An Interview with Yaa Gyasi by Aaron Zimmerman
Yaa Gyasi’s debut novel, Homegoing, was published June 7 by Knopf and is already one of the most talked-about books of the year. The book has an ambitious scope, beginning in West Africa in the late 1700s and following the bloodlines of two half-sisters until present day. Ta-Nehisi Coates said about Homegoing, “I think I needed to read a book like this to remember what is possible. I think I needed to read a book like this to remember what happens when you pair a gifted literary mind to an epic task.”
Yaa Gyasi 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. Aaron Zimmerman of NY Writers Coalition spoke to Yaa over the phone on April 8, 2016.
Aaron Zimmerman: I’m excited about your debut novel, Homegoing, and even more excited about the chance to talk with you, so thank you for that.
Yaa Gyasi: Absolutely
AZ: Ta-Nehisi Coates not only wrote a blurb for your book, he also tweeted: “Yaa Gyasi. Homegoing. Stay woke.” What is it like to have someone whose work you’ve read and admired and who has written such an important book be so positive and excited about your book?
YG: It’s huge. It’s indescribable. I didn’t even know that he had the book. I learned about the tweet by seeing it in real time. My boyfriend’s friend texted him to go look at Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Twitter page, and he saw it and was like, “You’re about to lose your mind.” And indeed I did. The fact that he connected to the book so much just really made my day, and not just that day but every day since.
AZ: When Homegoing went out to publishers, it caused quite a stir. A lot of buzz is already happening. I think most other fiction writers, myself included, can only imagine what it’s like to be in this position, knowing that you’re about to get a lot of attention and make a splash. How do you relate to that and still remain interested in writing your next project? How is this affecting you?
YG: It’s first of all amazing. It’s more than I could have ever hoped for. And to have this dream of mine, which I have had since childhood, come true and not just come true, but to come true in such a massive way that doesn’t happen as often as it should for other writers, it’s been really beautiful and a huge blessing. But I think at the same time, I’m now more aware of the public than I’ve ever been before. Part of the beauty of the period of time before you publish anything is that you can still work in this kind of vacuum, where you just imagine that no one will ever read the thing that you’re writing. And now I have to do this pivot from being a shy, introverted writer to having a more public persona, which is something that I’m going to have to get used to. I’m trying to do whatever I have to do to keep the noise out and have it not affect the space where I come to work.
AZ: Were there any books you read growing up that made you know you wanted to write?
YG: I think the book I still credit with making me want to become a writer was Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison. I read it when I was 17, when I was a senior in high school. Up until that point, I was a huge reader; I knew that I loved books. And I wrote as well, but I kind of thought that my writing was just for me. I didn’t really think about how or if I wanted to put it out into the world. Then I read Song of Solomon, and it was as close as I have ever come to having a religious calling. To see that not only was Morrison an amazing writer, but that she was a black woman and she was doing this on such a large scale, just really blew me away and made me think that this is something I could do. It’s kind of shocking to say, but before that we had read A Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass and I think that was the only other book by a black person that I had ever been assigned. And representation is so important because it opens you up to the possibility of what you could be. Seeing somebody else do something makes you aware that you could also do the same thing. So for me, that book was huge.
I read Song of Solomon, and it was as close as I have ever come to having a religious calling.
AZ: That makes a lot of sense. If all the writing that you’re being taught is by people that are really different from you, you are not going to picture yourself in that role.
AZ: I’m not quite sure if it’s because I’m in New York and know a lot of writers, but it seems to me that so many of the best books coming out now are by people of color, and women of color. Does that feel true to you in any way and do you have a sense of where you might fit in with this?
YG: I think we’ve always been doing the work, but it’s just taken a while for people to come to it, to read it. In college I majored in English, and even then the curriculum was incredibly skewed towards white male writers. There was not very much contemporary fiction either. After I graduated I decided that I was only going to read books by people of color for the next year, just for myself. And of course these books have been out there forever, but if they’re not a part of the curriculum, if they’re not something that teachers are teaching or that are getting as much publicity as other things, then you can get the sense that they haven’t been around. So I think it’s cool that people are talking about them because that brings the exposure level up, and maybe you will be going back and taking a look at books that have been published in the last twenty or thirty years by people of color, that you hadn’t been aware of before.
I think [writers of color] have always been doing the work, but it’s just taken a while for people to come to it, to read it.
AZ: Any contemporary writers that you are particularly drawn to, right now?
YG: As I said, I’ve always loved Toni Morrison. Also Edward P. Jones—I think his books are really great. Isabelle Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns, about the Great Migration is magnificent and a part of history that we don’t talk enough about. I would read whatever she writes next; I’m ready for it. I’ve been reading Ta-Nehisi Coates in the Atlantic since college, so when Between the World and Me came out I was thrilled. I read it in one sitting and then went back to the bookstore to buy one for my little brother. That book is really powerful and really timely.
AZ: Can you talk about the impact teachers have had on you? Did you have any writing teachers that helped you become a writer?
YG: Oh yeah, definitely. I had always been a huge reader when I was a child. And then I had a teacher named Ms. Etheridge in middle school, the first teacher I had who made us write creatively. We kept journals that we had to turn in once a week and each entry was like a one-page short story. I had already been writing fiction on my own, but this was the first time I had to do it for a class. On one of my entries she wrote, “You know your reading is going to pay off in your writing.” And that was maybe the first time I’d ever thought about that. The more you read the better your work becomes.
I also had a great high school English teacher named Ms. Vaughn, who taught poetry in a new, exciting way for me. I’d always imagined myself as this fiction loyalist; I wasn’t really that into poetry. She had us read “Sisters” by Rita Dove, and I remember just opening up to poetry in a way that I hadn’t before and thinking, “Oh, maybe I want to be a poet now.” So I spent a few misguided years of writing poetry after that, and I think that’s a testament to what a great teacher she was.
At Stanford I took a class with Elizabeth Tallent almost every year. I also took a class with Molly Antopol called The Short Story Salon, and we read one book of short stories a week. Often she and Skip Horack, who co-taught the class, would have the authors come in and talk to us. For me that was everything. At that point I knew that this was what I wanted to do, so getting to hear authors in real-life talk about decisions they had made and why, was really influential.
AZ: You are young for a debut novelist, still in your 20s right?
YG: I’m 26
AZ: How long did it take you write this book? How old were you when you started?
YG: In 2009 I got a grant from Stanford University called the Chappell-Lougee Scholarship to travel to Ghana and do research for the novel. I went there the summer that I turned 20, and that was really the beginning. I went to the Cape Coast Castle with a friend of mine. It was my first time ever going into the castle, and I just had a stroke of imagination. People will often talk about such an experience, but I don’t think it happens that often as an artist. I was like, okay, this is where the novel needs to take place, this is what the novel needs to center around. So that’s when I started it and then I had to set it aside while I finished school. When I got to grad school at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop in 2012, I picked it back up and that was really where I did the bulk of the writing, during the three years that I spent in Iowa.
AZ: When you had this moment of inspiration, did you have any sense that the story was going to take place over so many generations? What did you know initially?
YG: I took a tour of the castle, just as the characters in the book’s last chapter do. The tour guide said something about how the British soldiers married local women, which I had never heard before, and I became very interested in the ways that the Ghanaians were interacting with the people of the castle. I had thought that the book was going to toggle back and forth between the people who make up the first couple of chapters and the people who make up the last couple of chapters, between the 18th century and present day. It wasn’t until I got to Iowa that I realized that what I really wanted to do was to look at time. Particularly at how slavery’s impact moved over a very long stretch of time. In order to do that, I felt I needed to make pit stops in as many decades as possible.
AZ: It’s kind of an understatement, as a fellow writer, to say that that’s an ambitious undertaking. At any point after you realized what you wanted the structure to be, did you think, Oh my God, how am I going to do this?
YG: Oh, absolutely. The day that I went to the castle I wrote in my journal, “I think I know what my novel’s going to be about and I’m terrified by how much research it’s going to take.” At first it was really scary and felt too big and like something that I couldn’t actually do. But once I thought about it as these individual moments, it helped me to wrap my head around how it might be possible to cover such a long a stretch of time.
AZ: What kind of research did you do for the book? You cover so much time and space so I am curious about how that process worked.
YG: I started with a book about the Cape Coast Castle and the people who lived and worked in it called The Door of No Return, by William St. Clair. That helped me see my way into those first few chapters. And then I wrote the book chronologically and I didn’t outline, but I had a family tree on the wall of my apartment that had the name of each character, their gender, and what was going on historically during the time in which they lived. I was nervous that the book would be too research heavy. I think sometimes historical texts have this kind of didacticism about them. The author has learned so much and doesn’t know which parts of what they’ve learned to put into the book. And so I tried to let myself not be too stifled by what I was learning and really to let my imagination take the lead.
AZ: At what age did you move to the US and are there any family stories that made their way into the book? Or did it all come out of research and imagination? Did being born in Ghana play into what you wrote?
YG: I was born in Ghana and I moved to America when I was two. We lived in Ohio, Illinois, and Tennessee, and when I was nine we moved to Alabama, where I spent the bulk of my childhood. I think I chose to focus on the Ashanti and the Fante, because my father is an Ashanti and my mother is a Fante so those are the two ethnic groups I’m most familiar with. But for the most part, the entire book is a work of the imagination and not really autobiographical.
AZ: One thing that I found striking is that you lay bare the role of African people, specifically Ghanaians, in the slave trade. Did you worry about people’s reactions to that? Is it something you were interested in when you went to the castle?
YG: African complicity in the slave trade wasn’t really something that I had been interested in before. And it wasn’t really something that my family or other West African immigrants that I grew up around talked about, so I hadn’t really grown up thinking about it. Then, when I went to the castle in 2009, I was just amazed. It’s this huge monument to slavery that’s on our land still. And the ability to separate it from ourselves seems strange to me, but I think it seems strange to me because I grew up in America where slavery is something that we talk about. Probably not as much as we should or as thoroughly as we should, but it is very much on a lot of black people’s minds in America, if not everyone’s. And so I became interested in the ways that Ghanaians or the people in and around the castle were complicit in the slave trade. But while writing, I had that funny thing of being able to write without thinking that anyone was going to ever read it. It was my first book, and when I started it I didn’t have anything, even short stories, published, so I was doing it for myself. It was a great gift to have. I wasn’t really focused on any bad feedback that I would get from Ghanaians or anyone else who might be angry at having their dirt exposed in this way. After I finished the first draft I gave it to my dad to read the Ghanaian chapters so he could let me know whether it felt right to him. After getting an okay from him, I felt comfortable having it out in the world.
AZ: For me, this book is very much about how privilege, power, and oppression work in any society, whether it’s West Africa in the 18th century or America in any given time. Was that an interest of yours when you started or did you recognize those themes after you’d started writing the book?
YG: Something that has always bothered me is when I hear people say things like, “Slavery happened a million years ago, why do we still have to talk about it? Can’t we all just get over it?” One of the things that I wanted this book to do is to show that history isn’t this closed-off, discrete thing that happens and then it’s over. I think every moment in history leaves this footprint behind, or I guess forward. I think we have a tendency to believe that had we lived in the time when these awful things happened, we would be the ones saying, “no,” or taking a stand. But I don’t know that we would be, and I don’t know that we would have made different decisions. If the entire global economy was involved in slave trading, you probably would have been doing it as well. Had we lived in Ghana at that time, we probably would have done exactly what we needed to do to survive. And in some cases that would have meant selling our prisoners of war. In some cases, that would have meant owning slaves. That’s a harder truth to admit to yourself, but it’s an important one to think about.
Something that has always bothered me is when I hear people say things like, “Slavery happened a million years ago, why do we have to still talk about it…?” One of the things that I wanted this book to do is to show that history isn’t this closed-off, discrete thing that happens and then it’s over. I think every moment in history leaves this footprint behind, or I guess forward.
AZ: And, as you explored in your book, if you weren’t involved in the slave trade, you probably would have been a slave. Choices were limited. In your second chapter, someone who had escaped slavery wound up being part of a family that had a slave. You are making the point that you can’t really escape the world in which you live.
YG: Exactly. Everybody was just doing what they thought was right for themselves and their families.
AZ: There’s a passage where you say this very directly. “This is how they lived there, in the bush: Eat or be eaten. Capture or be captured. Marry for protection. . . He would not be weak. He was in the business of slavery, and sacrifices had to be made.” The character here, Quey, has to make some really difficult choices but at the same time he has almost no choice.
I’d like to talk about another key passage from the book, where you write: “We believe the one who has the power. He is the one who gets to write the story. So when you study history you must always ask yourself, Whose story am I missing? Whose voice was oppressed so that this voice could come forth? Once you have figured that out, you must find that story too. From there you begin to get a clearer, yet still imperfect, picture.” Your book appears to be a response to this challenge, an attempt to tell these missing stories.
YG: One of the things that struck me in researching this novel was that, especially for the earlier time periods, I couldn’t find anything written from the perspective of the Gold Coast people. In part that makes sense. There was no written language before the British came, so anything that you might find would be filtered through the British person who wrote it. And so you have these generations of people who didn’t have a voice, didn’t have anything written about them, or written by them even, that we can point to and say, this is how that person felt at that time. And obviously one of the really effective tools of oppression in slavery was denying slaves the right to read or write, purposefully keeping them from telling their own stories, to put language to their own misery. So, I think it’s important to ask yourself those questions: whose voice am I missing, whose story am I missing and why?
AZ: With that, maybe I will stop being part of the noise about your book and let you return to some quiet. But not before making a brief, shameless plug for your reading on August 20 with NY Writers Coalition at the Fort Greene Summer Literary Festival, where you’ll join Kaitlyn Greenidge, author of We Love You, Charlie Freeman, and some of the talented young writers we will be working with in our summer youth program.
YG: I am very excited about it. It sounds like such a great event and program.
AZ: Thank you for this. And congratulations on your book. It is really fantastic. I’m in awe of the scope, the ambition, and what you took on here. And how well realized it is. It’s impressive and exciting, and I feel lucky to have gotten to talk with you about it before most people have even gotten to read it.
YG: Thanks so much, Aaron!
Aaron Zimmerman is the founder and executive director of NY Writers Coalition (NYWC), one of the nation’s largest community-based writing programs. NYWC provides free, empowering creative writing workshops to more than 1,600 people from historically silenced groups each year, including at-risk youth; incarcerated and formerly incarcerated youth and adults; homeless and formerly homeless people; people with physical, psychiatric, and cognitive disabilities; seniors; people in recovery; immigrants; and many others. NYWC also is a co-presenter (with Akashic Books and Greenlight Bookstore) of the annual Fort Greene Summer Literary Festival, where Yaa Gyasi will read alongside young writers from NYWC workshops on August 20.
Aaron was named a 2005 Petra Fellow by The Petra Foundation for his “distinctive contributions to the rights, dignity and autonomy of others.” He has an MA in creative writing from City College. He’s the author of the novel By The Time You Finish This Book You Might Be Dead, and his fiction and poetry have appeared in numerous literary magazines.
Photo (top) by Michael Lionstar