Giving slaves a voice

In her debut novel Homegoing, Ghanaian-American writer Yaa Gyasi confronts the bleakest parts of history

A bidding war involving 10 publishers erupted last year over Ghanaian-American writer Yaa Gyasi's debut novel Homegoing - a harrowing family saga told through centuries of slavery - and ended with a winning bid that soared past US$1 million (S$1.34 million).

Gyasi, 27, tells The Sunday Times with a laugh: "It all sounds very grand, but the story behind the book might be a little bit of a letdown."

It started with a book idea gone wrong and a spur-of-the-moment decision to tag along on a tour to a British fortress in Ghana.

In the summer of 2009, Gyasi returned to her mother's village in Ghana - the birth country she left when she was barely three - to gather material for a "pretty straightforward book on mothers and daughters".

"Well, it didn't turn out to be that straightforward at all," she says over the telephone from her Berkeley home.

"I was really excited to start on this idea that had been knocking around in my head for some time. But when I got to Ghana, things fizzled out. I just couldn't get it to work. I wasn't feeling at all inspired by the idea."


The novel (above) was built around a family tree that Yaa Gyasi drew, she says. PHOTO: MICHAEL LIONSTAR

On a whim, she and a friend joined a tour around the Cape Coast Castle, a dark remnant of the country's colonial past.

At the height of the slave trade, British officers - and the wives they plucked from the local villages - would go about their lives in the comfort of the upper levels. But horrors lurked in the dungeons below. Millions of captive Africans died in the dark; and survivors were loaded onto ships to be sold into slavery.

"It just really struck me that there could be local women walking free in these beautiful quarters above and, down below, there were women, men, children who would never be free again," says Gyasi, then a sophomore at Stanford University.

"That was the first image that popped into my head for Homegoing: a free woman on the upper levels and a slave woman on the lower levels."

In the novel, it is a pair of halfsisters in 18th-century Ghana that suffer these disparate fates.

While Effia marries a British governor and is whisked away into the lap of luxury at the Cape Coast Castle, Esi - the sister she has never met - finds herself locked in the dungeons, bound for a life of bondage in America.

Over 300 pages, Gyasi plumbs the legacies of slavery in both Africa and America through the lives of these two women and their descendants.

With Effia's family line, she confronts the complicity of Africans in the slave trade, as rocketing demand had tribes raiding rival villages for people to sell. And through Esi and her descendants, Gyasi explores the entrenchment of racism in America, and the struggles of a community robbed of its roots and rights.

It had me thinking about what it means to be, even here in America, connected to the African continent, how it would be to return there, to the country you were ripped from.

GHANAIAN-AMERICAN WRITER YAA GYASI

She says of the title: "Traditionally, the word homegoing referred to slave funerals. There's the idea of death as their only reprieve, that once a slave died, his spirit could return to the home country from which he was stolen."

And although the meaning has shifted over time - the AfricanAmerican community today sees it as a passing into the afterlife - the original meaning of homegoing, with its deep roots tangled in the horrors of slavery, was particularly resonant for Gyasi.

"It had me thinking about what it means to be, even here in America, connected to the African continent, how it would be to return there, to the country you were ripped from."

Gyasi and her family left Ghana for America when she was not yet three as her father - now a professor of French and Francophone African literature - was doing his PhD in French language at Ohio State University.

They moved to Illinois, and then Tennessee, before settling in Alabama when Gyasi was nine. She would live there until college.

"One of the impulses that drove me to write Homegoing was born out of my struggle to understand my identity and heritage, both racially as a black person in America, but also ethnically as a Ghanaian immigrant," she says.

"And this book kind of represents my adult life so far. I was 20 when I started writing it, and so I feel like I really grew up with the book."

Gyasi started writing it in small spurts during her undergraduate years at Stanford, where she was studying English, but the book started shaping up in earnest only when she graduated and enrolled in the Iowa Writers' Workshop.

She drew up a small family tree and built her book around it.

The letter-sized slip of paper, pasted on the wall over her desk, bore not just the names of the different characters, but the period each lived in, and one event that was unfolding in the background either in Ghana or America.

It was in the process of working on the book that she learnt about the convict leasing system, which saw black men arrested and sold by their home states to work in private companies after the American Civil War.

"That was a history that I knew really nothing about. It all kind of came as a complete shock to me, and yet it was something practised in my own home state, Alabama, for a number of years," says Gyasi.

And Homegoing, to her, was about confronting even the bleakest parts of history.

"I almost felt like the one thing I absolutely had to do for this book was shine a light on the darkest parts of our history. It was important that, as a writer, I chose not to shy away from them," she says.

"It used to be that slaves were forbidden from reading or writing, that they were left without a voice even as they went through periods of great pain.

"I feel like I owe it to them, to make sure that they and the things they went through don't go forgotten."

• Homegoing is available from $29.96 at MPH Bookstore.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on July 17, 2016, with the headline 'Giving slaves a voice'. Print Edition | Subscribe