Debut Author Snapshot: Yaa Gyasi

Posted by Goodreads on June 6, 2016

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In her much anticipated debut novel, Homegoing, Yaa Gyasi takes the reader on a bewitching, eye-opening journey through seven generations and nearly 300 years of history—a journey rooted in the horrors of the slave trade in Ghana and the United States and that has reverberations up until the present day. Ghana-born, U.S.-raised Gyasi, 26, first thought of the idea for her book while touring Cape Coast Castle on Ghana's Gold Coast, where slaves were held in fetid dungeons before being shipped across the Atlantic. Homegoing focuses on two half-sisters born into different tribes and unknown to each other. One is sold into slavery and transported to America; the other is married to a British officer and housed in luxury in the castle. The book follows both women's ancestral lines, devoting one chapter to a character from each generation, as they weather everything from tribal warfare and plantation life to the Civil War and heroin addiction in 20th-century Harlem to today.

Gyasi tells Goodreads how she created the epic debut that's being compared with Alex Haley's Roots and talks about the writers who inspire her.

Cape Coast Castle, a slave castle in Ghana's Central Region, which inspired Gyasi to write Homegoing. The Door of No Return is also the title of a book by William St. Clair about the castle and slave trade, which Gyasi read as part of her research. (Source: Yaa Gyasi)
Goodreads: Homegoing spans generations and continents. With such an epic scope in mind, how did you begin? Where did you find the first kernel of the story?

Yaa Gyasi: The idea began, for me, in the same place the novel begins: Ghana. I had received a grant from Stanford University to travel there and conduct research for a novel. I'd had a different idea in mind, but I wasn't feeling inspired by it. On a whim a friend and I decided to visit the Cape Coast Castle, a slave castle in Ghana's Central Region. It was there, touring the castle, thinking about how vastly different life upstairs, where the soldiers lived, and downstairs, where the slaves were held, must have been that I realized what I truly wanted to write about.

GR: Fourteen chapters, 14 very specific choices for character, time, and place. Did you try out other chapter settings or other character ideas that you discarded? How did you zero in on your set of 14?

YG: A couple of the characters changed a bit from first draft to last, but for the most part all of the settings and characters are the same. I wrote the novel chronologically, and I didn't outline, but I did sketch out a family tree that I kept on the wall above my desk as I worked, and that really helped me to stay grounded in character and in family. I wanted each character to feel, in some way, as though he were reacting to decisions that his parents had made. For example, in my own life, I can say that if my parents hadn't moved to America, I would most likely still be living in Ghana. My entire life would be different. These kind of crossroad moments came up for my characters countless times, and every time one did, I would think about what it meant for that character's child and for the rest of the family.

Cannons at Cape Coast Castle. (Source: Yaa Gyasi)
GR: In the course of your historical research, what surprised you? What were the most difficult details to get right?

YG: One of the chapters takes place right after the main character, H, is arrested and sold by the state of Alabama to a coal mining company through the convict leasing system of the 19th and early 20th centuries. This system, which basically made it profitable to criminalize and reenslave black men at the end of the Civil War, was something that I had never heard about, and I was surprised that I had never studied it in school. H's chapter was also difficult to get right because I knew so little about mining and a good portion of it takes place in a coal mine. In fact, I think most of the difficult details to get right were those that were about the minutia of performing tasks that I knew nothing about—mining or ship caulking, even cooking. These were moments where I had to pull myself out of the story and go do more research.

A plaque at Cape Coast Castle. (Source: Yaa Gyasi)
GR: Goodreads reviewers have compared Homegoing with One Hundred Years of Solitude. Did you turn to any authors or certain generational novels for inspiration?

YG: One Hundred Years of Solitude is right on the nose. I love that book, and I think that what I took from it, more than style or voice or structure, was permission. Reading García Márquez made me feel expansive and free to at least try anything. Also, seeing the family tree at the front of the novel didn't hurt. Other authors who I always feel inspired by include James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, and Edward P. Jones.

GR: What's next for you as a writer?

YG: I'm working on another novel. It's still in the early stages, but I'm enjoying it so far.

Comments Showing 1-19 of 19 (19 new)

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message 1: by Malia (new)

Malia Really looking forward to this one!

message 2: by Lee (new)

Lee Jones This sounds very intriguing and can not wait to read

message 3: by Marsha (new)

Marsha At the end of a medical mission to Ghana, we had some free time to tour Accra, the capitol. That is where the "castle" is and when you went into the stone dungeons below, the fear and despair of the poor souls who were held here, after being captured and awaiting transport across an ocean to an unknown horror awaiting them.
The Door of No Return still makes me cringe.
When there I was reminded of the show Roots when Kunta Kinte (sp?) is stolen from his family. Recently watched the new Roots & again I thought of the awful place in Ghana.
I am really looking forward to reading Ms. Gyasi's book.

message 4: by Evelyn (new)

Evelyn Onlock I am putting this on my list of books to read even though it will be disturbing.

message 5: by Katja (new)

Katja I pre-ordered this book because I am so excited to read it. I worked in Ghana for 6 months 2 years ago and met my husband there, a Ghanaian from the north. He took me to the two slave forts (castles) in Cape Coast and Elmina that Yaa writes about. As much as the Ghanaian people are incredibly friendly, open, and blind to race, there was tension between me (a white woman) and the high school students we did the tour of the castles with. One turned to me and said "You did this to us." My husband said gently, "Yes, and we also did it to ourselves." Slavery is awful, awful, awful and it still happens today in many countries. Ghana is an incredible country and I am happy to see a novel written about it. I also recommend "My First Coup D'Etat" by John Dramani Mahama, the current Ghanaian President.

message 6: by [deleted user] (new)

I cannot WAIT to read this.

message 7: by Siddiq (new)

Siddiq Haniffa It's a must to read for everyone who value humanity and discard the notion of colour,caste and religion to discriminate humans.

message 8: by Faye (new)

Faye Faraldo Cannot wait to read this one.

message 9: by Tom (new)

Tom Mathews I'm looking forward to this one.

message 10: by June (new)

June Bevan I'm really looking forward to reading this book. African writers have so many stories to tell.

message 11: by George (new)

George Owusu this is a true story and must read, those who are interested can also visit ghana and see these places by themselves, I'm glad president obama went there to see for him self.

message 12: by Paa (new)

Paa Eddie Ghana is one of the few best civilized countries in Africa- very friendly and knowledgeable. It's considered an offence and insult to gesture or hand someone with your left hand. Do not touch nobody's food with your left hand either lol. The reason being that, "the left hand" is reserved for "after bathroom use"- kinda funny but very hygienic . Very peaceful, and can't wait to visit again

message 13: by Ilyas (new)

Ilyas Khan Im from Ghana too and having visited the Cape Coast Castle and Elmina castle, I know there is a lot more story to be told. It saddening to see how luxirious and spacious the rooms on the slave masters were and how enclosed with no windows the dungeons were, up to now the dungeons stink which shows the situation our ancestors were in.

message 14: by Kasey (new)

Kasey Roper I saw a review for this the other day, and am really excited to read it some day.

Sheila L. Shorter I'm reading Homegoing now and find it fascinating.

message 16: by Anita (new)

Anita Im looking forward to read it.

message 17: by Anu (new)

Anu Looking forward to read!! I have Visited Cape Coast Castle in Ghana. So excited!!

message 18: by Kchirafisi (new)

Kchirafisi am going to read '100 years of solitude' first. cant wait

message 19: by Denise (new)

Denise I really enjoyed this book. Adding it to the list of one of my favorites!

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