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.”
Despite considering Alabama her spiritual home, Gyasi’s description of her childhood echoes a quiet theme in Homegoing: the false promise of home. She documents characters in moments of dislocation, while they leave one home to build another or witness the destruction of the home they’ve found. The book’s title references a common euphemism for death in the black church; instead of a funeral, let’s call it a homegoing celebration. It’s not an ending, but a departure into the unknown, with a prayer that what comes next is better.
Early on, her quest for identity led her to books. In fact, it seems the identity of “writer” is the earliest one she took on comfortably. “I always wanted to be a writer,” she said. Growing up, she lived in predominantly white spaces, and reading helped her figure out where she fit in. The power of reading to a kid who feels out of place is a topic of conversation in Homegoing. Marjorie, a character who shares a few biographical details with Gyasi herself, comes into her own when she follows a teacher’s advice to read and write. Marcus, a young black boy, deals with the trauma of his tumultuous home life by listening to family stories and burying his nose in books.
The meaningful coincidence of her place of birth and childhood home was apparent to her even from a young age. “Coming from a country, Ghana, which was involved in the slave trade and then ending up in a place, Alabama, where the impacts of slavery were still so strongly felt, was something that wasn’t lost on me,” she told me. But they weren’t conversations she felt she could have with her parents or her classmates. The quest for answers and also for justice became a central part of her creative process and her identity. Now that she has aged, she feels comfortable being a Ghanaian and a black American, seeing the value in living in that liminal space. Her youth was spent auditioning and building identities, and as an adult, through fiction, she uses what she settled on for a purpose.
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A sense of radical experimentation is coupled with a spare prose style in Homegoing. The story starts like a folktale: Two half-sisters occupy the Cape Coast Castle at the same time. Effia lives in the stately bedrooms and dining hall, as the colonial governor’s wife, while Esi is jailed in the fetid, feces-stained cell that holds captured slaves before the middle passage. The rest of the chapters tell stories about Effia and Esi’s descendants as time passes. Effia’s lineage stays in Ghana; Esi’s winds up in America, dealing with slavery and its aftermath. The reader knows these contemporary histories in a way the characters never fully understand. The characters’ encounters with Cape Coast Castle are the closest they come to that knowledge. It’s a created circumstance, with a complex purpose. Most sentences in Homegoing work in a linear, uncomplicated way—“I didn’t want the prose to be so purple and lofty that people who don’t normally encounter literature in this way would feel isolated or alienated from the telling of the story,” Gyasi told me—but in its scope, it plays radically with received wisdom about what a novel can and should do.
When Gyasi began her MFA at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, those 100 pages she drafted on breaks from Stanford and on her lunch hour at the tech company almost immediately went into the trashcan. Gyasi originally envisioned Homegoing as a contemporary story with flashbacks to the past, and it just wasn’t coming together. At Iowa, she had the idea to build a family tree around Effia, the woman who originally emerged in her imagination. She retrofitted her plot for the more capacious structure of intertwined short stories. She wrote all of what appeared in the final manuscript during the program, presented four of the chapters in the program’s workshop settings, and submitted it as her final thesis.
Central to Homegoing are the totems and symbols that connect the characters across generations: a diadem passed from parent to child, a personified fire, or a character’s haunting. But what Gyasi’s book really addresses is the way that, especially in relation to the African slave trade, the American notion of race came to shape individual identities. Gyasi’s ideas about fiction are suffused with her lifelong attention to the fluctuating shadows that race casts on American life. In the course of writing Homegoing, there were issues that her classmates and workshop partners didn’t understand. “I would come into workshop and people would say, ‘Oh, your work is so political,’ and it would be a story about a girl with her cat. Is the presence of a black character what makes the work political?” She takes the fear that often accompanies writers who we categorize as something other—what if they think my book is only about my identity?—and turns it inside out. The book is about so many identities that they can’t all be hers.
Gyasi’s familiarity with both Ghanaian and American societies allowed her to see the blind spots in the way each culture talks about race and its connection to history. It helped inspire the twinned structure of Homegoing, which brings attention to colonialism and slavery without functioning as a morality play. “I don’t think Americans are used to thinking about colonialism in the same way that, obviously, West Africans are,” she said. “The events on the American side of the family are going to be more familiar for Americans, and I think the opposite is true for Ghanaians. I don’t think we, as Ghanaians, think about the legacy of slavery or the history of slavery in the same way that African Americans are used to.”
In light of her treatment of these issues, Gyasi’s use of Homegoing as her title is a bit ironic. If a homegoing ceremony tries to launch a soul into the unknown after a tumultuous life, with the hope that God will shepherd it to safety, Homegoing has no such protective aim. Gyasi is not interested in redemption; instead, she wants to find a way for us to talk about these stories that doesn’t rely on effacing an individual’s suffering. Acknowledgment and education aren’t panaceas, but they are important steps toward reversing the dehumanizing practices that she documents.
The book ends with a bit of kismet. The two bottom nodes on the family tree, Marcus and Marjorie, meet at a Stanford party and hit it off. They bond over their passion for family history, for seeking out knowledge about black struggle. Eventually, in their late 20s and in love, they travel together to the Cape Coast Castle, where their ancestors lived 300 years before. We’ve come full circle, a homegoing completed. And yet, this final homegoing does not function as a euphemism for bodily death but as a shedding of burdens. For both characters, the trip is the end of a quest: Marcus wants to find a way to tell the story of his family to the world, Marjorie wants to keep her memories of her grandmother and her Ghanaian roots alive. Their chance meeting and easy passion is a departure from strict realism, but it allows Gyasi to comment on the purpose of identity in a life governed by uncontrollable forces. When given the autonomy, guidance, inspiration, and time their ancestors were denied, the characters find contentment, even some joy. Yet the enlightenment and sacrifice of those who came before are indelible on their present-day selves. Marcus and Marjorie’s return to the land of their ancestors is cleansing, and they jump into the ocean, laughing. It’s neither transcendence nor disavowal; despite homelands that couldn’t give them peace or settled identities, they are now free to lay their own paths.