Author Yaa Gyasi

The author joins us to discuss her highly anticipated literary debut, Homegoing.

Yaa Gyasi is an author whose debut novel, Homegoing, weaves three centuries of slavery and colonialism into the fabric of America. Born in Ghana and raised in Huntsville, Alabama, Gyasi holds a BA in English from Stanford University and an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.


Tavis Smiley: Good evening from Los Angeles. I’m Tavis Smiley.

Tonight a conversation with Yaa Gyasi. Her debut novel, “Homegoing”, is one of this year’s most anticipated literary debuts. Set in Ghana and the U.S., it traces the deeply entrenched legacy of slavery in America and Africa.

Then musician and activist, Tom Morello, joins us to talk about his new supergroup, Prophets of Rage.

We’re glad you’ve joined us. Those conversations coming up right now.

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Tavis: Pleased to welcome Yaa Gyasi to this program. At just 26 years of age, the Stanford grad and Iowa Writers’ Workshop alum has released one of this year’s most anticipated literary debuts.

Her novel, “Homegoing”, traces the terrible impact of slavery on generations of an African family beginning with two sisters in 18th century Ghana. One is married off to an Englishman while the other is sent to America and sold into slavery. Yaa Gyasi, good to have you on this program.

Yaa Gyasi: Thank you so much.

Tavis: Such an auspicious start.

Gyasi: Yeah [laugh].

Tavis: Are you feeling the pressure?

Gyasi: I’m feeling the pressure, I think, yeah, but…

Tavis: How are you navigating it?

Gyasi: You know, I’m trying. It’s been really wonderful and also very kind of beyond my wildest expectations.

Tavis: So, Yaa, Y-a-a, means what?

Gyasi: It’s the name for a girl born on Thursday.

Tavis: And you were born on Thursday?

Gyasi: I was born on Thursday [laugh].

Tavis: Just checking [laugh]. I was saying to you before we came on the air here–I’ll probably get in trouble for saying this–I’ve been to, I think, 16 or 17 African countries and I’ve never met any people nicer than the Ghanaian people. I assume your father agrees with me on that [laugh]?

Gyasi: Yes. My father definitely agrees with you on that.

Tavis: They are quite beautiful people and I think I can assume why, but tell me why the story is situated in Ghana.

Gyasi: Yeah. I was born in Ghana. I lived there until about age two and then we moved to Ohio, Illinois, Tennessee and then Alabama when I was nine. And I think just, you know, growing up in a state where the effects of slavery are still so strongly felt and coming from a country that had some involvement in the slave trade made me really want to delve into the story.

Tavis: Why’d your parents move so much in those early years?

Gyasi: My father’s a professor. He teaches French and Francophone African literature. We moved to America while he was getting his PhD. at Ohio State and then moved so much while he was looking for, you know, a tenure track position.

Tavis: Fair to say, then, that your father has anything to do with your love of literature?

Gyasi: Oh, yeah, I think, definitely, definitely. He was always taking me to the library to get books and very early on, I think, really invested in my love of literature.

Tavis: All right, so tell me the story about “Homegoing”, these two sisters.

Gyasi: Sure. So “Homegoing” follows the descendants of two half-sisters who are born in 18th century Ghana. The first half-sister, Effia, is the Fante wife of the British governor of the Cape Coast Castle which is a slave castle.

Then her half-sister, Esi, is kept in the castle as a slave before being sent to America. So the novel follows either sister, either generation just down the line from 18th century Ghana to present day America.

Tavis: I’ve often heard from writers that, once you get into the story, it kind of takes you more than you driving it.

Gyasi: Yes.

Tavis: Was there a particular story that you wanted to tell when you started these two characters and did that story change in any way in the writing, in the telling of the story?

Gyasi: You know, the structure changed a lot. In the beginning, I always knew that I wanted the novel to kind of be about the present states of race, the kind of legacy of slave trading in both Ghana and America. So originally, my idea was to have the novel set in the present and just flash back to the 18th century.

Then I kind of started to realize that I wanted to talk a little bit more about, you know, all of the events that have led to the present day. So I wanted this to kind of be a novel about a long period of time, so once I realized that, the structure changed to allow me to stop in as many decades along the way as I could.

Tavis: I’ve asked this question of others, but since this is your first time herenot your last, I hopeI now get a chance to ask you, given all the hype deserved and legitimate for this new text, “Homegoing”, and that is how do you tackle a subject like slavery and all the tentacles that offshoot it in fiction and yet get a message across without proselytizing, without preaching?

Gyasi: I mean, that’s the hard part about writing a book like this. I think it was important to me to always focus on the individual’s stories. You know, their stories about love and hope and fear and kind of all of these things that make them human so that it wasn’t a history lesson, so it didn’t feel like you were just opening a textbook about slavery.

I wanted it to really resonate with people so that they could have empathy for the characters and kind of see themselves in a lot of these situations, in a lot of these horrific situations.

Tavis: Tell me more about these two sisters.

Gyasi: Sure. Effia is known as Effia the Beauty. She is kind of her village’s most beautiful woman and her father has plans for her to marry the village chief. Yet her village becomes embroiled in the slave trade. It becomes kind of this center of the Fante side of slave trading. Her chief wants to turn the village into one of the stops along the road.

And because of this, the British kind of start to come into contact with her village and the British governor sees her for the first time and decides that he wants to marry her. So she’s kind of bartered away in a way to the British Chief to gain favor for her village. And that’s how she ends up living in the upper levels of the castle.

Her sister, on the other hand, Esi, is the daughter of a very prominent Asante warrior, so the Asantes live in the inland and they’re a very powerful nation.

And through wars between the different ethnic groups, the Asante were gaining a lot of people to trade to the British and to other European countries in the slave trade, and Esi becomes one of these casualties of war. She’s taken by another arrival ethnic group and sold to the British.

Tavis: There is–and I understand it. I get it. I know you do too, obviously–but there is still this dis-ease that Black people have with our complicity, with our role in the slave trade. I think of “Roots”. You were too young to see the original. I saw it. I was a baby, but I saw it when it came out the first time.

Then I had a chance to, you know, take a peek at the remake just weeks ago. I noted some of the decisions they made in the remake to go a little bit deeper into the Black African role in the slave trade. How do you come to that subject and was it difficult, challenging, for you to, as we say, put our dirty laundry out there?

Gyasi: Yeah, it was. I think there’s this fear that, once you start to talk about kind of the west African complicity in the slave trade, white people can use that and say, well, then, we aren’t responsible, you know. You had a part in it too. And showing it not to place blame, but to kind of paint a rounder picture of what was going on, for me, I didn’t really learn about this part of our history through my parents.

They have said before that they didn’t really learn about it in school, so it’s a different relationship than we have here where we do learn about slavery in school. I learned about it when I took a trip to Ghana in 2009 and I visited the Cape Coast Castle for the first time. There’s really nothing like going to this castle. The dungeons still smell.

The tour guide started to talk to us about things like the British soldiers marrying the local women, which was something I’d never heard about, and kind of talked to us a little bit about the complicity that was on the Ghanaian side. And I just thought, you know, you shouldn’t have to go visit the castle to get this information. It should be more readily available.

Tavis: I know the castle of which you speak. My audience, I think, knows this. I was blessed to have a 28-year friendship with Maya Angelou. Maya took me on my very first trip out of the country and that trip was to Ghana and the slave castle was on our itinerary.

And when you stand in that door of no return, how do you–you’re the writer, so I want to put you on the spot. This was, what, 30-plus years ago for me, my first visit. And 30 years later, three decades later, I still don’t have a language to describe what that’s like. How would you describe that?

Gyasi: I mean, I think anyone who goes just feels this incredible sense of both rage and grief, this mixture of rage and grief. I mean, standing in the dungeon kind of imagining what it would be like to be in a place that has no air and no light for three months at a time before being sent somewhere that you don’t know.

You know, you don’t know what’s going to become of you. It is hard to put language to it. Some of the hardest parts for me about writing this book was really trying to imagine myself into such difficult dark circumstances.

Tavis: So this is the beginning, but what do you want to do with this career that is off to a great start?

Gyasi: I mean, I would love to keep writing novels, you know, kind of novels that center around people who look like me and think like me. I think representation really matters a lot to me and I didn’t grow up reading stories like this when I was younger. So it’s nice to kind of offer that to the bookshelf.

Tavis: And what do you make of the acclaim that this story is already receiving? How are you processing that specifically?

Gyasi: It’s been really wonderful and I think a part of it is really just about how people were kind of hungry for this story, I think, kind of hungry for a story that kind of talks about a large family, about diaspora, about what kind of connects Africans and African Americans together. So it’s been really great to see.

Tavis: And what did your–I want to close on this note–given that he was in part your inspiration, what did your dad have to say when he read “Homegoing”?

Gyasi: You know, I think he was very proud, extremely proud. You know, I think it’s probably also opened up some conversations between us about things that we don’t talk about as often in our family. So that’s been really great.

Tavis: So remember the name. It’s probably your first time hearing it, but I promise you it won’t be your last. There are great expectations of this young writer. Her name is Yaa Gyasi and the book is called “Homegoing: A Novel” and I look forward to having her back on this program many times in the coming months and years. Congratulations on this first one, and all the best to you.

Gyasi: Thank you.

Tavis: Good to have you on, Yaa.

Gyasi: Thank you.

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Last modified: June 23, 2016 at 5:42 pm