The acclaimed young author discusses her powerful debut novel, Homegoing, and its comment on race relations in the US

There's no doubt that 2016 was a vintage year for Yaa Gyasi. Having reportedly received a $1 million advance for her debut novel, Homegoing, it received rapturous reviews upon its summer release in the US and became a New York Times best seller. Vogue wrote ‘No novel has better illustrated the way in which racism has become institutionalised in this country’. The Wall Street Journal meanwhile, described the book’s structure as ‘dazzling… a kind of time-elapsed photo of black lives in America and in the motherland’. Now, as Homegoing is published in Europe, Gyasi has just been named among Forbes’ 30 Under 30 2017 list of brightest young innovators – and deservedly so.

“The reception has been totally remarkable and beyond my wildest dreams,” Gyasi says with an earnest smile. It’s a bright winter’s morning at Penguin HQ in London and the author sips a cup of tea while reflecting upon the past six months of promotion and praise for Homegoing. “I could never have predicted this when I was 20 and standing in that castle.” The author is referring to Cape Coast Castle, the fortress from which much of Ghana’s transatlantic slave trade was orchestrated during the colonial era. It was her visit to this place as a Stanford undergrad in 2009 that initially cemented the foundations of her story. The book begins in the 18th century with two half sisters, Effia and Esi. While one marries a British governor and goes to live in the opulent upper rooms of the castle, the other is captured and condemned to the castle’s squalid dungeons – a place where the floor is a ‘river of shit’ and women are habitually beaten and rapped – before being shipped across the Atlantic to the southern states.

“Feedback from Ghanaians in America has been remarkably positive. They can connect to the experience and understand it in intimate ways”

From here, Homegoing moves intuitively across eight generations and two countries, the prose sometimes lyrical, other times crisp but always compelling. Each chapter introduces the offspring from the previous ones while situating them in their own significant time and place. Pivoting back and forth between these fractured family lines, their intertwined histories plot the impact and aftermath of slavery. On one side we travel from the cotton fields of Alabama to Baltimore during the Fugitives Slave Act and follow the Great Migration to New York circa the Harlem Renaissance and end up in contemporary Palo Alto. On the other side, rival Fante and Asante tribes fight and trade with each other and their European colonisers, the Gold Coast emerges as the Republic of Ghana, and the two branches of the family tree finally reunite on its shores as students Marjorie and Marcus are drawn instinctively to each other.

The scale of Homegoing is immensely ambitious yet adeptly accomplished in just 300 evocative pages. “The research was one of the more difficult parts of the book because I don’t see myself as an academic. I was so young when I started that I had no idea what I was doing,” she quips. “I read The Door Of No Return by William St. Sinclair, which takes you through what life in the castle might have been like, to help me write the first chapters. Then I organised the family tree and chose one thing that was happening politically or historically during each time period. I tried to keep the research very light because I didn’t want the book to be so stiff that it becomes a historical text and loses sight of the story. Once I felt like I’d entered the world of the characters, I’d just close the research books and write from there.”

Homegoing, and other fictional works before it such as Walter Dean Myers’ The Glory Field and Alex Haley’s Roots, help to fill the gaps in the history books where the lost narratives of slavery should be. In doing so, it doesn’t shy away from the complicit role Ghanaians played in commodifying their own people. Each character, regardless of race or skin shade, is culpable for their actions. “It’s the kind of thing that people talk about only in whispers so it was important for me to lay it out bare.” Was she nervous about how Ghanaians might receive her story? “I was terrified! Thankfully feedback from Ghanaians in America has been remarkably positive. They can connect to the experience and understand it in intimate ways.”

Homegoing also speaks to today’s fraught race relations in the US in light of the atrocities that have spurred the Black Lives Matter movement.  The irreparable damage brought upon the African diaspora by slavery, leading to loss of identity, belonging and dignity within society, reverberates clearly in 2017 as Obama leaves the White House. “It’s a scary time in America. People are very nervous, and rightfully so,” she says. “The reason this book covers such a long period of time is that I didn’t want anyone to come away from it saying, ‘Slavery was so long ago, why do we need to talk about this today?’ What we’re seeing in the present has everything to do with all of these unhealed moments in our history. These violent actions against black people have been occurring for a long time. It’s just now we’re seeing them because people are recording them. The conversations that are cropping up today are long overdue so it’s good at least that these problems are being recognised. And maybe the book will help some people to further connect those dots.”

“I didn’t want anyone to come away from the book saying, ‘Slavery was so long ago, why do we need to talk about this today?’ What we’re seeing in the present has everything to do with all of these unhealed moments in our history”

Now 27, Gyasi moved to the US aged two. Born in Mampong, Ghana, Gyasi’s father was a professor of French and Francophone African literature and her mother a nurse. The family first relocated to Ohio, then onto Tennessee and settled in Huntsville, Alabama when Gyasi was nine. Hers was one of very few African families in their community at that time, which they found difficult but also fortifying. “My parents instilled in us our heritage to ensure that we wouldn’t assimilate so fully that we’d forget about Ghana,” she says of herself and her two brothers. “It felt like having a different texture to your life that Americans didn’t have. I’d go to school and experience American cultural customs and then come home and it was distinctly Ghanaian. I liked the difference but didn’t notice that it was special until I got older.”

Her father spurred her love of literature, through which she found inspiration and comfort as well as knowledge. “I’ve always been a big reader, and because we moved around so much when I was a child, books were stabilising for me. If I couldn’t make friends, I knew I’d always have a book to read.” Discovering Songs Of Solomon by Toni Morrison in high school was a defining moment. “It was the first book I’d been assigned in class that was written by a black woman and that had a huge impact on me. I was seeing that someone who looked like me and wrote about people like me could do this job and do it so well.”

After Stanford, Gyasi attained her MFA at the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop, during which time she wrote Homecoming. Following its success, she’s begun work on her next novel, which she reveals will be in a contemporary setting. “I’m realising each book is going to feel very different. I’m going have to relearn how to solve different problems of structure and plot but I will always write about black people in America and African communities.” Gyasi’s voice naturally chimes with those of other young African authors receiving international attention such as NoViolet Bulawayo, Dinaw Mengestu and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, all of whom she admires. “Before Adichie most people could only name Chinua Achebe. But she was the beginning of a wave of African writers we’re seeing in America now, so I’m incredibly indebted to her,” she says warmly. “These stories have always been there but the world is finally be interested in hearing them.” 

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi is published in the UK by Viking. Out now.

Photography Michael Lionstar