In 2008, someone turned a camera on novelist Yaa Gyasi in a dark room. She’s difficult to see but easy to hear, her velvety voice unusual for a woman so young. Eight years ago, Gyasi, at age 20, was already entrancing, drawing fans as a part of the Stanford Spoken Word Collective. “They call it the Bible Belt because the pants won’t stay up,” she intones in a poem about sexual hypocrisy at a Christian church. The performance is humorous and heartbreaking, but her voice is steady and expressive. Early on, Gyasi alighted upon a storytelling style that doesn’t compromise political engagement or entertainment value.
The night before I met Gyasi for the first time, a college friend of hers told me about how impressive she was as a part of the collective. She had a sense of literature, and it was obvious. A writer for the Stanford Daily described her presence as “quiet assurance” in a 2011 review of their winter show. For some, the dredging up of college art would be mortifying or unfair, but Gyasi was already making fascinating work.
In 2009, she was awarded a summer trip to Ghana, where she intended to do research for her first novel. A few ideas came and went, but nothing stuck. It wasn’t until she took a trip to the Cape Coast Castle, a colonial fort that dates back to the 18th century, that she found inspiration. Formerly a holding bay for slaves and storage site for heavy artillery, the castle has been retrofitted as a tourist attraction, complete with tours of the colonial governors’ drawing rooms. Gyasi was surprised by the tour’s disregard for the experiences of slaves trapped beyond what they called “The Door of No Return.” “The place felt haunted to me in this particular way, and it was something that I really wanted to explore,” she would later say. She left with a sheaf of notes and an image in her mind: the African wife of the governor who lived upstairs.
Two years later, Gyasi graduated from Stanford with a degree in English and a job lined up at a tech startup. Despite a lifelong conviction that she would become a writer, she wanted to give herself a year to live in the real world and make a little money. Despite her intent to bring a creative eye to the buttoned-up work, she found the job stifling and unpleasant. So, a number of months after beginning that job, applications to MFA programs were in the mail and 100 pages of a novel were on her desk, telling a story about that woman.
That story became Homegoing, her debut novel, which was published this June to critical acclaim. But one could say the story behind Homegoing began not with her visit to Ghana but long before, about a quarter-century ago, when her family moved from Ghana to Ohio with the 2-year-old Yaa in tow. They moved around from there: to Illinois, to Tennessee, and finally to Alabama when she was 9. “Alabama is the place I think of as home. My family is there now,” she told an audience at the Brooklyn Public Library this June.
In that sense, the move to Alabama was Gyasi’s first homegoing. But it didn’t necessarily provide her with solace about her identity. She struggled with not knowing who she was or how she was supposed to act. “I didn’t have such a strong sense of myself as an African-American,” she said. “I was an African immigrant and felt the cultural separation from my peers. I was trying to constantly navigate the distance between my ethnicity and my race.”