Yaa Gyasi | 'When we use words like 'institutionalised racism', what does that mean?'

Yaa Gyasi | 'When we use words like 'institutionalised racism', what does that mean?'

The chances are quite high that you will have already heard the name Yaa Gyasi. Perhaps when her US agent clinched a rumoured seven-figure deal with Knopf after a 10-way publisher auction on the eve of the 2015 London Book Fair meaning the then-25-year-old’s début was one of the most talked about books of the fair.

Or perhaps when the novel was published in the US in June 2016 to huge critical acclaim, most notably from the New York Times’ legendarily acerbic book reviewer Michiko Kakutani, who gave it a rave review. Or perhaps you saw the interviews with the author that ran in US Vogue, the Wall Street Journal and Time magazine.

Homegoing (Viking, January) is an extraordinary novel about slavery and colonialism which begins in 18th-century Ghana and moves through the centuries to the present day. It begins with the stories of two half-sisters, Effia and Esi, who are born in different villages on the Gold Coast of Africa. The two women are destined never to meet, although at one point they live in the same building, Cape Coast Castle, the African headquarters of the British slave trade for 150 years. Effia, whose family trades with the British, becomes a wife to the governor of the castle, whereas Esi is sold into slavery by traders from a village at war with her own and kept in the dungeon before she is put on a slave ship bound for the US.

Crossing continents

When we meet at Penguin’s office Gyasi, a petite, vibrant woman with a ready smile, explains that Homegoing, which she started writing when she was only 19 years old (she is now 26), took shape after a visit to Ghana. The writer was born in Ghana, but moved to the US as a child. On her trip she took a tour of the notorious Cape Coast Castle and learned from the guide that the British officers who lived and worked in the castle would sometimes marry the local women.

When taken down to see the dungeons, where hundreds of captives were held in appalling conditions, she was struck by the fact that there would have been free Ghanaian women walking above them. “I left with that idea of the two women juxtaposed; the woman who had been kept in the dungeon and the wife of a British slaver,” she says. “It was the only time ever in my writing life that I felt this instantaneous stroke of inspiration! But I left the castle knowing that I wanted to write a book that centred around it in some way.”

Homegoing traces the descendants of both women through eight generations, and roughly 250 years, in just 300 pages. It is an ambitious structure and Gyasi explains that when she started writing the novel, she intended to do something more traditional, setting the main narrative in present-day America with flashbacks to 18th-century Ghana. “I realised over time that I was far more interested in being able to look at how slavery and colonialism and institutionalised racism—all of those things—moved and changed subtly over a long period of time. I felt like it was too easy to lose that through-line if I had that traditional structure. So I decided to have a structure that enabled me to stop in as many generations as possible along this long thread of time.”

Moving chronologically through time rather than using flashbacks makes the novel a powerful read. It is possible to imagine some people thinking that the 18th century was a very long time ago, but Gyasi proves that it really wasn’t, showing the lasting effects of slavery reverberating through history to present-day America. Each chapter tells the story of one of Effia or Esi’s descendants, alternating between Ghana and the US. From the Gold Coast in colonial times, to the cotton-picking plantations of Mississippi, to the dope fiends and dive bars of Harlem, her characters fight and suffer—but keeping fighting.

An eye for detail

Gyasi keeps what she calls the “big-picture moments” of history in the background but each chapter is vividly grounded in its time as the characters feel the effects of political events such as the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act or the Anglo-Asante wars that took place between 1824 and 1901. “When we use words like ‘institutionalised racism’ in America, a term that comes up a lot, what does that mean? What does that look like? How does that affect a person’s body or a person’s family? Those kinds of questions were those I was thinking about a lot while I was writing this book.”

There are some haunting scenes in the book; Gyasi has the ability to focus on a single detail which somehow makes the scene more terrible in the reader’s mind. “The writing was never as difficult as the research. For every traumatic moment that this book expresses, there was something that was even more deeply disturbing in the research texts,” she says, thoughtfully. “And knowing that those things happened to real people, not just these [characters] who existed in my imagination...” her voice trails off.

Homegoing also examines the complicity of Africans in the slave trade. It was not, as I had thought, a case of the British marching through the villages and seizing people, but that Africans were sold to the British, and so into slavery, by other Africans. I found the tearing away of children and babies from their mothers in myriad ways particularly painful to read. Gyasi agrees: “One of the most heartbreaking things to think about are the ways in which these families were fractured so irreparably.”

Gyasi was born in Mampong, Ghana, but left aged two when her father relocated the family to the US in order to undertake a PhD. Their first home was Columbus, Ohio, but her parents were keen that Gyasi and her brothers should not forget their African heritage. She tells a lovely story about her father paging through the phone book, looking for Ghanaian surnames so he could call them. “He did that every time we moved,” she says, laughing. “He was very diligent about making sure that we could
build a community wherever we were.”

Toni Morrison was an early and pervading influence on her writing; reading The Song of Solomon aged 17 was a pivotal moment. But the biggest literary influence on Homegoing was Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. “It was the idea that [my] book could be expansive and have room to cover as much as I wanted it to,” Gyasi says. “So many of the things he does in that book, I feel, are things that writing students would be told to never try. So it felt permissive, to read a book like that.”

As one of Penguin General’s lead débuts for 2017, Homegoing will be supported with a major publicity campaign and, unusually for the hardback edition, a consumer-facing marketing campaign. Yaa Gyasi is a name to remember, and Homegoing is an extraordinary novel you are unlikely to forget.