaian woman, we get to know. We get to restore that family for him, that was part of what I wanted to do with this book.
NA: You were born in Ghana and raised in Alabama. After researching and writing this novel, do you feel more closely aligned with your Ghanaian heritage or do you feel different about Ghana in general?
YG: I definitely feel a kingship with Ghanaian immigrants who immigrated when they were young like me. I don’t have the same cultural access to Ghana that my parents have, who lived there until their twenties and still say “back home.” I almost never say “Back home” when I refer to Ghana. And yet, I also felt the distance from African American culture. It was clear to me that as a Ghanaian immigrant I had kind of a different heritage. I feel a strong connection to Ghana
NA: Tell us about your journey into writing. Have you always wanted to be a writer and also tell us about your writing style?
YG: I am one of those writers who always wanted to be a writer. I knew from a very young age. I started out as a huge reader and even though I know that for huge readers they don’t always want to write, but for me those two things went hand in hand. I also wasn’t really aware that writing was a profession that you could have. I didn’t really know how books came to be. It wasn’t until high school when I read Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison, that I really felt, in a way, called to write; that was the point when I started telling people I wanted to be a writer.
As far as my style, I think it’s a blend of culture more to my background. Following people like Achebe, Chimamanda, and then people like Morrison, Edward P. Jones, and James Baldwin.
In the early years when I was trying to figure out what my style was, it was a lot of emulation, but also trying to connect these seemingly disparate authors from both sides of the Atlantic that I really loved.
NA: Any advice for aspiring writers waiting to get their work published?
YG: My advice is to keep sending out your stories to different magazines. Try hard not to search for agents until you’ve finished your work and you really feel secure in what you are working on and what you are writing. I think sometimes people look too early when their work is not finished yet. And either you don’t find anyone or they find someone but it’s the wrong person. Give yourself the time to really make the book into what you really want it to be, you’ll end up with the right person.
NA: What are some of the novels that have influenced you?
Go Tell it on the Mountain by James Baldwin,
Lost in the City by Edward P. Jones,
Americana by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.
Things fall Apart by Chinua Achebe was a great game changer and I love that book,
Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison.
NA: You are in the midst of promoting your first novel, how has it been so far? Is it everything you imagined it would be?
YG: It’s been really great. I wanted to do this my whole life, to have a book, so it’s great to see the book out in the world and to see it in people’s hands. I’m not as used to the public facing part. I’m your typical writer, kind of shy and used to sitting at my desk. The gift of it is that I get to meet so many passionate readers, people who are excited about the book or already read the book and have this intimate conversations about questions that the book raises, so in that way, the publicity has all been a gift.
Homegoing is now available in the U.S.