Yaa Gyasi was born in Ghana and grew up in America. She discusses race and identity and how they are woven into her first novel, Homegoing
What inspired you to write Homegoing?
The book was inspired by a trip that I took to Ghana in 2009. I received a grant from Stanford University to go to Ghana and research a novel and it was while on this trip that I ended up taking a tour of Cape Coast castle myself.
I got to see the entire lay of that castle and heard the tour guide talk about the fact that the soldiers who lived and worked in the castle during this time would sometimes marry the local women. Then from there he took us down to see the dungeons and I was so struck by the idea that there could be free people walking around above all of these captives who were about to be sent along the middle passage.
Is the topic of slavery in any way attached to your own family history?
I actually didn’t do any kind of genealogical research about my own family before this novel but I was always interested in the legacy of slavery by having come from a country, Ghana, that had this involvement in the slave trade but then growing up in America, specifically in Alabama state where the effects of slavery are still so strongly felt.
It was incredibly difficult to write about this period in history. I think more so than writing the book researching all of these points in history was a lot more difficult and harder to stomach than the writing itself.
How much research did you do for the book?
Aside from that trip to Ghana I didn’t really take any other trips. I like to say my research was kind of wide but shallow. Because I wrote the book chronologically, I would pause before each chapter in order to spend some time researching the time period that I was about to be heading into since it does cover so much time. I read a little bit of a lot of books.
What was the most surprising thing you discovered during your research?
H’s chapter at the beginning of part two takes place mostly in a coalmining town called Pratt City after the character H has been arrested and sentenced to work in the coal mines under Alabama’s convict leasing system. I’d grown up in Alabama but knew nothing of this practice even though it lasted an astonishingly long amount of time, not just in Alabama but in a lot of different southern states. That entire facet of history, the post-civil war criminalization of black men period in America was something I knew very little about and I was really surprised to learn as much as I did.
Homegoing is dedicated to your parents and brothers but did you also write it for yourself?
Absolutely. I really firmly believe in that Toni Morrison quote about searching for the book you wish you could pick off your bookshelf and if it’s not there then you have to write it. Homegoing is very much the book that I would have wanted to read when I was a child and had all of these questions about identity and race and ethnicity. I think and I hope that all those kinds of questions and those kind of thoughts appear in this book.
History and hindsight give us the opportunity to look back and say, this was wrong or that was wrong, but when you are stuck in the middle it’s a lot harder to fight for things that are good.
Where there a lot of things you struggled with growing up as an African-American?
I think just having this different ethnic background than most African-Americans in America do was something that I thought a lot about when I was a child, particularly because we grew up in predominantly white neighbourhoods. I didn’t really have a model for how to be black or what being black meant in America aside from my own family which had this very different cultural background and historical background than African-Americans. A lot of this book and a lot of my childhood was attempts to discover what blackness meant for me, what was allowed and to try to piece that together.
Should there be a model for being black then?
No, I think that’s what I uncovered actually. There is no right way to do it. But when you’re twelve, you start asking the basic identity questions that all of us have and then they become complicated by America’s racial tension. It makes those questions lot more difficult than they need be. There are a million different ways to be black and they’re all right.
In the book not all white characters are bad and not all black characters are good. Was it important to you to get this balance right?
Yes. There could have been a way to write this book and have it be black and white in terms of people’s moral complicity and moral responsibility but that didn’t interest me as much as trying to create characters who behave in ways that people actually do. We have a tendency in the present to look at people in the past as though they were less smart, less moral than we are and had I been living in Ghana in the 18th century I wouldn’t have made those same choices. I think when you actually read the history you understand that these are people who are just like us, who have the kind of hopes and fears and dreams that we all have. They are just trying to do the best they can for their families and compromising things morally that they shouldn’t be. History and hindsight give us the opportunity to look back and say, this was wrong or that was wrong, but when you are stuck in the middle it’s a lot harder to fight for things that are good. So it was important to me that all of these characters feel morally complicated.
What’s the most surprising thing people who have read Homegoing have told you so far?
Mostly it has been readers who have come up to me after events and told me either that they started testing their ancestry using a DNA kit or that they’re planning a trip to the castle themselves. That’s been something that I hadn’t really anticipated this book sparking up in people, particularly African-American readers and it’s been really wonderful actually to hear stories like that.
Is there a specific message you want people to take away from this book?
I’m not sure there is just one message. Perhaps knowing that these traumatic moments from our history happened to people; to individuals just like us and that it’s important to not look back on those moments and think about people as a faceless mass. We should remember to put names and faces to each of these experiences.
More about the author
Selected for Granta's Best of Young American Novelists 2017
Winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for Best First Book
Shortlisted for the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Fiction
Effia and Esi: two sisters with two very different destinies. One sold into slavery; one a slave trader's wife. The consequences of their fate reverberate through the generations that follow. Taking us from the Gold Coast of Africa to the cotton-picking plantations of Mississippi; from the missionary schools of Ghana to the dive bars of Harlem, spanning three continents and seven generations, Yaa Gyasi has written a miraculous novel - the intimate, gripping story of a brilliantly vivid cast of characters and through their lives the very story of America itself.
Epic in its canvas and intimate in its portraits, Homegoing is a searing and profound debut from a masterly new writer.