These Are Moments We Don’t Want to Look Away From: A Conversation with Yaa Gyasi
Spanning eight generations, three centuries, and two countries, Yaa Gyasi's debut novel Homegoing, released today, has already been commended by literary figures from Ta-Nehisi Coates to Roxane Gay. Beginning with two half sisters in eighteenth century Ghana and following their descendants to the present day, the novel traces the legacy of slavery and colonization. "No novel has better illustrated the way in which racism became institutionalized in this country," writes Vogue's Megan O'Grady. In advance of Gyasi's appearance at Harvard Book Store this Friday, I caught up with her to talk inheritance, Ghanaian history, and the present-day racial tensions that inspired her book.
SCB: Is Homegoing a novel, or is it a collection of linked stories, or is it both? And how do we make that distinction?
YG: I think Homegoing is a novel. I never really thought about it as a collection of short stories. I understand why you’d feel like a lot of the chapters stand alone, but in my head, the long view of this project, the entire thing was so much more important to me than each individual chapter, that it always felt like a novel. It has that novelistic scale, and I had to think of ways to make each chapter cohere because I was working with different POV characters in every one, and I was working on a really long timeline, which makes it hard to connect back to earlier characters, something that happens in a lot of multi POV novels that work on a smaller timeline. There are certainly arguments that can be made for either side, but for me, it was very much a novel.
SCB: There isn’t a story arc in the way we expect from more conventional novels, which is where a lot of reader satisfaction comes from — experiencing the shape of a story. But by the end I felt very much like I knew Marcus and Marjorie, the final two characters in the book, so well, even though this knowledge was of previous generations. I knew people in their family that they could never possibly have met, and there was a sense of giddy reader privilege in that, I think, that felt very satisfying.
YG: Yeah, other readers have said something similar: you meet the last two characters with so much more knowledge about the factors that led them to be who they are. You know them in this deeper, more well rounded way, than you would if you were just encountering them without all the family background.
SCB: At the end, Marcus says of his Ph.D research, “what he wanted to capture with his project was the feeling of time,” and that seemed to be a central aim of Homegoing, too.
YG: Absolutely. I think, for me, this book was a way of being able to look at how something moves over a very long period of time, in this case, slavery, institutionalized racism, colonialism. I wanted to be able to see what the subtle changes in those things were, and so in a lot of ways, I think this book is about time.
SCB: I was also interested in what is passed on through each family line, and the forms that history and memory and heritage take. Lots of the characters carry a kind of somatic memory — so many have scars that tell stories, and others who bear resemblances to generations past. We have language that is passed on, and so many of the characters recall stories that they’re told as ways of knowing places that they haven’t been, and family members that they’d never met. Were you interested in exploring different types of historical record?
YG: Yes, absolutely, that was hugely prevalent in my mind. I was thinking a lot about inheritance, and not just about things that we physically inherit — in this book there’s a necklace that travels through the family line — but also these kinds of invisible inheritances, things that we don’t even recognize that we have from our ancestors, from generations past. One of the characters in this novel, H, has this super-human strength that he’s known for, and we know, but he doesn’t know, that his grandfather Sam has a similar impact on people — they looked at him and were struck by his strength, by his size, by this rage he carries with him. I was very much interested in that, the idea that there are these things that can be passed on, not just physically, but emotionally, from family member to family member, descendent to descendent.
SCB: The necklace is a clear symbol of that inheritance. Esi, one of the original sisters, buries her necklace in the dungeon and isn’t able to retrieve it, so it’s never passed on. As a reader I feel the loss of that so much, but in a way it doesn’t matter by the end, because Marcus, the last character in Esi’s line, has inherited so many other things. I love that the object wasn’t the most important inheritance.
YG: The object wasn’t in the first draft of the book; it came later, after getting some feedback about it maybe being nice to have something physical that we could follow through the line. I wanted that to be really just a light touch, and not the one thing that connects these people together, and I don’t think it is. I don’t think that if the necklaces weren’t there you wouldn’t be able to feel the invisible inheritances that I’m talking about, that connect all the characters together. But I think the necklace is a good way of visualizing it.
SCB: In an interview with Powell's Books, you mentioned that the fire and water imagery running throughout the book was something you weren’t consciously doing at first, but you went back and pulled those threads through.
YG: That’s the mysterious, mystical thing that happens. Writing the first draft, I try not to have too many rules for myself, or too much rigidity, and so when I come back to do a second draft, I start to notice things that I didn’t even realize that I was doing, which is really cool, but also just a strange side effect of writing.
SCB: The section of the book in the dungeons with Esi is so stark to me because it’s a space I’ve never been asked to imagine before. There are certain historical moments the book touches on that I’m accustomed to imagining: the slave ships, plantations, chain gangs, all these spaces that many American readers are probably used to imagining, too. The book weaves between occupying moments of history that are well documented — or, well documented through a certain lens — and then occupying spaces that are much less familiar. Is this the ultimate gift of historical novelists — to open up these liminal spaces that aren’t yet fully represented, or fully explored?
YG: I think so, absolutely. You can take a tour of the Cape Coast Castle today, I took one in 2009, and you can go down into the dungeon, and even that doesn’t give you enough. There’s no real way to imagine what it might have been like for the people who went through this horrific situation, but I think that fiction and literature gets you as close as possible, gets you as close as you can. And it’s important to try to get there, because these are moments that we don’t want to look away from. I was struck, too, during my research, that there’s so little written about this side of the castle, about the Ghanaians who were in the dungeons at the time; they don’t have a voice, and I think literature can restore that to people and give them a chance to speak. Obviously, it’s not them, it’s me, but I think one of the great tragedies of slavery was that they didn’t get to tell their own story. When they got to America, they were denied the opportunity even to learn how to read or write, so the language was just completely cut off for them, and I think that one of the beauties of literature is that it can restore that to them in this roundabout way.
SCB: Yes, exactly. When I picked up the novel, I saw this grand quote on this beautiful book cover and it’s from Ta-Nehisi Coates, and he calls Homegoing “an inspiration,” which must have been ... well, I would have lost my mind! Before I read the book I thought, OK, that is a very tall order. But after finishing, I think I understand what he meant. What was it like, getting a blurb like that?
YG: Losing my mind is exactly right. It was so early, I was still working on copy edits, and I didn’t even know that he had a copy of the book. Neither my boyfriend nor I are on Twitter, and a friend of my boyfriend’s texted him to say that he saw Ta-Nehisi Coates was tweeting about the book, and that really just blew me away. Getting that early support was so vital, and it was also really beautiful for me that it came from someone whose work I admire so much.
SCB: Another scene that stayed with me is when Marcus is explaining why his Ph.D project is so difficult. He wants to focus on “the convict leasing system that had stolen years off his great-grandpa H’s life,” but the project gets bigger and bigger, because he can’t talk about that without talking about other family members’ experiences with Jim Crow, the Great Migration, heroin in ‘60s Harlem, the war on drugs, all this interconnected history that contributes to institutionalized racism of the present moment. But, this is suddenly shrunk again when he realizes that if he got frustrated and slammed his book down in the library, all anybody would see was his skin and his anger. In an interview with BookPage, you said that you were most interested in the question of what it means to be black in America today. Was this moment important to that question?
YG: Oh, yes. I think Marcus is expressing a lot of my feelings about working on this book. Initially, I just wanted it to be this smaller idea about people in the present flashing back to moments about the slave trade in the eighteenth century, and then everything got bigger and bigger — I kept thinking, how can I talk about this if I don’t also talk about that? It was the idea that every moment we are experiencing now has a precedent; it doesn’t come out of nowhere. The racial tension that exists in America today is not this isolated random event; it’s this slowly built thing, and everything that we do today also leaves a footprint for our descendants. That really felt like something that I wanted this book to explore, and it took me a while to realize that was what I wanted, but once I did, I decided to just let myself do it.
SCB: What are you reading?
YG: Right now, I’m reading a book called Goodnight Beautiful Women, by Anna Noyes, it’s a collection of short stories. She was at Iowa the year above me, and her book is also coming out June 7th, so I wanted to read it, support it, and see what she was doing. It’s a beautiful collection. I also have a galley of Brit Bennett’s The Mothers that I’m really excited about, and before that I got on a Ferrante kick.
Yaa Gyasi was born in Ghana and raised in Huntsville, Alabama. She is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop where she held a Dean’s Graduate Research Fellowship. Her short stories have appeared in the African American Review and Callaloo. Her debut novel is Homegoing (Knopf, June 2016).
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Colwill is an instructor and manuscript consultant at GrubStreet, an associate editor at Bat City Review, and an MFA candidate at the University of Texas at Austin. After graduating a scholarship awardee of GrubStreet’s Novel Incubator program, Colwill found representation for her first novel, Before We Tear Our Selves Apart, with Robert Guinsler of Sterling Lord Literistic, which is currently on submission to publishing houses. She is the recipient of the Wellspring House Emerging Writer Fellowship, the Henry Blackwell Essay Prize, and a Crawley-Garwood Research Grant, and has received fellowships and support from Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, The University of Texas at Austin, Boston College, Kansas State University, the Anderson Center for Disciplinary Studies, and GrubStreet. She was a finalist for the 2019 Tennessee Williams Fiction Prize, the 2019 Reynolds Price Award, the 2019 Far Horizons Fiction Award, the 2019 Disquiet International Literary Prize, and the 2019 Lit Fest Emerging Writer Fellowship. Colwill’s fiction is forthcoming in Granta and is anthologized in Everywhere Stories: Short Fiction from a Small Planet (Press 53). She has served on the editorial team for Post Road magazine, The Conium Review, Solstice Literary Magazine, and Pangyrus magazine. Colwill is a founding member of the Back Porch Collective, a Boston-based group of writers. With members connected to Cuba, India, Albania, Atlanta, Bosnia, Miami, Jamaica, and the UK, they bonded over a common passion for global narratives and literature’s potential to create empathy and understanding across all geographical, political, and cultural borders. Hailing from Yorkshire, in the north of England, Colwill is determined to introduce the word “sozzard” to the American vernacular. For a full list of publications, projects, and services, please visit colwillbrown.com.See other articles by Colwill Brown