Last week Yaa Gyasi visited BorderKitchen to talk about her debut novel Homegoing. Moderator of the evening was Fiep van Bodegom, editorial secretary of De Groene Amsterdammer.
Homegoing starts with the stories of two half-sisters who both grow up in Ghana but will never meet each other. One will be sold into slavery, while the other will marry a British slave trader. The chapters that follow, each tell the story of a descendant of the two sisters, taking us both through Ghanaian and American history.
The premise of Homegoing wasn’t that obvious to Gyasi at first. When in 2009, she received a fellowship from Stanford University to research her novel in Ghana, she wanted to write a novel about a mother and a daughter. Unfortunately, this trip didn’t go as planned, leaving Gyasi feeling sad for wasting people’s time and faith in her.
All of this changed when a friend took her to visit the Cape Coast Castle, a former slave fort on Ghana’s Gold Coast, once owned by the Dutch who then sold it to Great Britain. Gyasi learned how British soldiers often would marry the local women, to live a privileged life. At the same time, there were the dungeons underneath the castle, where captured Ghanaians were awaiting their fate of slavery overseas. She decided to write a novel about two women, one sold into slavery and the other married to a Brit, living in the castle, juxtaposing these women’s life stories.
Gyasi also told the audience that she wasn’t interested in a traditional structure. The reason that she decided to write fourteen chapters about fourteen different characters was because she wanted to portray the bigger picture of how colonialism and slavery have shifted over time. To do this she needed as many generations as possible. Despite the myriad of characters in different times in history, she did want the novel to cohere. Gyasi did research for every chapter, and although it was sometimes a challenge to maintain a balance and find an overarching voice, she succeeded.
Born in Ghana, Gyasi and her family moved to America when she was two. Until she was nine, her family moved around a lot, to finally settle in Alabama. Lots of nuances that Gyasi had to deal with as a child, such as being Ghanaian-American and considered African-American in the South, can be traced back in the chapter about Marjorie.
However, this is as far as the comparison to her own family history goes. Gyasi wanted to write a novel about Ghana and America that spans 300 years of history. She didn’t have an audience in mind while writing. Instead, she wrote the novel that she would want to have read when she was fifteen. Gyasi refers to Toni Morrison who once said the following words: “If you don’t have a book that you want to read, write it yourself.”
Gyasi wanted to tell the whole story in her book, meaning she also had to write about the participation of Ghana in the slave trade. She couldn’t hide the parts that made her feel uncomfortable in order to do this. However, since her novel is only 300 pages long, this also means that you get a taste of history: there are always voices that could be missing, giving (aspiring) writers the opportunity to include these voices in their own work.
In conclusion, Van Bodegom mentioned Roxane Gay’s review, in which she calls Homegoing “the strongest case for reparations and black rage [she’s] read in a long time.” Gyasi replies that history has shifted since 2009 when she started writing her novel and that we have entered a new phase. She finds it exciting times for her book to come out, and for it to add to the conversation of this shift in history.
With regards to the ending of her book she points out that, although it hints at a form of restoration and it gives room for personal optimism, the book in itself isn’t optimistic. The cyclical character of trauma in Homegoing is far from hopeful.
It was in short a wonderful evening. Yaa Gyasi is such an amazing person, just listening to all of the interesting things she had to say made my day. I finished Homegoing a few days after the event, and for everyone who hasn’t read it yet, please do. It’s a great novel about slavery, family, history, trauma, racism, colonialism and so much more. Each chapter reads like a short story and be prepared for your heart to be broken in a million little pieces. Roxane Gay called Homegoing a must read, and I couldn’t agree more.
A special thanks to BorderKitchen for organizing another great evening and inviting us to write about it!