‘If You’re Going to Tell the Story of Slavery, I’m Going to Listen All Day’: Q&A with ‘Homegoing’ Author Yaa Gyasi

Yaa Gyasi (photo by Michael Lionstar)
Yaa Gyasi (photo by Michael Lionstar)

Yaa Gyasi’s recently released and critically acclaimed first novel, Homegoing (320 pages; Knopf) moves from late 18th century West Africa to 21st century California, tracking the repercussions of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. Gyasi, a graduate from Stanford and the Iowa Writers Workshop, and whose book was just named to the longlist for the 2016 Center for Fiction First Novel Prize, illustrates how slavery and white supremacy shaped life in the African diaspora by exploring the history of a single family—one branch of which remains in what eventually becomes Ghana, while the other experiences the turbulent history of African America.

By drawing direct lines among the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, British colonialism in West Africa, and institutional racism in the United States, Gyasi makes a powerful statement about how slavery’s impact continues to reverberate in our contemporary moment. A moving exploration of trauma, survival, and perseverance, Homegoing provides a portrait of the African diaspora with unprecedented scope. I sat down with Gyasi in her south Berkeley apartment to discuss how she constructed the novel, the necessity of telling stories of slavery, and how black narratives push the boundaries of realism.

ZYZZYVA: Let’s start by talking about how you put this book together. I’m intrigued by how you did so—a lot of it resembles a collection of interlinked short fictions. Did it at any point begin as a short story cycle

Yaa Gyasi: Actually, no, it didn’t. It began as a more traditionally structured novel. It was originally set in the present and focused on the last two characters, [Marcus and Marjorie], and then it flashed back to 18th century Ghana. I wrote about 100 pages that way until I got to Iowa. Then I realized that I was interested in tracking how slavery, colonialism, and institutionalized racism work over a very long period of time—not just the beginning and end, but the movement from the beginning to the end. Then I thought that I might as well try a structure that allowed me to stop along as many historical moments as possible, which is how I came up with the structure you see now. But it took me three years to arrive there, and I never thought of it as short stories, perhaps because I’d been working on this novel idea and just pivoted in the middle of the process. But also, the long arc of the book was more important to me. The accumulation of all of the chapters was more important to me than the individual chapters.

Z: Would you say that that pivot toward the long historical arc was a pivot away from a character-based narrative and toward the historical novel?

YG: I think it’s still very character-based. I wanted each chapter to focus on character and not whatever historical event was happening in the background, though obviously, those events very much informs each of the characters’ lives. I guess maybe it was me coming to the realization that a lot of the themes I was thinking about were better suited to a structure that allowed me to follow a longer through line than just having the beginning and the end. So maybe it was a transition, not away from a character-based novel, but into an understanding of the themes that are important in this book.

Z: It sounds right that it’s still character-driven, but because of the nature of the structure, many of your characters’ stories end right before major narrative arcs resolve themselves. As a reader, I found myself wishing I could continue following characters like Akua and Willie. Did you as the author ever wish that you could revisit some of these characters?

YG: Not really while I was writing, because, again, I had that long arc in mind, so I really wanted to get there. But I think as a project of thinking, I’m always wondering, for example, what would happen if we followed Robert’s family down the line, this lineage of people who think they are white and have always been white? That’s always fascinated me. I could have definitely followed any of the characters in this book and ended up in an entirely different place. That’s really interesting to me.

Z: You’ve got possible sequels on hand.

YG: Yeah!

Z: Since you were so driven by that long historical arc, can you talk about how you arrived at the question of slavery’s impact on and reverberations throughout the history of the African diaspora?

YG: I started the book because I had gone on a trip to Ghana to the Cape Coast Castle. I went on a tour and got to see both the upper and lower levels of the castle where the British walked free with their local wives. I was very struck by this idea, that there could be free people walking above, while there were enslaved people underneath—unaware of what was going to become of those people. In part because I’m Ghanaian, but grew up in America in Alabama, I was confronted both with this situation where the legacy of slavery is still so strongly felt, and the legacy of a country that played a major role in the slave trade. I was really interested in what has been left to all of us, what we’ve inherited both as Ghanaians and African Americans. So for me, it was always very much about the present. In fact, I don’t think I started thinking about it as a historical novel until grad school. I was thinking about getting to the present and talking about the legacy of slavery.

Z: That makes me think about questions of trauma and diasporic identity, the idea of creating a usable past that we can deploy in the present. But first, can you talk about your research process? The book covers such a broad range of histories and institutions that I’m fascinated by how you went about researching after your initial trip to the Castle.

YG: I attended Stanford for undergrad, and I went to Ghana on a research grant from Stanford in my sophomore year, and I knew I wanted to research this novel even though it was a very different project at the time.

Z: What was the project?

YG: It was a vague novel about mothers and daughters. Very vague and broad. I got to Ghana and my idea was to visit my mother’s hometown in the central region of Ghana because it was a place I hadn’t spent very much time in. My mother is Fante and my father is Ashanti. I was much more familiar with Ashanti than Fante history, so I wanted to go to my mother’s side and see if it sparked anything for me. I wasn’t very inspired, so I took the trip to the Cape Coast castle in the central region where my mother grew up. That trip was important for getting to know the Fante side of things. I also spent some time in Kumasi, so I got to see the Ashanti side as well.

From there, I wrote those first two chapters pretty early at Iowa, and then I made a family tree that looks a lot like the one at the beginning of the book. I counted out how long it would take to get to the present—fourteen generations. From there, I mapped out the time period during which each chapter would take place, and then one thing politically or historically that would be happening in the background, like the advent of cocoa farming in Ghana, or the Fugitive Slave Act.

I wrote chronologically, so before each chapter I’d research the event I’d put in the background. I wanted it to feel exploratory, like it was opening me up rather than closing me off. So I didn’t outline beforehand, I just read to see what would spark my imagination. So a chapter like Willie’s, for example, was totally changed because I read about the paper bag test and what it would mean for Willie to be married to someone who is fairer than she is. It got me thinking about colorism, so that chapter was opened up by the research. That’s how I went about each chapter, doing enough to get me into the world and give me an idea of what I wanted for the life of the character.

Z: You said earlier the research was driven by the attempt to find out more about your heritage. To what extent was writing this novel an attempt to discover more, not only about your African heritage, but also as someone who’s discovering what it means to be African American?

YG: It was everything! This book constitutes my discovery of and inquiry into questions that I’d always had both as an African immigrant and an African American. I started the book with a question that I put at the top of my screen: “What does it mean to be black in America?” This book is me thinking through a lot of these issues of racial and ethnic identity.

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Z: How did you begin by asking that question and end up thinking about African origins? I mean, people like Ta-Nehisi Coates would ask that question and probably wouldn’t end up at the same answer …

YG: That had to do with my Ghanaian identity. I was born there but grew up here, so I had very little sense of Ghanaian history. I felt a lot more comfortable in the African American sections of this book, because I was more familiar with the material. The Ghanaian sections had to be research and constructed, and in that way this book is my trying to connect those two threads of my identity, but also a way of connecting to my own roots in a way I hadn’t done before.

Z: In what sense did you feel more comfortable writing the African American chapters?

YG: I was just more familiar with the historical points I explore in the novel, you know? I’d studied the Fugitive Slave Act and the Great Migration and the Harlem Renaissance. I wasn’t as familiar with the advent of cocoa farming or the Yaa Asantewaa War, for example. I also had more trouble because I felt like I’d always been straddling the line between what it means to be Ghanaian and African American, and this was me giving myself permission to write about both, but the challenge was that I wasn’t familiar with Ghanaian history.

Z: The early chapters on the slave trade on the Gold Coast don’t romanticize nor sentimentalize African involvement in that trade. At first I thought that might be in part due to your status as an African immigrant. Was that lack of sentimentality at all affected by your immigrant status?

YG: Maybe! You know, I went into the novel thinking that I didn’t want it to be the kind of book that assigns blame to any one group. I didn’t want it to be too black and white; no one in the novel was going to be a clear hero.

Homegoing Z: There are definitely no heroes.

YG: Exactly! Nobody is a hero, though there are maybe some villains. This book would be so different if I had written it in Ghana, or was just American and wrote it from that perspective. It helped to have this sense of being in the middle. I didn’t feel the need to protect anybody. The neutral ground allowed me to write without feeling the need to protect these characters. Instead I could write what I felt to be true.

Z: Did you find yourself writing against any accounts of the West African slave trade, or trying to correct a record?

YG: I don’t know if I was trying to correct a record, but in my research there was this noticeable absence of the voices of the black people who would have been experiencing these things. I was reading books like Mission from Cape Coast to Ashantee and Door of No Return, both by British men. So these books had a lack of voices from the people who were in the dungeons or involved in trading. I don’t know that I was trying to correct these histories, but I was trying to imagine myself into the histories of the people who didn’t get to speak.

Z: In Beloved, Toni Morrison has the dedication to the “63 million and more,” and that’s about a similar project of giving voice to those who’ve been excised. In what sense does fiction move us closer to accomplishing that project in a way that history can’t? And did you ever see yourself as being in conversation with Beloved and other neo-slave narratives?

YG: First of all, fiction creates the space for those voices to exist. Part of the reason that these voices were absent on the Ghanaian side was because the British brought the [English] language with them, and so we’re left with this literal absence of texts that can be passed on from generation to generation. Or if you look at the African American side, you have people who are actually forbidden from reading and writing, and so there are fewer voices available to us. Fiction becomes the place where we can add voices—obviously it’s not real, but it can be emotionally true, and it can fill this void that’s been created by the forces of history that have denied us access to story and written word.

I don’t know if I felt that I was in conversation with Morrison, though she’s a huge hero of mine, so maybe I’m always in conversation with her! But I was aware of writing a book on slavery, which is in conversation with a lot of other books that center on slavery, like Beloved and [Edward Jones’] The Known World. That was another reason why I wanted to get to the present and insert the question of legacy into this narrative.

Z: As you said earlier, this book is in part about how the trauma of slavery echoes into the present and creates the conditions of possibility for life in the African diaspora. Something you said made me think about the idea of writing as trauma, as acting out that trauma or even trying to rectify it. In what sense do you perceive writing as a way to assess and heal those traumas?

YG: Yeah, I think writing can very much be about healing in that it’s a way of witnessing. It’s a way of saying, I see you, and you didn’t go unnoticed. It’s a mode of healing. Just like at Homegoing’s end, when Marjorie gives the stone [which has been passed down from generation to generation] to Marcus—that’s about healing. Maybe she doesn’t know what her family has done to get either of them to that point, but she’s saying that she’s bearing witness to that story and acknowledging that Marcus is there. Writing can be a way of doing that. It’s like that airport thing, “If you see something, say something…”

Z: But much less sinister.

YG: Yeah!

Z: The scene when Akua is reunited with her son Yaw. She caresses his face, which has been scarred by a fire she set when he was a child and of which he has no memory. She touches him and urges him to be free from the burden she passed on to him. It made me think that so much of the discourse around trauma today is about invoking it in the name of a political project, but not healing it. I wonder if you think about scenes such as that one as a way of entering into that conversation and asking us to think about how we begin to heal. Not laying down the past, but finding a new way to live with it.

YG: Absolutely, I think healing is a hugely important thing. I was thinking for myself, going to the Cape Coast castle and being surrounded by tourists, mostly African American tourists—I think Obama had just been there the prior week—collective weight of rage and grief but also witnessing. It was a healing moment where even if you didn’t know if your family had passed through this castle, it meant a lot to stand there and say, Maybe this is a part of my story. I was thinking a lot about the way we try to heal ourselves and heal these wounds that stretch for centuries. And Akua’s chapter is definitely a turning point in the book, because she’s the first character to be literally visited by an ancestor and literally pass that on to her children. She’s done this horrible thing, but she also gifts something to Yaw, she passes him this story as she knows it. It’s a moment when healing comes to the fore.

Z: On a related note, I was reading this essay by Kara Brown at Jezebel that came out when The Birth of a Nation trailer was first released. It’s titled “I’m So Damn Tired of Slave Movies.” I bring it up because it seems like, in the last year, there’s been this simmering backlash by some black critics and public figures against telling stories of racial oppression. But at the same time we’re becoming more vocal about discussing that oppression in this political moment. Your book is quite clearly part of a lineage, that neo-slave narrative tradition. Why do you think it’s important to continue talking about slavery in this moment of Black Lives Matter and the Trump nomination? Do you think about this book as diverging from past approaches to discussing slavery?

YG: Yeah, I think it’s important because so much was not rectified. A lot of what we’re seeing is people reacting to the open wound of slavery in this country, and the way it turned into this more dog-whistled and institutionalized racism.

Z: Barely whispered now …

YG: Right? Thank you, Trump. But yeah, this history is this invisible burden that black people have known to not be invisible but white people have gotten to pretend doesn’t exist. This book was important to me because it could get to the present and talk about the ways we did not fix things that should have been fixed. So I mean, if you’re going to tell the story of slavery, I’m going to listen all day!

Z: Because people haven’t been listening in general.

YG: And even after we heal it, we’re probably still going to have to talk about it a little more. I think another thing I was thinking about were these more redemptive slave stories. For example, there’s 12 Years a Slave, where [Solomon Northup] gets to go back to his family in the end. So maybe you’ve been weeping while watching the movie, but at the end you feel a little better. That need to feel a little better made me think … what if it doesn’t get better? What if you don’t get to go back?

Z: The portrayal of slavery in this novel is intense. For example, in the scene where Esi is in the castle dungeon, you give us a lot of lurid sensory detail—the smell of urine and feces and human bodies stacked atop one another. There’s other people’s urine running down Esi’s body, and painful moments of physical abuse. What role do you think such portrayals of slavery’s depravity plays in getting people to recognize slavery’s history?

YG: Those moments are me saying, You don’t get to look away from this just because it’s difficult. If Esi had to feel it, then you have to witness it. One thing that fiction is good at is not just creating empathy, but sometimes [the wall between reader and character] gets removed, so you get to feel it as if you were that person. That’s something other mediums don’t necessarily allow. So that was important to me, too, being able to imagine yourself into that dungeon, which you can go stand in today, but which isn’t available to everyone. I was thinking, What would it be like to stay in this tiny room for three months at a time before being sent off on the Middle Passage, without knowing what was going to happen to you? It’s an important thing to think through.

Z: But what’s different about this particular portrayal of slavery? It strikes me in a way I haven’t been struck often when reading or watching these portrayals. What do you think is different between this book and a book like Beloved or A Known World?

YG: Well, something Morrison is good at that I’m not is very lyrical, beautiful language about trauma. There’s a beauty to it that is separate from what is happening.

Z: It’s a kind of playfulness.

YG: Yeah, and when I was writing the novel I was like, Oh, that’s lovely, but I can’t do that. I don’t know that I’m that kind of writer. My prose is a lot simpler, and so that gives you a different perspective on that same trauma.

Z: There’s the moment where Ness’ back gets revealed, and we become privy to the scars that wrap around her back. It seems like a callback …

YG: … to the choke cherry tree.

Z: Right, on Sethe’s back [in Beloved], but the language you use to describe Ness’ scars is less lyrical. Not that Morrison’s language does anything to obscure the brutality of Sethe’s scar or the horror of the whipping. But something about the horror becomes much more visible in Homegoing.

YG: Well, that’s the question: does the beautiful, elevated language distance you in a way that doesn’t serve you as a reader, or doesn’t serve the character? It’s something I was thinking about, but I haven’t arrived at an answer.

Z: You went to Iowa for your MFA. What role do you think the program played in allowing you to produce a book of this scope?

YG: It was great for me. Before getting to Iowa I spent a year working for a start up in San Francisco. I started this book in 2009 but I was working very little on it. Then I got to Iowa and suddenly had endless stretches of time to work on it. That meant a lot to me. So did having access to the university library and getting to have whatever book I wanted sent to me. That was really useful.

One of the best things it did was allow me to meet new readers who I hope will be reading my work from now into the future. It’s good to have people who are not just in support of your work, but want to help you become the best version of yourself as a writer that you can be.

Z: Part of being in a program is honing craft. What aspects of your craft do you think you couldn’t have arrived at without being at Iowa?

YG: That’s a difficult question!

Z: “Craft” is such a mysterious word.

YG: Right? Well, part of that was thinking beyond traditional structures, about what structures might better serve my purposes. But even then, once I did arrive at the current structure, I got feedback from other people who were like, This won’t really work. So maybe Iowa helped me fine-tune that. My advisor Sam Chang pointed out to me that many of the chapters were centered around a love story, so I definitely took that knowledge into the second draft.

Z: That’s true. Every chapter is organized around a love story, and not just hetero romances, but queer romances as well. Did you find yourself consciously drawn to those stories, or did that tendency just kind of emerge?

YG: Initially it was just about getting back to the next generation. I needed people to have babies! But when Sam said that, it got me thinking more about familial love as a safety net for when romantic love is a source of trauma or betrayal. How does familial love fill that space? Alternately, how do you create familial love when family has been taken from you? What role does friendship play in that? So I was thinking about love really broadly after Sam said that.

Z: Yet so often in this novel, love—or whatever gives rise to successive generations in this novel—is a source of trauma. Effia is conceived as the result of a rape, and the scene where Yaw is conceived certainly seems to be rape. Why do you think it’s important to portray those moments when gender relations don’t resemble love stories?

YG: It just felt true to me, to the way that families work sometimes. There are some beautiful love stories in the novel. You have Esther and Yaw, or Kojo and his wife. Those are very uncomplicated love stories. But I was also thinking about other narratives that we’re always given—black men can’t be gay, or black men don’t take care of their children—coming up with ways to complicate or think around those stereotypes.

I just wanted to say that you can hold two things as true simultaneously. You can have a character like Kojo, who is very baldly in love with his children, and wants very much to provide for them. But you can also have a character like Sonny, who has many children whom he doesn’t take care of. Both things can be true, and both characters can be representations of black men.

Z: On a lighter note, I’m intrigued by how well you do voice. It’s all third-person omniscient, but each chapter has a unique voice depending on the geographic location and time period. The voice in Willie’s chapter sounds nothing like the voice in Yaw’s chapter, for example. How did you set about honing such a vast range of voices?

YG: It was very difficult, and something I thought about a lot. The book is in two different traditions. The West African portions have a more oracular, Achebe-esque feel. I wanted it to feel like you’re sitting listening to an old grandfather tell you a story. On the African American side, I wanted it to feel like it was in the African American literary tradition. I wanted readers to feel the oscillation back and forth from chapter to chapter.

I was also moving from an older period to now, so it needed to be flexible enough to cover all of that time. If you finish the book and start again from the beginning, you can feel that shift. The early chapters have narrators who are distant, and the narration is much less close than it is by the time you get to Marcus. I don’t know how I did it other than to just play with it. I was initially thinking about it as the distinction between fables and folktales, as a way to give me flexibility to get more mystical while maintaining a sense of realism.

Z: Some of the African chapters do have a magical realist feel to them. For example, we have Akua being visited by the Firewoman. What does that approach afford you in terms of exploring the African diaspora’s history?

YG: I feel like it wouldn’t be strange for a West African woman to tell you that her ancestor visited her in a dream. It would be mystical, but it wouldn’t be any less real in that culture even if it feels magical. Or, on H’s story, H has this incredible strength that allows him to shovel coal with two arms. Obviously that’s not “realistic.”

Z: He’s like John Henry.

YG: Right. It’s not “true” as we know it, but it’s this tradition of truth that goes beyond what is strictly “real.” I see it as more about that than magical realism.

Z: Like a stretching of or pushing against Western ideas of what constitutes realism?

YG: Yeah, I think that the Western idea of realism can be really limiting. When people read a book like this, it can be confusing. If a Ghanaian read something like Akua putting her grandchildren’s umbilical cords into the ocean, it wouldn’t seem crazy. So I meant to disturb people’s notions of what is mystical or real.

Z: On that note, Ta-Nehisi Coates, who gave a blurb for your book, has made a point in the last year of saying that Between the World and Me is a book for black people. It is not addressed to white people. Whether or not that’s true, he says it. Do you think that your reaching for a different kind of realism is meant for a particularly black audience, or is it also seeking to pull in white readers?

YG: I think the mystical parts are appealing to black readers because they follow a set of traditions that are distinctly black. But I certainly wouldn’t ever say that it’s pushing away white readers.

Z: It definitely hasn’t done that. Are you happy with the reception? Why do you think it’s been so well received? Is it filling a gap that’s needed filling?

YG: You know, I don’t know why it’s been so well received. I think it might have something to do with people wanting to hear stories about diaspora more broadly than they have before. I’m thinking about books like Amerikanah, and others that really engage with black people in America, be they immigrants or the descendants of slaves. So I think it’s a good time for my book to be out.

Z: And how is this book thinking about the nature of diaspora, and how we experience our places in this global community? The characters here don’t really seem to have a sense of their place in a broader African diaspora.

YG: I think growing up, I experienced it as a separate thing. We weren’t brought up to think of ourselves as African American. We were Ghanaian. So a lot of the language I heard from my elders was about this idea that what was going on with African Americans didn’t have anything to do with us. This book is more about the ways in which we are all connected. The book’s final moment is about this restoration. There is a distance, and maybe we cannot reconstruct family, but we are all connected. That’s deeply important for us to think about. It’s important to do that work.

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