Slavery Scars A Trans-Atlantic Family Tree In 'Homegoing'

Jun 4, 2016
Originally published on June 7, 2016 2:01 pm

Yaa Gyasi's highly anticipated debut novel, Homegoing, follows two branches of a family tree as it grows over three centuries. Half-sisters Effia and Esi were born in different villages in 18th-century Ghana. Effia is married off to an Englishman (though the British soldiers call their local women "wenches" instead of wives) and she goes to live in the regal comfort of the Cape Coast Castle, which is also used to hold slaves before they were sent across the Atlantic. Her sister Esi winds up right below her, imprisoned in the cruel squalor of the castle's dungeon, and is sold into slavery in America.

Homegoing follows each family line from Ghana to America, then through the Civil War, the coal mines of Alabama and the jazz clubs of Harlem to the present day.

Gyasi, 26, was born in Ghana but grew up in Huntsville, Ala. She tells NPR's Scott Simon, "Had I not grown up in Alabama, I don't know that I would have ever written this book."


Interview Highlights

On how her connection to Ghana and Alabama informed the book

Huntsville is actually a great city to grow up in, as far as Alabama goes — NASA is there, and it's got a university. And the old fun fact about it used to be that it had the most Ph.D.s per capita of any American city. I don't know if that still holds true, but there's a lot happening there.

And then, you know, you drive 20 minutes out in any direction and Alabama is Alabama. And so I think I was kind of constantly interacting, I guess, with really what the legacy of slavery is. You know, coming from a country, Ghana, that had a role in slavery, and then ending up in a place where slavery is still so strongly felt institutionally, as racism is still so strongly felt. The irony of that wasn't lost on me. And I think, had I not grown up in Alabama, I don't know that I would have ever written this book.

On recreating life in 18th-century Ghana

I did a lot of research for this novel. I like to say that my research was wide but shallow: I read a little bit of a lot of books. And a book that really helped me was The Door of No Return by William St. Clair. He took a bunch of archival research about the Cape Coast Castle, so it's a book that really just talks about what life might have been like in the castle in and around the 18th century. And it really helped me wrap my head around what it might have been like for my characters. And then the rest I think is just a wild and vivid imagination.

On depicting African slave traders' complicity in the slave trade

The conversation around slavery is much different here than it is in Ghana. So I think I was a little bit more aware of it — or aware, I suppose, of the result of it — than the people living on the coast of West Africa who didn't get to see, you know, what the result of the slave trade was. And yet they have this huge monument in Ghana to slavery — this Cape Coast Castle that still stands, that you can still take tours in. I wanted to talk about the Ghanaian role in it, the complicity on our side of things.

On how slavery cut off many African-American family trees

I think one of the huge tragedies of slavery is just the fact that family lines got completely cut off. There are so many characters in this book that, were I to follow them, the story would have been completely different. And the fact that they never get to know their siblings, their parents — they're just completely cut off from certain sides of their family — I think is deeply, deeply sad. And beyond that, just the fact that most African-Americans don't know exactly where on the continent they came from, so they can't tie themselves back to an ethnic group, a country.

On the writers who have left a lasting impression on her

In middle school I was really, really into Victorian literature. I loved [Charles] Dickens, also George Eliot was huge for me — Middlemarch was one of my favorite books. And then age 17 was when I read Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison, and that really just felt like a light switch going off. It was the first time I'd ever been assigned a book by a black woman in my entire educational career. And it really struck me — the fact that I could tell stories about people who looked like me. That was really a turning point in my life, and so she's been a huge influence.

And then later in college I started to read [Chinua] Achebe and James Baldwin and Edward P. Jones and Jhumpa Lahiri — so many authors who have had a lasting impression on me.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

"Homegoing," Yaa Gyasi's highly anticipated first novel, traces the story of two branches of a family tree that grow over three centuries. Effia and Esi are two half-sisters born in different villages in the Ghana of the 1700s. Effia is married off to an Englishman, though she learns that the British soldiers in Ghana call their local woman wenches instead of wives, like the women and families who wait for them back home, and she goes to live in regal comfort of the Cape Coast Castle. Her sister Esi winds up right below her, imprisoned in the cruel squalor of the castle's dungeon, and she's sold into slavery in America.

"Homegoing" follows each family line through Ghana to America and the Civil War, through the coal mines of Alabama and jazz clubs of Harlem and dope dens to the present day. It is the debut novel from Yaa Gyasi, who joins us from the studios of the University of California, Berkeley. Thanks so much for being with us.

YAA GYASI: Thank you for having me.

SIMON: How do you bring to life the world three centuries ago?

GYASI: I did a lot of research for this novel. I like to say that my research was wide, but shallow. I read a little bit of a lot of books, and a book that really helped me was "The Door Of No Return" by William St. Clair. He took a bunch of archival research about the Cape Coast Castle, so it's a book that really just talks about what life might have been like in the castle in and around the 18th century. And it really helped me wrap my head around what it might have been like for my characters. And then the rest, I think, is just a wild and vivid imagination.

SIMON: Yeah. And it must be said you don't - you don't spare African slave traders from villany, do you?

GYASI: I don't. I think, you know, I grew up here in Alabama. And the conversation around slavery is much different here than it is in Ghana. So I think I was a little bit more aware of it or aware, I suppose, of the result of it than the people living on the coast of West Africa who didn't get to see, you know, what the results of the slave trade was. And yet they have this huge monument in Ghana to slavery - this Cape Coast Castle that still stands, that you can still take tours in. I wanted to talk about the Ghanaen role in it - the complicity on our side of things.

SIMON: This is your debut novel.

GYASI: Yeah.

SIMON: The literary world is watching it. How did you get here? I mean, you grow up in Huntsville, went school at Stanford.

GYASI: Yeah. I'm 26. Actually, I turned 26 last June. I grew up just reading incredibly voraciously. My dad's a professor. He teaches French language and Francophone African literature and, you know, just never turned down a trip to the library. So I kind of always knew, I suppose, that I wanted to work in books somehow. And pretty early on for me, reading and writing went hand in hand.

SIMON: I've had the pleasure of being in Huntsville once for three days.

GYASI: Oh, cool.

SIMON: I found it a very cosmopolitan, sophisticated community.

GYASI: Yeah.

SIMON: But I probably don't have to tell you Alabama has quite a history where slavery is concerned.

GYASI: Yeah. I think Huntsville's actually a great city to grow up in, as far as Alabama goes. NASA is there, and it's got a university. And the old fun fact about it used to be that it had the most Ph.D.s per capita of any American city. I don't know if that still holds true, but there's a lot happening there. And then, you know, you drive 20 minutes out in any direction, and Alabama is Alabama. And so I think I was kind of constantly interacting, I guess, with really what the legacy of slavery is. And, you know, coming from a country - Ghana - that had a role in slavery and then ending up in a place where slavery is still so strongly felt - institutionalized racism is still so strongly felt - the irony of that wasn't lost on me. And I think had I not grown up in Alabama, I don't know that I would've ever written this book.

SIMON: And it struck me as I was reading this book that you - you're writing a family history that a lot of African-American families would find very difficult to put together because slavery obliterated so many of those family lines.

GYASI: Absolutely. I think one of the huge tragedies of slavery is just the fact that family lines got completely cut off. There are so many characters in this book that, were I to follow them, the story would've been completely different. And the fact that they never get to know their siblings, their parents - they're just completely cut off from certain sides of their family - I think is deeply, deeply sad. And beyond that, just the fact that most African-Americans don't know exactly where on the continent that they came from, so they can't tie that themselves back to an ethnic group, a country.

SIMON: When you were turning yourself into a writer...

GYASI: Yes.

SIMON: ...Were there any writers you particularly favored, even imitated a little, learned from?

GYASI: In middle school, I was really, really into Victorian literature. I loved Dickens. Also, George Eliot was huge for me. "Middlemarch" was one of my favorite books.

SIMON: Yeah.

GYASI: And then age 17 was when I read "Song Of Solomon" by Toni Morrison, and that really just felt like a light switch going off. It was the first time I'd ever been assigned a book by a black woman in my entire educational career. And it really struck me - the fact that I could tell stories about people who looked like me. That was really a turning point in my life, and so she's been a huge influence. And then later in college, I started to read Achebe and James Baldwin and Edward P. Jones and Jhumpa Lahiri - so many authors who have had a lasting impression on me.

SIMON: Have your parents read "Homegoing"?

GYASI: My father has read all of the chapters that take place in Ghana. I needed help researching and fact-checking - that sort of thing. My mother is reading it right now, and I think my dad's going to read the whole thing after her, so I think they're excited to see it all come together.

SIMON: They don't need my advice, but I think the trick is tell them they should read it in a public place.

GYASI: Oh, really?

SIMON: And with a conspicuous smile on their faces.

(LAUGHTER)

GYASI: I will let them know.

SIMON: Yaa Gyasi - her novel "Homegoing." Thanks so much for being with us.

GYASI: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.