Sitting across from me in a warm room in her UK publisher’s office is Yaa Gyasi, the author of Homegoing, a novel that, unlike previous slave narratives, attempts to examine the effects of slavery on African peoples as well as African-Americans. To me, Gyasi comes across as reserved – almost shy. Her presence, however, is difficult to ignore. She is seated on the edge of the sofa, but she takes up space, with her glorious hair – thick, kinky, coiled, natural.
It speaks to the current moment we are in – a moment that has often felt like a reckoning. Black women – alongside Yaa Gyasi, there is Brit Bennett of the critically acclaimed The Mothers; Angela Flournoy whose book, The Turner House, was shortlisted for the National Book Awards; and Kaitlyn Greenidge, whose novel, We Love You, Charlie Freeman, received fulsome praise from the literary establishment – are harder to ignore. The foremothers of black literature – Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, Zora Neale Hurston and more – have paved the way for a new generation of boldness. These black women are not interested in pandering to the white gaze, but are simply writing the stories they want to tell. In doing so, they are changing the literary landscape.
For me, as a young Black British woman, it is both inspiring and bittersweet – a reminder of how far we’ve come and how far we have to go, especially in the UK publishing industry.
It was in 2009 that Gyasi, then a 20-year-old college student, visited the Cape Coast Castle in Ghana, the country of her birth. The Castle is one of many slave castles, or large commercial forts, built on what was formerly known as the Gold Coast by European colonisers. Gyasi didn’t know then, but she tells me that her trip to the Castle would be the “genesis” for what would later become her well-acclaimed debut, Homegoing. “A lot of that visit became the foundation for this book. The genesis was what life must have been like for someone living in the castle and one trapped in the dungeons.” She continues in earnest: "After that visit, I knew that I would focus on the matrilineal legacy of slavery. I knew that it would have to start with women."
The novel earned early praise from the American literary establishment: writer Roxane Gay called the book “the strongest case for reparations and Black rage” and Ta-Nehisi Coates said it was “an inspiration”. Gyasi recognises the significance of such praise, but she is quietly jubilant. For such a young writer, the novel is undoubtedly ambitious in every sense of the word.
Homegoing starts in Ghana’s Fanteland with two sisters, Effia and Esi, and spans more than 250 years. In the castle, Effia enjoys a comfortable life, married to British governor, James Collins. Below in the dungeons, her half-sister, Esi, is waiting to be taken aboard a ship to the American South. The family tree is split – one with roots in West Africa and one in the American South – and Gyasi invites us to follow the separate roots, tracing across centuries of racial and political history.
You see not just the micro-aggressions of racism, but the bold expression of it, too. You can’t be divorced from the way racism works and live in Alabama
It is a sweeping novel – in essence, a collection of short stories, with characters representing whole periods of history. For Gyasi, it was the only way she felt she could write it. "I tried other forms, but this structure allowed me to bring a novel that covered slavery, colonialism and institutional racism and examined how these things changed over a long period of time." I’d argue that Homegoing deserves acclaim and recognition not only because of the risk that Gyasi takes in putting together such a huge body of work, but also because she adds new layers and complicates our understanding of colonialism and slavery. And, even with religion, we see how it brings a character like Willie great comfort, but reminds Yaw of British colonisers.
What becomes clearer, as you read Homegoing, is that history is rarely linear, but infiltrates and lives in the present day. Gyasi’s Homegoing is about slavery, but it’s about much more than that.
In the last four years, America has seen the birth of a new Civil Rights movement, sparked by the unrest after the shooting of 17-year old Trayvon Martin in 2012. Since then, we’ve learnt many more names – Sandra Bland, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner and Korryn Gaines to name but a few – and black people have asserted that their lives matter. Under this climate, Gyasi says writing Homegoing felt even more necessary. It was important for her that people understood that these issues didn't just appear out of nowhere. “For me, it’s about the legacy of slavery and the long tail of its history. It’s about sort of invisible inheritances that we are all walking around with.” She continues, with fervent authority: “If you look at what’s happening now, with police brutality, for example. That’s not new. Black men have been killed in America for centuries. With mass incarceration, we can trace that back to the convict leasing system and black men being seen as ‘criminals’ and ‘inherently bad’.” It’s not a new phenomenon.”
When discussing these issues, Gyasi feels present. But it feels like she is holding back something – perhaps her anger or disappointment that these cycles keep are reborn and take new forms. I’m angry, too – reading Homegoing made me so angry, but in the room I keep my anger at bay and sigh instead. I can feel a sense of despair and tiredness in the room, but it’s also a reminder that, as black women, we’ve been conditioned to keep our feelings to ourselves and keep it moving.
In previous interviews, Gyasi has said that, had she not grown up in Alabama, she might never have written the novel. Born in Mampong, Ghana, a small town 160 miles north of the Cape Coast, her family moved to the US when she was two. They lived in Illinois and Tennessee before settling in Huntsville, Alabama, when Gyasi was about 10 years old. In Alabama, Gyasi saw the ways in which racial tensions had changed and the many ways how things were still the same. “Alabama has a reputation for being a state that perpetuates these old ways of thinking and being,” Gyasi says. “You feel that in regards to racial tension – not just on a structural level which we see across the United States, but on an explicit level. The names people call you, people following your brothers, people turning you away from a store. You see not just the micro-aggressions of racism, but the bold expression of it, too." Gyasi pauses and looks me directly in the eye and concludes: "You can’t be divorced from the way racism works and live in Alabama.”
Gyasi begins to relax towards the end of the interview. I ask her if she's heard that people are calling Homegoing "the new Beloved”. She laughs, before exclaiming, "I don't think, as a black woman, you can ever escape the Toni Morrison comparison. It really doesn't matter what you write about – it's what people reach to almost instantly. And, if you're an African writer, then it's Chinua Achebe. Both of these writers are great, of course." The air seems lighter and it feels like we are two young black women, having a normal conversation.