Yaa Gyasi’s ‘Homegoing’ is chosen for One Book, One Region

Yaa Gyasi (Michael Lionstar)
Yaa Gyasi (Michael Lionstar)

It was a trip back to the country where she was born that sparked Yaa Gyasi’s imagination — and led her to create her widely acclaimed debut novel “Homegoing.”

Gyasi’s family left Ghana when she was just a toddler and moved to America, eventually settling in Huntsville, Alabama. Gyasi, whose father is a professor of French and whose mother is a nurse, returned to Ghana on a grant in the summer of 2009. It was just after she wrapped her sophomore year at Stanford University, where she was majoring in English and had her eye on a writing career. At the time, she was contemplating writing a fairly traditionally structured book about mothers and daughters. That changed.

One of her stops in Ghana was a visit to the notorious Cape Coast Castle — one of the “slave castles” in western Africa where people were imprisoned before they were sold into slavery in the Americas. Seeing this site not only affected Gyasi deeply; it also inspired “Homegoing.”

“It’s just a harrowing experience to enter a place like that,” Gyasi, now 27, says in an interview with The Day. “I don’t really use the word haunted very often in my life, but it is a space that feels haunted. You can only imagine the kinds of devastation that occurred there. I knew that I hadn’t read anything, certainly not in fiction, about that place. So I wanted to lend a voice, I guess, to characters who might have lived there, albeit fictionally.”

And so “Homegoing” begins with one chapter each about two half-sisters who grow up in Ghana. One marries a British soldier serving at the Cape Coast Castle and lives in the upper floors. The other is kidnapped and held in the castle’s basement dungeon before she is sent on a ship to the United States, where she becomes a slave.

Gyasi then artfully wends her way through history. With each successive chapter of “Homegoing,” she focuses on descendants of those sisters, one strand of the family growing up in the U.S. and the other in Ghana, culminating in a section set in the modern day. The story travels through seven generations, with characters experiencing everything from the Fugitive Slave Act to the Harlem Renaissance.

Creating “Homegoing” was a long process, seven years all told. The results are extraordinary, drawing all sorts of plaudits and awards after being released in June 2016. It earned the PEN/Hemingway Award and the NBCC’s John Leonard Award. It was deemed a notable book by The New York Times and The Washington Post, and it was named one of the best books of 2016 by NPR, Time, Oprah.com and Entertainment Weekly, among many others.

And, locally, “Homegoing” has also been selected as the 2017 One Book, One Region in southeastern Connecticut. The program, which has been running for 15 years, aims “to bring people together to discuss ideas, to broaden the appreciation of reading and to break down barriers among people.” Previous novels chosen for One Book, One Region include Jonathan Safran Foer’s “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” and David Benioff’s “City of Thieves.”

Betty Anne Reiter, director of the Groton Public Library and a member of the One Book, One Region selection committee, says One Book, One Region organizers felt that “Homegoing” featured the kinds of issues and writing that they wanted to share.

Tracee Reiser, who is senior associate dean of community partnerships at Connecticut College and is also a member of the One Book, One Region selection committee, says that One Book, One Region is a forum to break down barriers and build community. She adds that it can bring people together, with the content of a book building understanding between people.

(Toward that end, Gyasi has spoken about how, when she was younger, she didn’t feel American enough in the U.S. and Ghanian enough in Ghana. She has said that some of “Homegoing” grew from her time spent trying to figure out where she fit in.)

Reiser says of “Homegoing,” “A lot of people, I think, don’t understand the history of how people from this area in Africa came to the United States and then the reoccurring oppression that resulted from enslavement. ‘Homegoing’ really gives the historical analysis in a very compelling way … People can look at what systems can do to people, and we can learn from that.”

While public libraries will be offering a host of programs related to the book, Connecticut College is also participating in the One Book, One Region initiative. It is the school’s book for its 2017 Summer Read program. The college is sending a copy of “Homegoing” to its nearly 500 incoming first-year students. The book will be part of the students’ First Year Seminars. Through the college’s Community Partnerships office, high school students will get copies of the book and participate in guided discussion groups.

One of the striking things about “Homegoing” is its structure, how Gyasi moves the story forward, shifting between characters in Ghana and America and, with each pair of chapters, moving onto the next generation.

“The structure took me a while to figure out,” Gyasi says. “At first, I’d wanted to write something that would be set in the present, and then just flash back to 18th-century Ghana. But the longer I worked on it, the more I realized I wanted to be able to look at the entire stretch of time. It felt like, in order to do that, I needed a structure that would allow me to stop in as many generations as possible and move forward chapter by chapter.”

She felt strongly that this was the kind of book where the whole — including that expansive timeline — was the most important thing.

“I thought of it as a mosaic, where, when you pull back, you get that whole picture, but when you go closer, you see the little pieces that make it up,” she says.

In a video on The Wall Street Journal website, Gyasi says that, by the time they got to the end of the book, she wanted readers to understand why black people in America feel the things they feel. She hopes that readers will see the steps that have led to today’s racial tension. The book powerfully depicts how history has an effect on future generations.

Expanding on that sentiment in her interview with The Day, Gyasi says, “Sometimes, we believe that history is something that’s kind of discrete — something happens, and then it’s over. But, in fact, we continue to deal with the repercussions of so many things that we assume are over. Even something like slavery — which, I’ve heard people say, happened millions of years ago, which is not true — it only took me seven generations to get back to it in the book. In the life of a family, what does that look like? It can look like inherited trauma. So if it can look like that on an intimate scale, what can it look like on a political scale? So I do very much believe that the past leaves a footprint.”

Discussing becoming a novelist, Gyasi says, “I had always wanted to be writer. I just read so much when I was a child that writing felt like a natural step forward.”

Early inspirations included Toni Morrison and James Baldwin. Gyasi was very interested in Victorian literature when she was younger, too, with George Eliot being her favorite.

Asked whether, considering it took seven years from start to publication, Gyasi ever worried that the book wouldn’t come together, she says, “I think any first novelist will tell you half of your time is worried … that it won’t come together. Until you write a book, I feel like you can’t really know for sure that it’s something that’s possible. It feels like such a grand, ambitious thing for anyone to want to do. So I certainly worried — not just that I would be able to finish it but that it would be publishable, I mean, all of those things.”

As for what’s next for this success-story novelist, Gyasi is still touring quite a bit, since the paperback version of “Homegoing” just came out at the beginning of May.

And is she working on a new novel?

“Slowly, I guess,” she says. “It’s still very early.”

 

 

If you go

What: “One Book, One Region” kickoff 

When: 5:30 p.m. Wednesday

Where: The CURE Innovation Commons, 93 Shennecosett Road, Groton

Details: “Homegoing” will be introduced through video clips and a presentation by Connecticut College professor of history Henryatta Ballah, who will provide historical context for the novel

Admission: Free

Yaa Gyasi talk: Gyasi will not be at the kickoff but will give a public talk at 7 p.m. Sept. 27 at Connecticut College’s Palmer Auditorium.

For more information: (860) 441-6750, onebookoneregion.org

 

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