Yaa Gyasi's novel Homegoing takes the form of a historical epic, a complex genre many writers would not choose to undertake for their first novel. Her bravery certainly intrigued us but her style and depth was what kept us avidly reading. She talks to us about psychic wounds, Transatlantic history and naturally, home.
Congratulations on your debut novel Homegoing. The novel begins with two sisters: one is forced into slavery while the other is married to a slaver. This leads to an epic tale that spans eight generations along the two family lines. The sins and the trauma of the past haunt and hurt each generation. This reminded me of an article published in 2015 on Holocaust survivors. The article discusses how trauma is passed down to the children through the genes. Both your book and the study challenge the cliché, "Time heals." Could you, please expand a bit more on this theme and its importance?
YAA: Homegoing was very much an attempt to look at time. More specifically, I wanted to track how something like slavery moved and changed over a very long period of time, how these changes affected people’s lives. Time necessarily distances. This is obvious, of course, but it’s important to think about. If healing looks like being so distanced from the point of trauma that you no longer remember it, then saying “time heals” would be appropriate. Maybe this saying works if the wound that needs healing is small, like a paper cut, and if the body performs the healing function properly. But if the wound is something as large as slavery and colonialism then you need something more than time to heal it, and if the body responsible for healing doesn’t act quickly or correctly, then time only worsens it. It simultaneously distances you from the initial trauma in a way that makes it possible to forget why or how the wound even occurred. This, to me, is what institutionalised racism looks like. In America, it’s what happened when the wound of slavery was not properly addressed and was allowed to fester in myriad ways through racist policy in education, housing, criminal justice etc. for centuries. Those of us alive today may not have had anything to do with slavery, but we have certainly inherited the wound.
Two other themes stood out - identity and family. Many of your characters are balancing on the edges, due to a variety of reasons including mixed backgrounds of race and culture. But they all seem to hold strongly onto family. Can you tell us more about these two themes and their value to you?
YAA: When I was younger, I always felt like I was straddling cultures and countries. I was Ghanaian but I was American, black but an immigrant. At times, I felt like these identities were in conflict, but as I grew up I started to see that it is possible to hold many things as true all at once. I didn’t have to be “either/or”; I could be “also.” My family, particularly my brothers, helped me to think through these things. I don’t think I could have written a book about diaspora without also writing one about family.
Homegoing is structured as series of overlapping short stories, each story flowing into the other creating a larger, overall narrative. It works beautifully. But the amount of time the book spans, along with different cultures and locations, makes me wonder how on earth you kept track of all the various threads. Did you use a special programme to keep it straight? Notebooks? Buy out all the sticky notes from an office supply store?
YAA: I tried to keep everything as simple as possible. For the first draft, I didn’t outline, but I did make a family tree that I kept on the wall above my desk. It looks much like the one that is in the front of the book, except mine also included the dates during which the bulk of each chapter takes place and then one event that was happening in the background politically during that time period. For example, the Yaa Asantewaa War or the beginning of cocoa farming in Ghana. I wrote the novel chronologically, stopping before each chapter to research whatever it was that I had written in the background. Because, I didn’t want this book to feel stiff with research, I tried to limit my research to only enough to make me feel like I had entered the world of the character. Once I had enough to spark my imagination, I closed any research and wrote the chapter, making notes of things that I needed to dig into further. For subsequent drafts I kept notebooks and made timelines with a set of multi-coloured highlighters, but for the first draft, I tried to let my imagination and each story take the lead.
You wrote, "When you study history, you must always ask yourself, Whose story am I missing? Whose voice was suppressed so this voice could come forth? Once you have figured that out, you must find that story too." What story did you find while writing Homegoing that was missing from the stories you previously knew?
YAA: One of the chapters of Homegoing, H’s chapter, explores America’s convict leasing system. In this chapter H is arrested and sold by the state of Alabama to a private coal mining company, sentenced to work in a coal mine as a way of paying his debt to society. Convict leasing disproportionately affected black men, who could be arrested for crimes such as “vagrancy,” a purposefully ambiguous term for a non-crime. I knew nothing about convict leasing until I stumbled upon Douglas Blackmon’s Wall Street Journal article, “From Alabama’s Past, Capitalism Teamed With Racism to Create Cruel Partnership,” while researching the post-Civil War South. I grew up in Huntsville, Alabama, 100 miles away from what used to be the Pratt Mines of Birmingham, and yet I had never learned this bit of history. And, given America’s current issues around mass incarceration and police brutality, issues that, again, disproportionately affect black men, I think this is an important part of our history to know.
Migrations is the theme for the 2016 Short Story Day Africa Prize. This has sparked a number of conversations revolving around home: what home means and if it is a place or something we have to carry inside us. I am curious, what does home mean for you?
YAA: Home is complicated for me. When my parents say home, they mean Ghana, but while I was born in Ghana I didn’t grow up there and my relationship to it is very different from my parents’ relationship to it. To further complicate things, my family moved around quite a bit when I was younger. We lived in Ohio, Illinois, Tennessee, and Alabama. I went on to live in California and Iowa by myself for undergrad and grad school, respectively. I think you can make a home almost anywhere, so for me home isn’t as much about place as it is about family and loved ones.
On Yaa's Beside
Yaa Gyasi was born in Mampong, Ghana, and raised in Huntsville, Alabama, in the US. She holds a BA in English from Stanford University and an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where she held a Dean’s Graduate Research Fellowship. She lives in Berkeley, California. Her short stories have appeared in African American Review, Guernica and Callaloo. Homegoing is her first novel.
Interview by Tiah Beautement a.k.a @ms_tiahmarie