Yaa Gyasi Explores the Present Through the Past
(Sheridan, Wyo) Sheridan College and Ucross Foundation hosted acclaimed novelist Yaa Gyasi for a discussion and book signing of her breakthrough novel Homegoing, which won the 2017 PEN/Hemingway Award.
First Gyasi read an excerpt from her novel, then discussed it with Sheridan College instructor Sarah Sinclair, and concluded by answering questions from the audience.
The plot of Homegoing spans generations and follows the descendants of two half-sisters, Effia and Esi, born into different villages in eighteenth-century Ghana. Effia is married off to an Englishman and will live in comfort in the palatial rooms of Cape Coast Castle, raising children who will be sent abroad to be educated before returning to the Gold Coast to serve as administrators of the empire. Esi, imprisoned beneath Effia in the Castle’s women’s dungeon and then shipped off on a boat bound for America, will be sold into slavery.
To connect characters living in different time periods, Gyasi uses the elements water and fire. In the excerpt she read from the beginning of the book, a fire partially destroys a farmers yam crop. “Cobbe had lost seven yams, and he felt each loss as a blow to his own family. He knew then that the memory of the fire that burned then fled would haunt him, his children, and his children’s children for as long as the line continued. ” Gyasi said that the yams represented the seven generations visited in the novel.
Sinclair asked about the meaning of the title, and Gyasi said it came to her late in the process. “Homegoing” refers to slave funerals and the notion that souls, spread far and wide, would have to find their way home somehow.
Gyasi also said that the novel is about being Black in America. While it is historical fiction, it ends in the present and is about today. “Time for me is almost the 15th main character in this novel,” she said. In early drafts she used flashbacks, but then realized the power and weight of long linear time.
One prominent location in the novel is the Ghana Cape Coast Castle. Gyasi received a fellowship in 2009 to visit the site, and the tour guide mentioned that British soldiers would sometimes marry local women during the slave trade era. “Then he took us down to the dungeon,” Gyasi said. It was then that the germ of her novel formed.
Sinclair, an English instructor, repeated a question she is often asked by her students: What is the role of fiction in education? Gyasi answered that the perspective of the slaves is actually missing in the historical record. Plus, it creates empathy where the historical record doesn’t.
Gyasi said that she didn’t think about who the audience for her novel would be. She said that with a first book, a writer is in a ” …cozy privileged place where you can write and no one will read it,” so she wrote to her own inner child.
Gyasi explained that being from Ghana, “where slaves come from,” and growing up in Alabama, which “… is consumed by the racial trouble of history,” gave her multiple identities. She said visiting Ghana, “… both is, and is not, like going home.”
She said that one of the most gratifying aspects of her novel’s success was seeing the impact abroad. Homegoing has been translated into 22 languages, and Gyasi has gotten to travel extensively.
“I grew up with this book,” Gyasi said. “I started it in college and didn’t know what I was doing. It made me more disciplined. It helped make a place for all these questions I’ve had my whole life about identity, race, and what it means to move through this world.”
The event was sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities Grant: Creating Humanities Communities along the Hemingway Highway. Sheridan College partners in this NEH Grant include the Wyoming Humanities Council, Wyoming Institute for Humanities Research and Ucross Foundation, where Gyasi will be a writer-in-residence.