Aspen Times Weekly: Yaa Gyasi’s potent debut novel
February 23, 2017
If You Go …
Who: Yaa Gyasi, presented by Aspen Words
Where: Paepcke Auditorium
When: Tuesday, Feb. 28, 6 p.m.
How much: $25
Tickets: Wheeler Opera House box office; http://www.aspenshowtix.com
Yaa Gyasi's "Homegoing" is an epic novel that spans eight generations of two families, spanning two continents and three centuries.
Most books with such a broad scope are 1,000-plus-page doorstoppers or series. Gyasi's comes in at a potent 300 pages. The result is an extraordinary – and extraordinarily crafted – story that allows a reader to clearly see the big picture of the African slave trade, the legacy of slavery and institutional racism in America, the unhealed wounds of intergenerational trauma and the rhymes of human history from era to era.
Initially, Gyasi planned to set the book – her debut – in the present, with flashbacks to Ghana and the U.S. in the 18th century.
"I realized I was actually more interested in being able to watch the through-line of time, and how things like slavery and colonialism changed over this very long period," Gyasi, 27, told me in a recent phone interview. "And I felt like, to do that, I needed a structure that would allow me to stop in as many generations as possible, so that we could see the kinds of gradual shifts that took place, how one thing led to this other thing, that led to this other thing."
The book begins with pair of half-sisters in Ghana. One marries a British soldier, while the other is sold into slavery and shipped to America. The rest of the novel tells of their descendants in chapters alternating between Ghana and the U.S.
Released in June, "Homegoing" became one of the most acclaimed books of 2016, landing on Time magazine's and Oprah's top 10 lists and winning the John Leonard First Book Prize. Gyasi will discuss the book Feb. 28 as part of Aspen Words' ongoing Winter Words series at Paepcke Auditorium.
Gyasi was born in Ghana and raised mostly in Alabama. The novel's roots trace back to 2009, when Gyasi and a friend toured the Cape Coast Castle in Ghana, where "Homegoing" begins. She was in Ghana on a research fellowship from Stanford University, where she was a sophomore.
"The tour guide started to talk about things I had never heard before – about how the British soldiers used to marry the local women, about different aspects of the role of West Africans in the slave trade," she recalls. "It was the beginning of me understanding that what I had learned was incomplete and deciding that I wanted to seek out more."
In the novel, Effia lives with her husband in Cape Coast Castle while her half-sister Esi is kidnapped and imprisoned in the dungeon below.
Characters in each generation of "Homegoing" are emblematic of their era – all play a role in history of Ghana and America. But, on the page, each is alive and nuanced and filled with the quirks of an individual – these are not the vessels of bad historical fiction who spew facts to inform the reader. They feel real. And as the book moves from era to era, its narrative tone and language shift ever so slightly, from almost Biblical and parabolic in early Ghana sections to the contemporary colloquialisms of the Harlem Renaissance and millennial America.
Gyasi researched deeply for the book, and continued to throughout the writing process, but didn't allow the research to smother her story.
"That interplay between the research and the writing helped me remember that the focus was on the writing," she says. "I couldn't spend all my time worrying about what color shoes somebody might be wearing in the 18th century."
At a moment when many Americans are baffled by the seeming resurgence of white nationalism, shocked by the drumbeat of police shootings that gave rise to the Black Lives Matter movement and frustrated by issues surrounding mass incarceration, "Homegoing" is vital reading.
"One thing I hope the book does is that it reminds people that so much of what we're dealing with in the present didn't appear out of nowhere – that it's important to look at events in the present in the context of history," Gyasi says. "When we see something like the killings of unarmed black men, if you look at it like something that's happening over the course of four years, it might not look as important or as dire to you as when you look at it in the long history and tradition of this very behavior."
Last year, when Aspen Words was planning the launch of its new Aspen Prize for Literature – honoring novels that address vital social issues of our time – the nonprofit's executive director, Adrienne Brodeur, spoke of "Homegoing" as an example of the kind of book they're looking to highlight (it won't be eligible; submissions began
For Gyasi, fiction is a key companion to history and nonfiction – a powerful form that can build empathy and understanding in a way that textbooks cannot.
"If you're reading something in a textbook, you have a very different relationship than you do when you're reading that same information through the lens of fiction," she says. "Fiction can take these moments and make them not just digestible, but visceral: These things play out in real people, in real lives; not just in this detached, nameless, faceless way."