RE­DEMP­TION SONG

Set be­tween Ghana and Amer­ica, this pow­er­ful de­but novel ex­plores the com­plex legacy of slav­ery

Harper's Bazaar (UK) - - Contents - By ERICA WAG­NER

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.

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