Yaa Gyasi: Homegoing | Her debut novel, the legacy of slavery and the importance of history


I think a lot of what we are seeing in the
present has roots in the past, and it’s important to remember that so much of what we talk about
today—we have to put it in context, you know, and remember our history, so that we
can better move forward. My name is Yaa Gyasi and I am the author of Homegoing. Homegoing
is a novel that follows the family lineage of two half-sisters. The first sister, Effia,
is the wife of the British governor of the Cape Coast Castle, which is a slave castle
that still stands in Cape Coast Ghana; the second sister, Esi, is kept in the castle
as a slave before being sent to America. So the novel follows the descendants of either
sister as they go down the line for about 250 years. I wrote the book chronologically,
and just began each new chapter by researching the time period. I knew pretty early on that
I wanted to cover a really large swathe of time; I felt like it was important to be able
to kind of see history as it moved over, you know, 250 or so years. I think the characters
that stick out to me are the ones that kind of taught me something new about the history
or the time period; there’s a character named H, whose chapter takes place in a coal mine
after he’s been arrested and convicted and sentenced to—to work in this coal mine for
I think about ten years, through the convict leasing system in Alabama. And that was a
part of Alabama’s history, America’s history, that I knew so little about, and so to research
that for H’s chapter I think just kind of gives me a new — a new fondness for that
character. Just speaking for myself, I grew up in Alabama, and yet I had a very different,
you know, cultural heritage and background than most African Americans who grow up in
the South, because my family emigrated from Ghana. And so I think oftentimes in America
there’s this tendency to kind of lump everybody in together by race without kind of thinking
about the nuances of their background, their ethnicity. And this book was a way to kind
of explore what it means to be black in America, both as a black immigrant or as an African
American. Things have gotten a lot better in publishing for black writers; this year
alone there have been several books published in the States written by black writers—Colson
Whitehead, Kaitlyn Greenidge, Nicole Dennis-Benn, Brit Bennett—and so it’s really great to
be among them. I think the publishing industry as a whole still has a very long way to go,
particularly in the background, you know, people who are working on these novels. And
so hopefully that also starts to kind of reflect the general public and changes start to be
made in that direction as well. It’s been wonderful to see the book published; I think
this is—this is something I’ve wanted to do since I was a very small child, and so
I think every day I’m kind of in disbelief that I get to do it, and not only that I get
to do it but that it’s been received so well has been truly remarkable to me.

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