Set between Ghana and America, this powerful debut novel explores the complex legacy of slavery
A potent tale explores the horrors of the slave trade
Yaa Gyasi can be forgiven for looking a little distracted as she enters the sunny room overlooking the Thames where we’re due to talk. Outside, the river glitters and the London Eye makes its slow revolutions; in here, Gyasi is recovering from the jet-lag brought on by a hectic publicity schedule that’s already taken her all across the United States and is just gearing up for Europe. Homegoing, her first novel, took seven years to write – though she’s only 26 – two of those at the famed Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Spanning more than two centuries, the story begins with a pair of half-sisters, Esi and Effia, who are born in Ghana. One marries a British soldier stationed at Cape Coast Castle, from where Ghana’s slave trade was run; the other is herself taken into slavery, and the novel follows their descendants down to the present day.
When it was completed Gyasi found herself with a seven-figure advance and the kind of reviews many writers only dream of: ‘At its best, the novel makes us experience the horrors of slavery on an intimate, personal level; by its conclusion, the characters’ tales of loss and resilience have acquired an inexorable and cumulative emotional weight,’ wrote Michiko Kakutani in The New York Times. Gyasi, who is poised and thoughtful, is just beginning to balance what happens when she’s writing and what happens out in the world. ‘There’s the quiet side of you that sits at a desk all day and works, and there’s the more public side of you – you have to learn to pivot between the two. It’s kind of overwhelming, learning to be the face of your work,’ she says.
Gyasi herself was born in Ghana, but moved to the United States with her parents, a professor of French and a nurse, when she was two. As her father searched for a job with tenure, they moved from Ohio, to Illinois, to Tennessee, before eventually settling in Huntsville, Alabama, when Gyasi was nine. Reading, she told me, was ‘a very stabilising force’ as they shifted around the country. She was always a writer, she says, ‘but I didn’t understand it was actually a profession’. She laughs. ‘It was only in high school that I started to think that it was something I wanted to do with my life.’
She went to Stanford, majoring in English; and it was while she was at college that she travelled to Ghana, and visited Cape Coast Castle. It was a transformative experience. ‘The tour guide took us through the upper level of the castle, and he told us how the British soldiers there would sometimes marry the local women – which was something I had never heard before. And then he told us how the children of the unions would sometimes be sent back to Britain; then they would come back and form Ghana’s upper and middle classes. So I started to make connections as to why I have family members with British last names.’ But there was another very distinct side to that tour, as she discovered when ‘he took us down to see the dungeons’. It was here that captured Ghanaians were kept before being sent in slave ships to America. ‘It was a really indescribable feeling, to stand there in such a small room, which still smells after all these years, is still grimy and dirty. And to think that there were these free wives above, that really struck me – so I had this idea for these two juxtaposed women, the one who was above, the wife of the soldier, and the one who was below in these dungeons.’
Narratives of slavery have of course been told in fiction before – Gyasi cites Toni Morrison’s Beloved as an important book for her – but in the 21st century, the Black Lives Matter movement has meant that the conversation has moved on. ‘I love Beloved, but it came out in 1987, so there is a lot more that we have gone through since then that we should be talking about. I think there’s a more fertile ground now, not just for books about slavery, but books that think about its lasting effect, and what we mean when we talk about institutional racism.’
The legacy of slavery even cast a shadow over her own childhood. ‘Alabama is Alabama: it is everything you’ve heard about it. Had I not grown up there I never would have written a book like this. I never would have thought about what racism looks like structurally. If we’d stayed in Ohio, I don’t think I would have been thinking about those kinds of things.’
The powerful narratives of Yaa Gyasi’s accomplished first novel do more than reveal the history that still troubles the United States. They make that history immediate, through the story of family told through generations. As for her own family – what do they think of her success? She smiles wryly. At first they weren’t so sure about her choice of career. ‘They had that immigrant thing: get a real job, be a lawyer, be a doctor,’ she says. But now, ‘they’re over the moon’.
‘Homegoing’ by Yaa Gyasi (£16.99, Viking) is out now.