Books

A 26-Year-old Looks to the Past for Her Literary Debut

Yaa Gyasi at her home in Berkeley, Calif. on May 31, 2016.
Cody Pickens for TIME Yaa Gyasi at her home in Berkeley, Calif. on May 31, 2016.

Sarah Begley is a staff writer for TIME.

Yaa Gyasi mines dark history for her first novel ‘Homegoing'

The story of one of the summer’s most-anticipated novels begins with a trip to Ghana’s Cape Coast Castle—a symbol in stone of slavery and the walls built to ignore it.

Yaa Gyasi was a college sophomore when she visited her native country in 2009, 18 years after her family moved to the United States. She was there to do research for what she thought would be a straightforward novel about a mother and a daughter. When she visited the old fort, that novel shifted and expanded into something much bigger. The result is Homegoing, to be published Tuesday, an account of slavery’s legacy, stretched over eight generations and two countries, and one that earned the 26-year-old a whopping seven-figure advance for her first book.

At the castle, some of the local women married the British soldiers stationed there. Others were kept in dungeons before being shipped of to the New World. On her tour, Gyasi saw those two worlds up close for the first time. “That juxtaposition of the majesty upstairs with the awfulness and despair downstairs really struck me,” she says. “I was really struck also that there were women upstairs who maybe didn’t understand or realize what was going on underneath them.”

This contrast gave Homegoing its premise: The novel begins with two half-sisters growing up in Fante and Asante territory in the mid-18th century. While one marries a British officer and leads a life of relative privilege at the Cape Coast Castle, the other is captured and sold into slavery. Each subsequent chapter tells the story of one of their descendants, alternating between Ghana and America and showing how the characters were affected by major political events from the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act through the Harlem Renaissance to the heroin epidemic. The book ends around the turn of the 21st century. (The Civil War serves as a divider between parts one and two, and is not depicted.)

Gyasi’s novel begins with half-sisters who don’t know each other, Esi and Effia, and ends with distant relatives who’ll never know they share an ancestor, Marcus and Marjorie. Certain of Marjorie’s biographical details resemble Gyasi’s, and the author says Marjorie’s chapter is the one she revisits the least because it’s so “familiar.”

Born in Ghana and raised in America, the daughter of a professor and a nurse, Gyasi moved with her two brothers several times before the family settled in Alabama. “I was a really shy kid,” she says, “and for long periods of my life the only people I felt really close to or understood by, I guess, were my brothers, who had the same experience not just of moving around but also being a Ghanaian in Alabama, which is a very unique position to be in. We share a lot of trauma and a lot of joy and all the things that all families feel for each other.”

Gyasi says books were her “closest friends” when she was young. “Very quickly for me reading and writing went hand in hand, though I know that’s not true for all children who are big readers.” She submitted the first story she ever wrote to the Reading Rainbow Young Writers and Illustrators Contest, and received a certificate of achievement signed by actor LeVar Burton.

yaa-gyasi-book

“It was my most prized possession, and I was just hooked from there,” she says. “But I don’t think I really understood that you could choose writing as a profession for many years later. It wasn’t really until I was 17, when I read Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison and saw, ‘Oh, someone like me, a black woman, can do this as their job and do it so well.’ And so that was really a turning point. It was the beginning of me saying to people that I wanted to be a writer.”

After graduating from Stanford with a degree in English, Gyasi studied at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop—considered by many to be the best MFA program in the country—and began serious work on Homegoing. When she’d finished, she cold-emailed the draft to an agent whose clients she respected and he took her on. With its acquisition by Knopf, Gyasi joined the ranks of recent novelists, from Garth Risk Hallberg to Emma Cline (her novel The Girls also comes out in June) who reportedly received more than $1 million for their first books.

Having that paycheck publicized feels like “a double-edged sword” Gyasi says. “It’s great that it brings the work attention,” she says, and she thinks it’s good for other African immigrants to see that it’s possible to have a lucrative career in the arts. But “it also makes me nervous that people are going to have kind of harsher expectations for my work than they might have otherwise.”

As she started drafting Homegoing in earnest, Gyasi was drawn to Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. She found the novel’s repetitive and unusual narrative “permissive,” she says. “So many things that writers get told are rules, silly things, like ‘Don’t start two characters’ names with the same letter’ was something that I had heard before. And then you read One Hundred Years of Solitude and they all have the same name.”

Gyasi’s writing shares some of Márquez’s use of folklore and his narrative rhythm. It also evokes writers like Zora Neale Hurston in its plainspoken language and unusual sentence structure. Sometimes, her writing takes the form of parable: “When someone does wrong,” one character says, “whether it is you or me, whether it is mother or father, whether it is the Gold Coast man or the white man, it is like a fisherman casting a net into the water. He keeps only the one or two fish that he needs to feed himself and puts the rest in the water thinking that their lives will go back to normal. No one forgets that they were once captive, even if they are now free.”

Homegoing earned early praise from the author Roxane Gay, who called the book “the strongest case for reparations and black rage I’ve read in a long time.” Ta-Nehisi Coates gave Homegoing another endorsement, a moment that Gyasi says shocked her. “I didn’t even know that he had a [copy], and my boyfriend turned to me one day and was like, ‘Ta-Nehisi Coates is tweeting about your novel.’ I was like, ‘What?’ I had been reading his Atlantic pieces since college, and they were really formative for me in those years.”

Gyasi’s work can be seen as a fictional counterpart to the nonfiction work of Coates and the writers Isabel Wilkerson and Nikole Hannah-Jones, who have explored the lingering effects of slavery and institutionalized racism. “I hope that we can start to have a longer view of our history and how that informs the way that we treat people in the present,” Gyasi says. “Every moment has a precedent and comes from this other moment, that comes from this other moment, that comes from this other moment.”

Tap to read full story

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary on events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. Opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of TIME editors.

Your browser is out of date. Please update your browser at http://update.microsoft.com