The Rumpus Interview with Yaa Gyasi

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I first came across Yaa Gyasi’s name on Twitter. I saw it once, along with an assertion that her debut novel, Homegoing (Knopf), was an unforgettable read. Then I saw it again—a similar claim by a different person. Again and again, her name popped up with nothing but praise. I knew I had to read this book.

Homegoing follows the family lines of two half-sisters—Effia and Esi—who don’t know of each other’s existence. While Effia is married off to a British soldier and lives out her days in the Cape Coast Castle, Esi is sold into slavery, with her line continuing in what will become the United States. We meet seven generations on each side, each character bound by time and circumstance. Homegoing speaks to the resiliency of family and how these lines continue whether or not we know them. It speaks to the ways in which we are called to each other. Through deft prose and storytelling, we are given a panoramic view and an empathetic entry point into the constancy of the effects of slavery and colonialism. This is fiction at its finest, fiction doing its best work. If her first novel is any indication, we have a great deal to look forward to from Gyasi in the future.

There has been much talk about Gyasi’s age (twenty-six), her advance (rumored to be seven figures), the bidding war over this book (reportedly ten bidders), and the fact that Ta-Nehisi Coates (national correspondent at the Atlantic and acclaimed author of Between the World and Me) wrote a blurb. We didn’t talk about any of that. While it’s all interesting background information, the accolades stem from the work itself. Yaa and I spoke on the phone—her, soft-spoken and gracious from her place in Berkeley, and me, keen and grateful from mine in Brooklyn. We talked of complicity and the multiplicity of black experiences, of process and of love.

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The Rumpus: Homegoing is an intergenerational novel, spanning from the late 1740s to present day. The benefit of fiction is that it has the capacity to fill in the gaps of what is known to us, but when considering a novel like this, some investigation has to come into play. How much research did you put into this? What was the process like?

Yaa Gyasi: I did a lot of research, but research that really felt kind of exploratory. So, by that I mean, I was wary of doing so much research that this book would feel kind of stiff with it, you know? I wanted it to still feel like it moved and breathed, like fiction usually does, and so I started this process by taking a trip to the Cape Coast Castle in 2009. I took the tour and heard about how the British soldiers would often marry the local women and went through the dungeon, and really, that formed the basis of those early chapters. From there, I read a book called The Door of No Return by William St. Clair that also talks about life in the castle and that was incredibly informative, again, for those earlier two chapters. After I wrote those two chapters, I made a family tree that I put on my wall and the tree just had the character’s name, the time period during which the bulk of the chapter took place, and then just one thing that was happening politically, historically, in the background during that time period, so something like the advent of cocoa farming in Ghana. And so once I had that thing, once I reached the chapter, I would begin to research whatever the ground situation was. But I wanted it to feel atmospheric and not as though it was the point of the chapter or as though each chapter was a history lesson. I wanted the emphasis to be on the characters, on their normal lives and all of that. I’ve been saying that my research was wide but shallow. I read a little bit of a lot of books.

Rumpus: That’s really interesting, actually. How do you think of complicity? It’s apparent that you were interested in telling a nuanced story. Are you interested in who is at fault?

Gyasi: I didn’t really grow up hearing about slavery from the Ghanaian side of things. I grew up in America, obviously, and so, I got lessons about slavery in school. And obviously when we hear about the triangular slave trade, or however people phrase it, we hear about these three points: Europe, America, and Africa. And yet, I think there’s a little bit more to the story for Africans than what I had been hearing growing up. When I took that trip to the Cape Coast Castle in 2009, I learned all of these things that I just really wasn’t aware of—things like the British soldiers marrying the local women or things like the different ethnic groups that were involved in trading other ethnic groups. And so, it just really struck me that you shouldn’t have to take a trip to this castle to get this information. If I was going to write a book that was like this, I wanted it to paint a fuller picture than the one that I was used to hearing or seeing when I was growing up.

Rumpus: I think what is clear from your novel is that no one came away unscathed. There’s Esi’s side, sold into slavery, where it seems more obvious that these descendants may not know their lineage. But because of circumstance, there are also gaps on Effia’s side and there are also the moments of suffering that come almost as a fluke, like Esi getting to experience a mother who loves her and Effia who doesn’t, and H never knowing the family he was born into, even though he has so much of it.

Gyasi: Right, absolutely. I think sometimes people hear something like complicity and they automatically hear blame, as though this is a book that has me blaming Ghanaians for slavery. And that’s not it at all to me. I think that while people were exploiting other people, they were also being exploited, and I wanted this book to show all of that. To show all of the ways that people were affected by this trade.

Rumpus: I think what’s often heartbreaking while reading your novel is what we, as readers, know versus what the characters do. There is so much family, and family history by extension, that these characters don’t have access to, but it mirrors the experience that black Americans have often had in this country. For example, my dad is Nigerian—he’s Yoruba—so there’s a lot of history that is known there. But on my mom’s side, we can only trace back to Texas and to Louisiana.

Gyasi: Right. Right, exactly.

Rumpus: How do these stories of lineage connect to you?

Gyasi: My experience, I suppose, really informed this book in that I am Ghanaian, but I grew up primarily in Alabama. And so, always trying to navigate race and ethnicity and all of those things. And I think for me, one of the real tragedies about the slave trade or the legacy of the slave trade is that so many African-American families had their family lines cut off in these really traumatic ways, in these ways also that don’t allow for, as you said, tracing back past a certain generation. For most people, the information just stops after their great-grandparents or their great-great grandparents, or whatever it is. Whereas, I at least—even as an immigrant—I got to go back to Ghana for the first time when I was eleven and meet all of these family members that I had never met before and learn all of this cultural stuff that I never got to see before. And so, this book really kind of felt like a way of restoring a fuller image of family for a diaspora that often gets broken up in these ways that feel irreconcilable.

Rumpus: How many times have you been to Ghana?

Gyasi: Just twice. I left when I was two and then I went back with my entire family when I was eleven and then I went back on my own for that trip in 2009.

Rumpus: How does that feel? I know there are often conversations about first-, or I guess second-generation Africans growing up in the United States and how maybe it’s a feeling of double-consciousness in a way, not completely fitting in in either place.

Gyasi: Absolutely. I think that’s exactly how it’s always felt to me. I don’t feel Ghanaian enough when I’m in Ghana, I don’t feel American enough when I’m in America, and this straddling of these two worlds where I feel some kind of alienation from either side of things was really eye-opening and really the thing that this book was trying to investigate, that double-consciousness.

Rumpus: There has been talk about the lack of black love stories in the mainstream and about representations of black love. Recently, you were interviewed by Tracy K. Smith at the Brooklyn Public Library where, together, you discussed that, as a function of lineage, these are also sets of love stories. Did you consider it in this way when you started? What is the significance of penning so many love stories—not just romantic love, but platonic love, familial love, and love and understanding across generations?

Gyasi: You know, I wasn’t thinking about it initially as love stories. Just on a very practical level, I was thinking about it as, you know, I’m writing a multi-generational novel and people have to have children. I wasn’t really thinking about it that way and then my thesis advisor at Iowa [Writer’s Workshop], after she read it, she was like, “You know these are all love stories?” And I was like, “Oh, of course! Of course they are.” So, that was something I was trying to bring out in later drafts, but I think for me, the thing that holds this book together is familial love. It’s, first of all, this huge family that crosses 250 years and two continents and all of that, but also just a familial love in each chapter. Romantic love is not always a source of joy for these characters. Sometimes it’s traumatic and sometimes it’s painful, but I think even for characters for whom their romantic love situation was not healthy or productive, their love for their children really kind of pokes through. So, I wanted this to be a representation of all kinds of love, not just romantic love, but familial love, platonic love, as you said, just to kind of show the roundness and the fullness of black love in any and every possible representation of that.

Rumpus: I love that… Why did you choose to start the story with women?

Gyasi: I always knew that the story was going to start with women, really, after that trip to the Castle. Just because the thing that immediately struck me about that was the idea that there could be these Ghanaian—well, at the time, Gold Coast—women who were married to the British, who are just living up above on the upper levels of this castle on top of women who were in the dungeons. And it really just struck me that that juxtaposition was happening in real time. So, the image of the two half-sisters was really the thing that started this book for me. But then on another level, the Akan people are matrilineal, so it felt like if I was going to write a book that focuses on family and family lineage, particularly the family lineage of an Akan family, it felt like I had to start with the mothers.

Rumpus: Yeah, that makes sense. Where did these characters come from? How did you decide where in their stories to begin?

Gyasi: The first two characters really came the most fully formed. And I also kind of knew the last two characters, too, because I always knew that I wanted the book to end in the present and I wanted the two sides of the family to meet. The middle characters came in different ways. For the most part, I knew the time period. I might have known their name or their gender or something like that, but they came through exploration and through the process of research, I got to know them by thinking about what they might have been going through. I’m not one of those writers that does a lot of character sketching beforehand. I like for things to feel more loose than that, I guess. I like to give myself more room to have characters change and surprise me than if I have them pre-planned. I didn’t write with an outline, I just wrote with that family tree, so I let them come to me in a way.

Rumpus: The reconciliation with Yaw and Akua feels sort of like what—well, I was going to say you, but what I want for all of those who have lost their families—a moment for them to sit down and ask questions and hear stories. Did it feel like a fulfillment of sorts, for you to write that?

Gyasi: Yeah, it definitely did. That was a really important part for me because Akua’s character—well, she’s one of the most heartbreaking characters for me in the book, but also, she feels like a character who ties everything together. She’s getting these visions about this woman who we sense is her ancestor. We sense her to be Maame.

But of course, Akua doesn’t know that. And so, it seemed really important that she have a chance to ask for forgiveness from this child who she’s done something unspeakable to, but also to share this part of their family story, even if it’s kind of mystical or not something that’s written down in a textbook or history book. It’s based off of her dreams and her feelings, and yet, we know it to be true. And I think Yaw, when he sits with her, knows it to be true too. So, for me, that reconciliation was important both for the characters but also for holding this book and the ideas of this book together.

Rumpus: I did really appreciate the mystical elements of the novel and the spiritual elements, and how they weren’t necessarily considered to be automatically false. How they built on the character’s representation of themselves and also how they fit in the novel.

Gyasi: It was important to me to not devalue things that were mystical as being less valid than known forms of religion like Christianity or other aspects of knowledge—academic or spiritual, whatever it was. I think these things have to have their place as well, and for me, are as valid as any of the other aspects that show up in the book.

Rumpus: I think there is something to be said about the inheritances we receive, but can’t always see their origin or function. Throughout Homegoing, beauty is passed down—it’s often noted that the female characters are beautiful. But pain is also passed down. I’m wondering if you can talk about this.

Gyasi: I was thinking so much about inheritance when I was writing this book. Both these familial physical inheritances, things like beauty, but also things that are invisible, things that we can’t know that we inherited. I think about a character like H who has this superhuman strength and everyone sees him as this character who’s kind of lit from within by this rage and strength. And he doesn’t know, but we know, that his grandfather Sam also was this kind of man—Sam’s descriptions in Ness’s chapter as this African who couldn’t be tamed. And so, that inheritance is really important because H doesn’t get to see it, but we know that it’s there.

Rumpus: What does it mean that both lines end up in the United States?

Gyasi: Originally, I wanted this book to take place in the present and then just flashback to 18th century Ghana because I wanted it to very much be about what we have been left. What we have inherited through the legacy of the slave trade, both as an African immigrant and as an African-American, so I was thinking about Marjorie and Marcus from the beginning. And that’s just really from a personal perspective. I wanted to talk about African immigrants in America and African-Americans, so it seemed like they have to end up in America for me to do that.

Rumpus: Did it feel like you were bridging a gap of a conversation that isn’t often spoken of?

Gyasi: Oh, yeah.

Rumpus: That there are African-Americans in the US, but then there are also African Americans, like people who come from different parts of Africa and become American.

Gyasi: Yes. That definitely was part of this project for me, bridging that gap, or at least opening up room for that conversation about what it means to be black in America. We have all of these different backgrounds, all of these different ways of being black and expressing blackness. That was really on my mind a lot as I was writing this.

Rumpus: Whose work has inspired yours?

Gyasi: Toni Morrison was a huge influence for me. Song of Solomon is one of my favorite books. James Baldwin is a huge inspiration—Go Tell It on the Mountain. I also love Edward P. Jones’s short stories. And you know, [Chinua] Achebe. Things Fall Apart is one of the great books, I think. These days, I like so many other people and am obsessed with [Chimamanda Ngozi] Adichie’s work.

Rumpus: This is my last question. Who do you write for?

Gyasi: I feel like I don’t really have an audience in mind when I’m writing, but I really do believe that Toni Morrison quote about how if you’re looking at your bookshelf and you can’t see the book that you want to read, you have to write it. And so, in a lot of ways, I feel like I’m writing for myself or for people like me who have these questions that they don’t often see answered in other books. This book really feels like the book that I would have wanted to read when I was in high school and really confused about identity and my racial/ethnic identity and all of that. If someone had given me a book like this, it would have helped a lot. I feel like that is who I was writing for, that girl.

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Author photograph © Michael Lionstar.


Abigail Bereola is a writer and the Books Editor for The Rumpus. On Twitter, @sherarelytweets. More from this author →