In Yaa Gyasi’s debut novel Homegoing, every character granted his or her own chapter is a descendent of two 18th-century, Ghanaian half-sisters. Effia is from Fanteland and marries a British slave dealer, while Esi, a member of the Asante nation, is sold into slavery. The book, an overwhelming page-turner—as addictive as a binge-worthy TV show—follows their two bloodlines all the way to the present day. And while each descendant experiences life (and blackness and love and family) in distinct ways, these characters have at least one thing in common: the inability to ignore a certain call they hear, sometimes in their minds, sometimes in their very bones, from those who came before them.
It’s a quality they share with their creator, Gyasi. The 26-year-old, a graduate of Stanford University and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, speaks plainly of a phenomenon that is specific to all artists, but which has distinctly complex implications for black women authors—that call to speak for those ancestors who could not speak for themselves. Language, Gyasi says, was literally taken away from her West African ancestors during the slave trade. Luckily for those ancestors, and for those of America’s black citizens, that theft (of body, of language) is not the end of their story. Carrying on in the tradition of her foremothers—like Toni Morrison, Edwidge Danticat, Assia Djebar and Bessie Head—Gyasi has created a marvelous work of fiction that both embraces and re-writes history.
Paste spoke with the author, now in the middle of a world tour, about doing justice to her characters, the complexity of religion in her work and the art of writing without—gasp!—an outline.
Paste: The first novel that you read by a black woman was Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon. Can you talk about the impact it had on you when you were younger?
Yaa Gyasi: It’s hard to overstate how important that book was to me. I was growing up in Alabama, and I was an incredibly voracious reader. I loved reading, but all of the books I was encountering were written by white authors. It became difficult to see myself in the story, and also outside of the story, as the writer, until I read Song of Solomon—a book that is, just, fully black. All the characters are black, Morrison is black and not only that—not only does representation matter, which it absolutely does—but to see this kind of representation done, and to have it be one of the most beautiful things that I had ever read. That stunned me and made a lasting impression.
Paste: I know that Homegoing started out as a family tree for you. Can you remember how you handled those early stages of writing?
Gyasi: I made the tree after I wrote the first two chapters. So the tree happened really effortlessly. And then the third chapter, Quey’s, was the hardest one for me. And I realized I needed to take a step back and be a little more organized, because I wasn’t writing with an outline. And the way I decided to do that was by making the family tree. Funny enough, I just wrote this book chronologically. And the first image that came to my mind is the first image that you see in the book: a great fire in this small village that’s affected this family’s yam crop, which also represents the destruction of the family.
Paste: One of my favorite moments is the scene where Willie and Robert get the idea to move to Harlem, and Willie says the word hit her “like a memory.” In many ways I see Homegoing as a book about the language of memory, and how so much of that language is corporeal—in the blood and bones. Can you talk about how you reacted both physically and emotionally to these stories, as they presented themselves to you?
Gyasi: It was important to me to not look away from all the hard parts in this book. I felt like I owed it to these people who didn’t get to tell their own stories. In many cases, slaves were not allowed to read or write, so language was quite literally taken away from them. The impact of that, of being voiceless and going through these really dark periods, I felt like if I had any kind of duty as a writer, it was to shine a light on those moments and not look away. At the same time, it can be hard to work as a writer, talking about those kinds of things. And I’m not sure exactly how I dealt with it, other than to push through and give justice to these characters.
Paste: We’ve been so conditioned to think about slavery as American slavery, to only consider the stories that begin with characters like Esi and Ness, and so there’s a shock that comes with following Effia’s bloodline. And there’s shame there too. Can you talk about crafting those characters who captured and sold slaves to the British and giving them both accuracy and complexity?
Gyasi: First of all, race is a construct as we say, but it’s also constructed in a specific way here, because of the legacy of slavery. We kind of delineate ourselves here, racially: white, black, whatever. But that is not true in most places in Africa. When you come from a place where everybody is black, you don’t separate yourself along the lines of blackness. So in a lot of these earlier moments, people were separating themselves along the lines of ethnic groups. So for one ethnic group to sell another ethnic group, it didn’t feel to them like they were selling a fellow black person, because they don’t think of race in that way. It’s a little more complicated than the way we think about it now, when race is constantly on our tongues and a lot more prevalent in the American consciousness, than it would have been on the Gold Coast’s consciousness during the time [I’m writing about].
To go further into your question, Ghanian complicity—West Coast of Africa complicity—isn’t talked about very often, because they didn’t get to see the results of this trade. Everything was done across the Atlantic, and so it’s this “out of sight, out of mind” thing. They never saw it in action. And while they do have these monuments to slavery on their coast, it doesn’t effect their lives every day in the present the way that it effects our lives here, as African-Americans, in the present. So I wanted to bring that to light a little more.
Paste: Many of these characters have a complex relationship with Christianity. I think Akua’s chapter might be one of the strongest examples of this, because of what we learn about her mother and that lovely passage about why she chose to leave the missionary: “If God was why, then Asamoah was yes and yes again.” Would you say that Christianity is one of the villains of this story?
Gyasi:There are no easy villains in this novel. Christianity is really complex, and its relationship to Africa and to African-American is really complex. So there’s a character like Willie, who sings in church and gets great joy from that, and it restored something to her that she lost. She feels redeemed. And I get that—the joy and beauty and sense of community, and all of the wonderful things that religion brings. But on the other hand, there is Akua, who’s feeling religion as this symbol of colonialism. This missionary who’s come to proselytize to the Gold Coast people, but is also there to impose British imperialism. There’s another character early on who points out that, had the white people not come to Africa, black people wouldn’t even be Christian, and it further complicates that question of religion. For some characters it’s a source of joy, and for others it’s a source of trauma.
Paste: By the time I finished Ness’s story, I thought I couldn’t go any further. It was so difficult. But then when I made it to Kojo, I was rejoicing for him, and for Ness too because he makes it to the North—though, of course, that’s not the end their story. Can you talk about how you wrote the stories of the descendants with that balance between tragedy and triumph?
Gyasi: The family tree helped a lot and writing chronologically helped a lot, too, because I felt like I couldn’t really get to know a descendant until I knew the parents. So many of the children’s decisions about their own lives—who they are—is kind of reactionary to their parents and to their grandparents. It felt important to write chronologically to be able to take with me all of those invisible inheritances and physical inheritances that each descendant might have.
Paste: Was there a particular scene or chapter that you struggled with, either from an emotional or a technical standpoint?
Gyasi: I struggled with Quey’s chapter from a technical standpoint. Initially the chapter took place mostly in Great Britain, as he was there studying in school. And it was the only chapter where I really felt stifled by the need to do extensive research. I just couldn’t get enough information to get me to want to write the chapter. I was digging through all this research and not feeling very inspired, and as a result the chapter was kind of lackluster. That was the only chapter that I ended up completely revising, so it doesn’t look anything like it looked earlier on.
Paste: Is there anything you can say about the next book you’re working on?
Gyasi: It’s going to be very different [from Homegoing]. It’s set in the present. It already feels different. Obviously, Homegoing is my first book, but it’s clear to me that with each book I’m going to have to re-learn how to write a novel.
Paste: How would you say Homegoing has prepared you to tackle this next project?
Gyasi: One thing I know I’ll take with me is that I really like the freedom of not having an outline, or not having things be too rigid. That was something I thought was going to be the downfall of the novel, but it felt really free doing it that way. Maybe the next one is going to demand more pre-planning, but I’d like to at least try it again.
Paste: It’s been a true honor talking with you about this incredible book. I’m so looking forward to following more of your work.
Gyasi: Thank you!
Shannon M. Houston is a Staff Writer and the TV Editor for Paste. This New York-based writer probably has more babies than you, but that’s okay; you can still be friends. She welcomes almost all follows on Twitter.