In a dungeon under a fortress on the coast of Ghana, in the spot where captured Africans had once been shackled until they could be shipped to America and sold — that was where Yaa Gyasi began to plan her first novel.
“The tour guide started to talk to us about things I had never heard before, like how the British soldiers used to marry the local women,” Gyasi (pronounced “Jessie”) said in a telephone interview. “And that kind of piqued my interest. And then they took us down to see the dungeons, which was a really harrowing experience for me. Standing there and imagining that there were free Ghanaians up above who didn’t know what was down there. It really haunted me. And I knew immediately that I wanted to write about it.”
“Homegoing,” a multigenerational saga tracing the lives of two Ghanaian half-sisters and their descendants, was published last summer to great acclaim. A bestseller almost immediately, it won the National Book Critics Circle’s prize for best debut book and propelled its young author onto the National Book Foundation’s “Five Under 35” list — and into the dizzying world of interviews, readings and book tours. There’s talk of a television miniseries.
Gyasi will be in the Twin Cities twice this spring — March 6-7 for Eden Prairie Reads and a University of Minnesota event, and May 11-12 for Club Book and a bookstore reading.
Jody Russell is on the committee for Eden Prairie Reads, which has been building community conversations around books for 11 years. She said the committee was looking for a more serious title this year — in the past they have brought in lighter writers, such as Cheryl Strayed and Garth Stein, to great success. When she read “Homegoing” she knew right away that was the book she wanted to focus on.
“Eden Prairie is kind of white-bready,” Russell said. “We on the committee got together and talked about what would resonate in our community. We did read Colson Whitehead’s ‘Underground Railroad,’ and we loved it,” but after his novel was named an Oprah book and then won the National Book Award, Whitehead commanded a fee larger than they could afford.
“The publisher said, ‘You know, I have another book you might like,’ and it was Yaa Gyasi’s book,” Russell said. “When I finished reading it, I thought Oprah had picked the wrong book. I loved this book.”
Harshness and love
“Homegoing” spans seven generations of two lines of a family, beginning in the 18th century with Effa, the Ghanaian wife of a British soldier, and Esi, her half-sister, who is enslaved.
The book toggles between America and Africa, each chapter focusing on a new character and a new generation. Much of the action, particularly in the first half of the book, is brutal and harsh, but the narrative is also threaded with love and many chapters end on a tender moment.
“I think one of the amazing things about black people in America, particularly, is the amount of resistance and the will to survive, having had this horrible history but still persisting,” Gyasi said. “And I think that has a lot to do with love — wanting something better for your children, your spouse. It felt right to focus on these kinds of personal relationships.”
The novel, Russell said, “gave both history and context in which to look at racism. This is the first book that did this for me — it made me understand in a historical context why people of African-American background are still carrying so much emotion about this. It’s not that long ago. It’s recent history.
“Yaa Gyasi took the threads of this story and brought them from Ghana all the way forward in a way that tied it together.”
Gyasi’s visit to Eden Prairie on March 6 will be followed two weeks later by a panel discussion on racial bias in Minnesota, with Shannon Gibney, David Lawrence Grant and other contributors to the essay collection, “A Good Time for the Truth.”
Seven years to write
Gyasi, 26, was born in Ghana and moved to the United States with her parents at age 2. Her father was studying for a doctorate in French and Francophone African literature, and the family moved from Ohio to Illinois to Tennessee and finally to Huntsville, Ala., where Gyasi grew up. She was a reader and a writer from an early age.
Gyasi graduated from Stanford University and the Iowa Writers Workshop, and it was during her time at Stanford that she won a fellowship that brought her back to Africa. She had planned on setting a novel in her mother’s hometown of Mampong, but the town, while pleasant enough, didn’t resonate with her. She and a friend made their way to the Ghanaian coast, instead, “and ended up at the Castle,” she said, “which is when I really realized what my novel was going to be about.”
“Homegoing” took seven years to complete.
“It required a tremendous amount of research,” she said. “I tried with this book to always remember that the focus was on the character rather than anything else. It was important to me, covering this much time, to get a sense of what the characters might be dealing with and having these voices feel true to the time period.”
Since the book rose to prominence, touring has been nonstop and she has not had time to start anything new.
“It has been very crazy,” she said. “I’m busier than I ever have been before. It’ll be nice to kind of have some still, quiet moments and write again, but it hasn’t really happened yet.”