A Conversation with Yaa Gyasi

by RaeNosa Hudnell

Yaa Gyasi is the author of the acclaimed debut novel Homegoing. Published in 2016, it won the National Book Critics Circle’s John Leonard Award, the PEN/Hemingway Award, the National Book Foundation’s “5 under 35” honor, and the American Book Award. While visiting Butler as part of the Vivian S. Delbrook Visiting Writers Series, Gyasi sat down with Booth for a conversation about identity and the complex racial landscape of America. 

RaeNosa Hudnell: I’m a fan of Homegoing’s complicated love stories, the tales of tradition, and the passing down of these stories from generation to generation. How did the idea for this novel come about?

Yaa Gyasi: The novel started for me in 2009. I received a fellowship from Stanford University, where I was doing my undergraduate studies, to travel to Ghana to conduct research for a novel. Initially I had a different idea in mind, to write something about a mother and her daughter. So I wanted to go to the central region of Ghana, where my own mother is from, and just see what ideas came to mind. While I was there I took a tour of the Cape Coast Castle, and the tour guide told us how the British soldiers used to live and work in the castle and sometimes marry the local women. Then he took us down to see the dungeons, and I began to think about that experience—the juxtaposed lives of two people. Someone was walking free up above, and someone was enslaved down below. That made me want to write this book.

RH: Africa is still very much a patriarchal society. Was it a conscious decision to start the characters’ lineage from a matriarch?  

YG: Yes. I should speak specifically about the Akan people, since they are who I write about in the book. The Akans are matrilineal, though still patriarchal. The idea that inheritance goes down the mother’s line is something that stuck with me, and so it made perfect sense to start with mothers when writing a book like this one.

RH: With the multiple character perspectives, each generation reveals more about the family’s past than the characters before them do. Stories are passed down from generation to generation. Has your childhood influenced that style of storytelling? How much of your style is the storytelling style of Africa?

YG: I have always been interested in how much we can ever truly know about our families. Part of this is because I am an immigrant. I lived in Ghana until age two, but I had no conscious memory of anyone in my family other than my immediate family. I didn’t really meet the rest of my family until I was eleven on a trip back to Ghana. The idea is that most of what we know about our families is through stories. I could only know about my grandmother from the things my mother told me about her. I played with that idea in Homegoing, the idea that family members live on through stories. I wanted the structure to feel like we are experiencing the life of the family, so we get only little glimpses of people as we move through. People try to keep their memories alive, but you can only do so much for so many generations.

I am definitely influenced by West African modes of storytelling. Particularly in the beginning, I wanted the book to feel distinctly oracular in nature, to feel vague, to feel like someone was sitting with you at a campfire telling you something really grand. In that way, the opening chapters almost feel like fables.

RH: Storytelling can be an important part of childhood. What was the most important story someone ever told you?

YG: That’s hard. Toward the end of Homegoing, in Marjorie’s chapter, you learn about how Marjorie’s grandmother put her umbilical cord in the ocean so she would return, and that is something my own grandmother did for me and all the grandchildren: She buried our umbilical cords. I didn’t know that. I wasn’t there to see it, and again I didn’t really know my grandmother growing up. So hearing that story was fascinating to me, and it made me feel like I was connected to a place that I don’t have much connection to otherwise.

RH: Building on that idea of connection—as a writer, do you feel obligated to teach your readers through your stories?

YG: No. I think it’s a plus if people feel like they learn something by the end of a book. Personally, I think once you start to think about the thematic things you want to accomplish, you lose sight of what’s important in storytelling. For me, the characters come first. I try not to think about what I want someone to get out of a book because I don’t think it’s for me to say what anyone should get out of a story. Also, you can’t predict the cultural landscape your book will come into. It’s hard to guess what people will be thinking about, what people will be interested in. All of that helps determine what they will learn from your book. I try to keep that in the background. I think that’s really important.

I know people like to ask questions like, “Who was your audience? Who were you writing for?” But to work with someone else in mind compromises the art. I want to protect the feeling that if no one in the world ever read Homegoing it would still be meaningful to me. It’s important because of everything I learned through writing it. People change; the culture changes. All you can do is hope that your work speaks to whatever it was inside of you that made you want to write your story in the first place.

RH: Homegoing is extremely character driven. Which characters did you have the most fun creating?

YG: I really enjoyed writing H’s chapter—mostly because of the research process and how informative it was for me. I didn’t use an outline for Homegoing; I used a family tree. For his chapter, the only thing I had written was “H—Alabama—1860something—Reconstruction, Jim Crow.” I didn’t actually know where I wanted his story to go. I started researching what types of jobs newly emancipated slaves held, and sharecropping was the job that kept coming up. I read so many stories about sharecropping that I wasn’t as interested in that. Luckily, I found an article in the Wall Street Journal by Douglas Blackman about convict leasing. It was well written and extremely interesting. He also has a book called Slavery by Another Name. Suddenly I just went down this rabbit hole of research, and H’s chapter is what came out of that. For me, that chapter was the most fun because I felt like I was learning so much.

RH: I agree, it was such an interesting chapter. There are so many sharecropping stories, but I never knew about this other aspect of Reconstruction. There’s always something out there to know more about and to learn.  

YG: Absolutely. It was especially shocking for me because the practice continued, in Alabama at least, for an egregious amount of time. Well into the ’50s and ’60s, I think. So, to read about it and know that history is actually so near to us—and to think that I had never learned it before, that it wasn’t part of my education in Alabama . . . It was one of the stories that taught me the most about my own city’s history, my own state’s history.

RH: In Homegoing you bring so many things to the forefront: tribalism, slavery, institutional racism, white supremacy, and the generations that inherit the outcomes. What’s amazing is how these issues are still present. Can you talk more about your decision to hold these institutions accountable?

YG: I knew early on that I wanted to tell a fuller story of slavery than the ones I had read, by which I mean I wanted to follow the way things like slavery and colonialism worked together and shifted gradually over a long period of time. That aspect of time was crucial to me because people have a tendency, especially here, to hear someone talk about slavery and think, “Well, that happened years ago. What does it matter today? What can I do about that?” They don’t realize that slavery did end, but it didn’t disappear. The attitudes and customs that led to it didn’t go away.

I think often about the hundred years between the Civil War and the Civil Rights period. That’s not an insignificant amount of time. At that time Jim Crow was the law of the land, and the idea that Jim Crow wouldn’t still have an impact on what we see today is crazy to me. Some of us were born in the ’60s. Some of us have parents and grandparents who were born in the ’60s. In Homegoing it only took me seven generations to get to slavery. I wanted it to be really apparent that this history is near. It’s not a distant history. It’s a really close history that has been remade and renewed from generation to generation. The effects have often been hidden, so it’s possible to believe that we have come a long way without looking at the ways the legacy of slavery has been coded into every segment of American life. Everything that came before us influences everything we continue to do. That is something that is uncomfortable for most people, but it’s incredibly important.

RH: In this country, we think of slavery as American slavery. You force us to consider the stories outside of that with Effia’s bloodline. Can you talk about the importance of the characters in Homegoing who captured and sold slaves to the British?

YG: I think that aspect of slavery is one that people, at least Ghanaians, wrestle with. Part of the problem is that Americans think so racially. You’ll often hear phrases like “I can’t believe Africans sold each other” or “I can’t believe we sold ourselves,” which makes the assumption that people believed there was a common “us.” Yet that’s not the way Africans think at all. There is no common “us.” Even within my own family, my father is an Ashanti and my mother is Fante. Both of those groups are Akan, yet they separated so many centuries ago that now they are distinct, and my mother and father see themselves as being from separate nations.

But we don’t learn about Africa this way. We see it as a monolith, culturally and in many other ways. So it’s hard for Americans to fathom that this happened—that part of slavery was working with colonial powers to sell people from different ethnic groups than your own, and participating in slavery for the very reasons everyone else did: for power, for money.

To think about the way slavery worked in West Africa, you first have to be able to see the people of West Africa as distinct. Ghana is only Ghana because the British came and said, “All of you people, you are one.” They didn’t see themselves that way. We don’t think about African history and the creation of African states in that way, and we should.

RH: It’s not uncommon for authors to write themselves into their stories. How do these stories of lineage connect to you?

YG: They connect to me because I didn’t grow up in Ghana, so I didn’t have a real sense of my family’s history or of connection to this place that I knew contributed to the legacy of slavery, which I saw all around me growing up in Alabama. I wanted to write something that felt deeply personal and helped me connect the dots between Ghana and America, two places that I felt a part of and locked out of simultaneously. This book is deeply personal in that sense, that I got to think about these two places that deeply inform my identity. 

RH: Through the character Yaw you explain that history is storytelling, and it’s the winners who get to write the stories. How does it feel to write about history from a perspective that wasn’t mandated to you?

YG: Part of the challenge of writing Homegoing was figuring out how to tell stories, especially in the beginning, about groups of people who hadn’t had the opportunity to tell their own stories. Fiction is an opportunity to give voice to those groups; it felt like a way to restore something I knew had been lost. But I don’t think you can do this in one book. I’m sure people will continue to write about this topic in ways that open up this history. The more we get to see something through all its different facets, the better we can understand it.

RH: Do you feel in a way that you’re writing toward erasure?

YG: I suppose I did feel that way, especially in the earlier chapters. So much of this history, whether it be what happened in the Cape Coast Castle or the West African role in the slave trade, consists of topics people don’t really talk about openly. The less time we spend having these conversations, the more vulnerable we become to erasure and to forgetting and repeating. In that way, this is a guard against that.

RH: Many of your characters have a complex relationship with Christianity. Akua chooses to leave the missionary because of her mother’s fate, and Willie uses her faith to help her cope with disappointment. What were you trying to convey about the relationship between blacks and their faith?

YG: I grew up in the church. Everything that I’ve ever written talks about religion in some capacity, so it didn’t feel foreign to me. I also grew up with a father who was critical of the religion we practiced simply because, to his understanding, we were only practicing it because it had been brought to us. Among black people, you can’t separate colonialism and slavery from religion. That’s something that is difficult to wrap your head around. Yet, at the same time, I know that religion has brought so many people, like Willie, a deep and abiding comfort, and a way to stay mentally healthy in the face of trauma. I don’t begrudge people their relationships to God, whatever it looks like to them. Regardless of how you come to religion, if it gives you peace, who am I to take that peace away by telling you that you’re participating in the white man’s religion? I wanted to look at religion in all forms in this book—someone like Akua, who turns her back on it eventually, or someone like Willie, where it is the force of stability in her life.

RH: Quey’s queerness and his relationship with Cudjo parallel a number of African and African American men who are queer but never outwardly express that. That tension still exists in both communities. What caused you to add that dimension to his character?

YG: I had already written Quey’s chapter, and it was very different. I knew I needed to rewrite it. During the rewrite I was working on a series of stories about people who were queer but were keeping it hidden and choosing to live life as heterosexuals. I think part of my interest in those stories was all the attention being paid to laws that were coming up in African countries. Uganda, for example, was the one that everyone was discussing at the time. There were other places, as well, where laws were popping up that were punitive for queer people. The idea that they had to choose their safety over anything else interested me. That is obviously a more modern story, but when I thought about Quey I was reading about people who had to figure out how to live their lives in a multitude of ways—for him, specifically, whether to continue with the family business. He was sent to England for school. Should he stay there or come back? Those questions of how to live his adult life were interesting to me, and so was the element of how he should express his sexuality.

RH: You are an African immigrant who grew up in the United States. Did you ever feel that you never completely fit in either place? Did that affect the way you chose to tell Homegoing?

YG: Definitely. Nowadays people are talking about the 1.5 generation, people like me who are brought to this country when they are very young, too young to know the country they left. If you dropped me in Ghana, it wouldn’t feel like home to me the way it does for my parents. After twenty-something years of living in America, if you ask them where home is, they will immediately tell you Ghana. I grew up not feeling Ghanaian enough for Ghanaians and not feeling American enough for Americans. They definitely saw me as an immigrant first, and that was further complicated by being a black immigrant. I was trying to figure out what blackness means in this country.

RaeNosa Hudnell lives in Indianapolis. Her latest essay was released by Midwestern Gothic in August.