Glynn Pogue, on behalf of the National Book Critics Circle (NBCC) and Creative Writing at The New School, interviewed Yaa Gyasi, the winner of this year’s NBCC John Leonard Prize.

 

HomegoingIn Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, where I'm from, the phrase “dropping gems” means imparting wisdom; holding discourse, or telling a story, with truths and knowledge woven throughout. It's the kind of thing that makes the person on the receiving in scrunch up their face and say damn. Yaa Gyasi, winner of the 2016 National Book Critics Circle John Leonard Prize, is a gem dropper, indeed. Her epic debut novel, Homegoing, is rich and studded with jewels.

Homegoing is an epic tale of two half-sisters, separated at birth, whose lives and lineages are forever changed when one marries a British slaver, and the other is sold into slavery. What follows is an assiduous depiction of their family trees. Told through the eyes of a different generation in each chapter, the story spans two continents and three centuries, from colonial Ghana, to southern plantations, to the Great Migration, to the rise of drugs and jazz in Harlem, right up to modern day. What emerges is a thoughtful exploration of the lasting effects of this family’s separation from one another and from their home. Questions of identity become integral to this exploration: what have they inherited, what will they pass on, and how will they honor it?

This gets to the core of the Black experience. It is Diasporic, born out of displacement and erasure, sustained by strength and a will to make it through. With a stylistic structure that allows readers to engage with Black folks of different eras, social statuses and levels of freedom, Homegoing offers the multiplicity of Blackness. Careful in the crafting of her characters, Gyasi understands the Black experience is nuanced, as varied as our complexions.

In one of Homegoing’s final scenes, the chapter’s central character, Marjorie, is in the library with her English teacher, Mrs. Pinkston. Marjorie has been reading Lord of the Flies, and Mrs. Pinkston wants to know what she thinks of it.

“I like it,” Marjorie says.

“But do you love it?” Mrs. Pinkston asks. “Do you feel it inside of you?”

The answer to such a question about Homegoing is a resounding "yes." It's a book that will burrow its way into the depths of your mind and spirit, and linger there. You'll pick up pearls along the way, and you’ll hold them close. You will feel it, deeply.

Glynn Pogue: I’ve read that this book wasn’t initially the book you set out to write. Can you tell me how it changed?

Yea Gyasi: Initially I had wanted to write a book about a mother and a daughter, but I didn’t have it thought out too much. I’d received a fellowship to travel to Ghana and conduct research for a novel in my sophomore year of college at Stanford. I decided to use the fellowship to travel to my mother’s hometown in the central region of Ghana, where I hadn’t spent much time. Nothing fruitful was really happening for me there, I didn’t feel like I had a handle on the story I wanted to write. By chance, I ended up taking a tour of the Cape Coast Castle, not with any intention of writing about it, but because I was interested in it and wanted it to see it. It was while on the tour that I realized what I wanted my novel to be about.

GP: What was it like to return to Ghana, did it feel like a homegoing?

YG: I certainly would call that trip a kind of homegoing, but to a home that I don’t really know.  Both of my parents are from Ghana and I was born there, but I left when I was two. We all went back when I was 11, and that trip was about family; I met my grandparents for the first time that I could remember, and my aunts and uncles, it felt like a big reunion. I didn’t return until I went on the research trip when I was 20, and that trip was more personal; it was more about me and my work, and trying to develop my own relationship with the country since I only knew it in the context of my parents and family. It was an opportunity to see it for myself.

GP: How do you define home?

YG: That question is complicated for me. I moved around so much when I was young; Ghana, Ohio, Illinois, Tennessee, Alabama, California, Iowa. For me, the idea that home is necessarily a place is not something that I’ve been able to get behind, I don’t feel the same attachment to place that so many people do. Home, for me, is more about your roots, your family, your loved ones, what you create and what you bring with you.

GP: For the characters in Homegoing, navigating their cultural identities is major. Having been born in Ghana and raised in America, can you speak to the ways you've navigated your own identity? Did this influence the way you wrote the book, or did writing the book give you a deeper understanding of your own experience?

YG: I think the book was a place where I allowed myself to work through so many questions I had about identity, both racial and ethnic. I grew up Ghanaian-American, but I also grew up in a predominately white area in Alabama as a Black person. There was always this feeling of being in between spaces, or being in the wrong space. I wanted to understand what connected the liminal experiences that I existed in. What was the root of them and the meeting point? This book starting where it does, with this one branch that gets split, was my way of thinking through a lot of identity questions that I had growing up.

GP: Let’s talk about structure. Why did you choose to tell the story as a multi-generational narrative?

YG: Initially I thought it would be much more traditionally structured. I started with this idea that it would take place in the present, with Marcus and Marjorie, and then flash back to 18th century Ghana. I wrote about 100 pages before I realized that I wanted to be able to connect every moment in between those two moments. I felt that, in order to be able to look at this huge shift in the way slavery and colonialism moved gradually over time, I needed to have a structure that would allow me to hold that weight. That’s when I decided to stop in as many generations as possible, it took me 3 years to come to this structure.

GP: The characters in Homegoing are so fully realized, alive, and complex, I felt that they each represented a distinct part of the Black experience and history. What were your considerations in determining who the children, and the children’s children, would grow up to be, and how they would think and speak?

YG: Character was the most important thing to me. After I developed the first two characters, I made a family tree, and on it I marked dates and one thing that was happening politically or historically during that period. It was an opportunity to think about what the characters might be dealing with in terms of the political culture of their time.

GP: Fire is a major theme in the book, it follows and haunts these characters. I interpreted it as trauma. What did you intend it to be?

YG: I think it is trauma. The book starts off in this classic fairytale way, where Cobbe sees this fire and he calls it a “curse,” and it’s not just a curse on him, but on his lineage. I think that, in itself, is a call to trauma, and raises questions about whether or not it can be inherited or passed down, or if you can go back in and fix the mistakes of your forefathers.

GP: You’ve said that “there are no easy villains in this novel.” Can you say more about the context in which characters commit acts of evil, and how it complicates the narrative? I.e. When Willie’s husband leaves her and decides to start passing as white, he does so because he believes it will give him a better life. It’s also clear in the depictions of ethnic groups selling other ethnic groups into slavery.

YG: It’s uncomfortable to realize that a lot of the bad decisions these characters are making, they are making for reasons we might use for any decision; they are thinking about their families, money, power. It was truer to me to think about the way that there is no clear black and white choice, and that most of us are able to rationalize anything if we think it will provide a better life.

GP: Early in the book you make a point of noting how beautiful the women are. Why was this important?

YG: It was important, in part, because it’s not always the way you see Black women represented in the world, not just in books, but also on TV and in magazines. We often get these representations of Black women that are either absent of beauty and completely de-sexualized, or hyper-sexualized. I wanted there to be beautiful, strong Black women in this book who weren’t simply being used for sex, this felt like an opportunity to do that.

GP: I was really struck by the various ways you described skin tone in the book; mahogany, milky tea, tree bark. In narratives where white people are the protagonists, this is not often a consideration. Can you talk about why you felt it important to make these distinctions?

YG: I used this device in Willie’s chapter, in particular, because I’m attempting to talk about colorism, but also the different shades of possibility in Black skin. I think sometimes when we read works by white people, that nuance isn’t there, and I wanted to represent that. The way we look informs our experiences in the world, and it was important for me to show those distinctions. Robert’s experience is very different than Willie’s and that has everything to do with the shade of black that he is.

GP: I had a professor who once said Black people are always described as some type of food in writing; “caramel, chocolate, butterscotch.” It was her biggest pet peeve and it haunts me when I write. I’m curious if that sort of thing crossed your mind when choosing your metaphors?

YG: (Laughs) That’s interesting, I hadn’t thought of that. You’re right, it’s always chocolate.

GP: I read that when you started writing this book you were thinking broadly about what it means to be Black in America. What do you hope this book has illuminated about that?

YG: I hope that this book has helped to allow us to stop answering that question so narrowly. That by being able to show multiple representations of Blackness in one book, people will start to see that it is as broad as whiteness. You can have as many types of people in our race that you can in any other race. There are many different ways to be Black, and they are all right.

 

Yaa GyasiYaa was born in Ghana and raised in Huntsville, Alabama. She holds a BA in English from Stanford University and an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where she held a Dean’s Graduate Research Fellowship. She lives in New York City.

 

Glynn Pogue is a writer with wanderlust from Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn. Currently pursuing an MFA in creative nonfiction, the do-or-die dreamer is at work on a collection of essays on race, class, identity and her beloved Brooklyn 'hood. Find her prose in Essence, Jezebel, National Geographic Traveler, and at glynnpogue.com

About The Author

Founded in Greenwich Village in 1931, Creative Writing at The New School continues to promote, engender, and shape innovative literature.