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The Ghanaian-American Novelist Unpacking Slavery, Identity, and Immigration

Feb 20 2017 2:02 PM
The Ghanaian-American Novelist Unpacking Slavery, Identity, and Immigration

Yaa Gyasi. Photo by Michael Lionstar

Yaa Gyasi's debut novel, "Homegoing," was praised by Zadie Smith and Ta-Nehisi Coates. She tells us about her bestselling hit and the challenges of growing up in today's America.

Yaa Gyasi published Homegoing a few months before the US voted in Donald Trump, and her reflections on culture in the time of Trump are perfectly apt for her best-selling novel: "I think one of the best things that art can do is to shine a light on dark places, and to hold something up and say: 'This hasn't gone unnoticed. We see this, and we're going to say something about it.' And so hopefully people will continue to call up and call out these moments that are damaging, devastating, or dark, and not let it slide."

Gyasi does something unusually seen in conversations of late: She thinks carefully about every sentence. Her rare calm makes her a refreshing voice to turn to during these nerve-wrecking times; equally, Homegoing is a must-read for any person who might describe themselves as "woke," giving a crystal-clear and heartbreaking portrait of the legacy of slavery in America. While it provides the escapism that an excellent novel is bound to give, it also speaks to how crucial it is to look at history for answers and guidance, because, Gyasi comments, "so much of what we are looking at is not new."

Despite having written one of the most buzzed-about books of recent years, Gyasi, 27, is unseen on social media and seldom present in the literary scene. She explains her relative absence online as being due to "shyness" and to valuing her solitude and her privacy—"I don't know that it's better for your writing or anything." Over a transatlantic phone call, we talk as she takes a break from unpacking, having just moved to New York City from California.

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Homegoing starts in 18th century Ghana with two half sisters who don't know each other, Effia and Esi: one is married off to an English slaver, the other sold into slavery. The novel follows the reverberations of their fates on their descendants on both sides of the Atlantic, as Effia's family tree stays behind in Africa and Esi's is violently shifted to the plantations in the American South. The American bloodline lives through the Great Migration, Jim Crow, the Harlem Renaissance, and up to the present day. The book jumps from generation to generation, alternating Effia and Esi's descendants, in a way that forces the reader to re-position themselves with each new chapter. Gyasi makes you invest in each character, even if you are aware that you will soon have to let them go. It feels haunting to know, unlike the characters, everything that's come before.

"Homegoing" by Yaa Gyasi.

This unusual structure is apt for the story Gyasi is telling: "I was interested in how slavery and colonialism unfolded through the generations, and the cyclical nature of these things: how they return not the same but in a way that rhymes [with the past.]" Homegoing sheds light on the fact that knowing the history of your family, let alone having the certainty that it wasn't tainted by horror, is a privilege. "For me one of the most devastating things about slavery is the way that it did cut off these family lines in ways where it became almost nearly impossible to trace back your family, so you have this group of people who can't trace their families back past their grandparents or great-grandparents, and that felt like a big void, I suppose. This book was, in part, an attempt to connect this broader family."

Having made headlines since before the book was even out due to a rumored seven-figure advance, the novel was unanimously praised as it came out in the US, with Ta-Nehisi Coates and Zadie Smith among its declared fans. Gyasi has been mesmerized by readers' responses too, and wonders if part of the interest has been due to an increasing interest in genealogical histories: "I've had readers come up to me after events and say that they've just began doing their ancestry kit or their DNA kit after reading the book. And I find that really remarkable. I think perhaps one thing that's drawn people to this book is this question: 'Where do I come from? Who are my people?'"

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Gyasi was born in the small Ghanian town of Mampong and moved to America at two years old, living in several states before settling in Alabama. She has described the unique experience of being an African immigrant in the US—also deftly explored by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in Americanah—as walking two lines between her Africanness and her Americanness: "You leave your house and people regard you one way, but in the world inside your house, it's still very much Ghanaian and Afro-centric."

The book was a way to "work through" this conflation of identities. "A lot of immigrants and children of immigrants could describe that feeling of walking these two lines, but one unique thing in America is that there is already a racial legacy here. If you're a black immigrant, you come to America and there's a whole other set of rules you have to start to learn, in addition to the standard immigrant rules. That was something that I didn't really understand when I was younger, and certainly my parents didn't really understand how to teach us about those things, because they came from a country where they weren't having to think about themselves as black first. America is very much a country where the people think of themselves racially." Perhaps Effia puts it best in the opening chapter:

The need to call this thing "good" and this thing '"bad," this thing "white" and this thing "black," was an impulse that Effia did not understand. In her village, everything was everything. Everything bore the weight of everything else.

Gyasi came to fully understand slavery as an adult. She studied it in school in America, which was not the case of her parents' education in Ghana—"I don't think it was on my family's radar"—but she says she didn't start to see its full picture until a life-changing trip to Ghana in 2009. In it, she visited the Cape Coast Castle, one of the European-built forts in which slaves were kept in horrifyingly inhumane conditions until they were shipped overseas. When researching more about this place, she was struck by "a noticeable lack of data about what was going on in the dungeons. It makes sense, in a lot of ways, but I felt that it was such a shame to not be able to get these stories from the source. So I thought this novel was an opportunity to restore a voice to groups of people who have historically been silenced."

Now, she is working on a second novel—"set in the present"—and hoping, for this new year, to and to "just be able to have more opportunities to be still and connect to friends and family." Around the edges of her reserved sentences, I glimpse a little bit of Gyasi's life, like when she tells me she loves the Barry Jenkins film Moonlight and the recognition it's getting, and about how she has been "fascinated" by books about female friendship like the Elena Ferrante novels and Zadie Smith's Swing Time. Why does she think there's such an enchantment with this theme, I ask? "There is this kind of intensity to a really good girlhood friendship, this specific kind of intimacy, I suppose, that can almost border on the romantic. After reading My Brilliant Friend, I emailed my best friend from childhood who I hadn't talked to in a long time. And I don't know that I would do that for any other book. That kind of nostalgia that it called up in me was really powerful."


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