Ghana-born American novelist Yaa Gyasi (29) achieved near universal acclaim with her debut novel Homegoing (2016). A graduate of Stanford and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Gyasi chronicles the history of a Ghanaian family through seven generations from slavery to freedom. She won the 2017 PEN/Hemingway award, alongside an inclusion in the 5 under 35 from the National Book Foundation in 2016 and in Granta’s Best Young American Novelists in 2017.
Usually based in New York, Gyasi will be staying in Berlin until December on a fellowship from The American Academy to work on a new book project. She will be reading from Homegoing on September 5 at 23:00 at Le Bar and an extract from her upcoming novel on September 27 at The American Academy.
Reading your novel Homegoing, the narrative voice reminded me of a fairy tale or folk tale…
Yeah, the first chapter especially! There is a beautiful daughter and she’s got an evil stepmother, there is a curse… These elements are borrowed from fairy tales and folk tales. Since the book covers so much time and so many characters, I needed to find a voice that feels larger than life and helps introducing the big story to the reader. Sitting at a campfire, listening to somebody tell you a great tale – that’s what I wanted the book to feel like.
But it also has a documentary quality. How did you go about your research, about the lives of the Fanti and the Asante tribes in Ghana? You started at the Cape Coast Castle [a huge slave castle on the Gold Coast of West Africa] and then you went into the archives?
Once I’d visited the Cape Coast Castle, I knew there was going to be a lot of research, so I did it slowly as I wrote. I had the timelines outlined for each chapter in the novel, e.g. 18th century slave trade, the Jim Crow reconstruction period in the South and so forth. That structure helped to keep it from being overwhelming. A main resource for me was The Door of No Return by William St. Clair. It had a chapter on the women, on the children, on a soldier’s day-to-day life and that helped me through my earlier chapters. From there on I figured out the big historical points in each time period and allowed to research take me in whatever direction was needed.
Parts of the book are almost unbearable to read because of the graphic level of violence. Yet hope perseveres. Is there a redemptive quality in this kind of storytelling – a “poetic” side to violence?
It is definitely redemptive, but I don’t know about the poetic side of violence. It’s a way of reclaiming a narrative and giving people who haven’t been able to tell their side of the story a voice. One doesn’t want to romanticise the violence; there is a responsibility to make it feel realistic without making it feel…
…like a Tarantino kind of violence?
Exactly. For every violent thing that happens in this book, I would come across something as bad or worse that happened to a real person in my research. I could not shy away from telling the hard parts in fiction, because the truth was worse.
You also point out the complicity of the Ghanaians in the slave trade. Is that a human condition – the othering, “Us vs. Them”?
Absolutely. It’s in the story of every country, every ethnicity. You’ll find people from everywhere that will look down upon someone for whatever reason. A lot of Americans are very familiar with a racial hierarchy. When people read about the Ghanaians role in slavery, I would often hear things like “How could they do this to each other?” Even that wording “to each other” presumes a commonality that most Gold Coast people wouldn’t have recognised at the time – or even today. If the character Esi spits on a Northern boy, she’s spitting on someone from a different ethnic group or different country.
Is there a section in Homegoing that resonates with your own experience? Maybe the final chapter on Marcus, who is frustrated with his own research at Stanford?
Yes, I think Marcus’ frustration echoes my own. You can never capture the fullness of history in a single novel, but I wanted to get as close as possible. Marcus is the character that speaks to that desire.
Right-wing populism and xenophobia have been major topics in Germany as of late. Why do you think there is a regress to these ways of thinking?
Part of it is that we have a very short-sighted view of our own history. We think we have moved past something that we haven’t. Even for Homegoing, I hear people talking about slavery as something that happened like a million years ago. In this book it took me seven generations to get from a free person of today to a slave. That’s a person’s grandmother’s grandmother! What we see over and over again is a backlash to progress. Anytime we move forward, there are people resisting that forward motion because it would mean to relinquish some of their own privileges. The far right voicing their very misguided opinions is deeply troubling but it’s something happening time and time again. History is something that is constantly in the loop.
Is there a cultural shift going on, with black artists getting the recognition they deserve? I’m thinking of Black Panther or Kendrick Lamar’s Pulitzer Prize win. Is it probable this might influence the standing of black people in America?
I really hope so. Representation matters and once you start seeing different narratives of blackness on film on TV, it changes the way people view black people. It’s exciting to see a movie like Moonlight or Black Panther. These are the kind of things I wish I would have seen growing up. But to know whether that changes a lot for the living conditions of black people in America, you would have to look forward at least decades.
Let’s move away from politics. You won a lot of awards in a short period of time. How are you dealing with the pressure?
(laughs) I ran off to Germany to get some time to write! Every first-time writer works under the idea that no one will ever see their book. My success amazes me and makes me recognise that I have some responsibility towards my audience. I’m seeking ways to remain faithful to the reasons why I love writing and try to carve out space and time for it.
Do you fear the sophomore slump?
It’s hard to know what will be happening in the world or in my own mind when this next book comes out. The only thing that I have any control over is the work. So even is the next book doesn’t do as well – if it’s something I feel proud of, that’s enough for me.
What is your usual writing day like? Do you have any rituals?
I lack discipline! (laughs) I try to write early on in the day, that’s my only ritual. When I was writing Homegoing, I had a daily word count goal – 400 words. Small goals have been really helpful to me. As long as I’m interested in something I know that I will finish it.
Is writing like medicine? Can it heal wounds or is it a tool to become aware of your conditions, of the past?
That’s a really good question. Writing is creating order out of whatever chaos is going on in my own head. I don’t want to leave a project without completely understanding the questions that I had for it. People glamourise what writing can do for others. I don’t know if this book will change anything at all about race relations in America. But if one person picks it up and feels differently than they did before, I’m happy for that.
How do you combine your Ghanaian and American identity? Is the connection to your home country something you had to re-build?
I think build is more accurate. I was born in Ghana but only lived there until I was two, so I had no real memory of it. My parents always made sure we had a Ghanaian community wherever we lived in America. The first time I went back with my family I was 11 , and the second time researching the book. Those trips started to inform my relationship to Ghana. When you ask my parents where they’re from, they’d say Ghana. For me there will always be this kind of distance. This book was a way to wrap my head around this place that I was both from and not from.
Do you feel your identity is divided between two countries? There is the #metwo movement in Germany now, which speaks of nationalities coexisting alongside each other.
That movement is hugely important. In America everybody knows that I’m from somewhere else the second I say my name. You’re constantly reminded that you aren’t American enough. For me it was a question of “Who am I?” Am I neither American nor Ghanaian, or am I both, and what does it mean to be the middle of these two places? There’s something that a lot of especially younger immigrants have to come to grips with.
Are you working on anything new that you could share?
(laughs) No, not that I can share! I’m working on something new here at the Academy and it’s too soon to tell what it is. But it’s a novel.
YAA GYASI: INTERNATIONAL LITERATURE FESTIVAL, Sep 5, 23:00 | Le Bar, Charlottenburg
YAA GYASI: READING FROM A NOVEL-IN-PROGRESS, Sep 27, 19:30 | The American Academy, Wannsee
INTERNATIONAL LITERATURE FESTIVAL (Sep 5-15) | Various venues, see literaturfestival.com for full programme