By Eve Milusich ’21
Gearing up to begin her novel, Yaa Gyasi flew 7,500 miles across the Atlantic Ocean to Ghana’s Cape Coast beaches, only to arrive there and realize that inspiration was not in the mood to strike. For many authors, simply starting to write is one of the most daunting obstacles of the process; yet on February 20th, reading the first passage of her debut novel Homegoing to a hushed Garrison Theater, Gyasi demonstrated just how deftly she had overcome it.
Though many of the students, faculty, and community members in attendance had already read Gyasi’s debut novel, those who hadn’t were soon swept away by its prismatic narrative, and quickly brought up-to-speed. Homegoing begins in the 1700s and is initially set in Asanteland, a village involved in the slave trade on Ghana’s Cape Coast. The novel follows the family tree of an Asante woman named Maame, whose lineage splits across either side of the Atlantic when her two daughters, Effia and Esi, befall very different fates. While Effia is married to a British officer who runs slaving operations at the nearby Cape Coast Castle, her sister, Esi, is brought into slavery, held in a dungeon at the very same castle and then sent across the Middle Passage to America. With one chapter dedicated to each generation, Effia’s descendants go on to be part of the ruling class in Ghana, and Esi’s line is followed on the other side of the Atlantic, through slavery, emancipation, segregation, the Civil Rights era, right up until modern times. Perhaps some of the novel’s success is due to this ambitiously split narrative; Yaa explained her choice, stating “I needed to find a voice large enough to contain all of this history.” Overall, Gyasi’s book offers a uniquely layered look at family, exploring race, womanhood, motherhood, queerness, and class difference. Speaking with interviewer Myriam Chancy, Gyasi made it clear that her writing, while not at all autobiographical, was focused on her own questions about how she came to be, living in Alabama as a Ghanaian-American woman. While it’s hard to believe, Gyasi initially didn’t think Homegoing would be published; at the time she first started writing, she said that her “audience was very much herself.” Beginning the novel in her sophomore year at Stanford, Gyasi explored her personal curiosities through years of research into what she referred to as “absences” in traditional accounts of history. “So much of what I was reading was books written by British white men using very pointed language that I had to kind of read around.” With Homegoing, Yaa said that she “was hoping to fill a space, to give voice to people who hadn’t been able to speak for themselves.” Just as Gyasi expressed her emphasis on writing for herself, she also advised aspiring writers in the audience to stay true to their own visions. Though she acknowledged the cliché of this advice, Gyasi stated how she believed in keeping her work guarded to avoid being influenced and transformed by others’ perspectives. She also encouraged writers to “keep connecting to the thing that made you want to write in the first place” and stressed the importance of reading whatever books you love, whether they are the classics or paperback romances.
By connecting both her passions and intentions to her work, Gyasi made sure to keep Homegoing authentically hers while also shaping it into a reflection of present issues. Though she began working on the book before the 2016 election (and the longstanding racial injustices that it brought to national attention), Homegoing has an uncannily up-to-date relevance. When questioned about this, Gyasi gave an insightful answer, stating how she wasn’t writing towards this particular social/political moment, but rather going off of an understanding that this moment is always here. Today’s issues “did not appear out of nowhere.”