Homes and Homelands: Yaa Gyasi at Rackham Auditorium
I am a little afraid to read Yaa Gyasi’s novel, Homegoing, much for the same reason I’ve picked up but never finished reading Toni Morrison’s Beloved. I’m gun shy when it comes to fiction that portrays, in any fashion, chattel slavery. I’ve never even seen Roots. For me, there is something extremely uncomfortable about knowing my existence and all the opportunities that have come with it are a direct result of my ancestors’ suffering.
On Feb. 6, I had to face my fears to a certain degree at “Homegoing: A Conversation with Yaa Gyasi,” the 2018 Institute for the Humanities Jill S. Harris Memorial Lecture, which took place at Rackham Auditorium. Homegoing is also the 2018 Washtenaw Reads book, a title selected by a panel of community members from Ann Arbor, Chelsea, Dexter, Milan, Northfield Township, Saline, and Ypsilanti. The Washtenaw Reads program aims to promote reading and dialogue through community members experiencing and discussing a common book.
Two University of Michigan professors moderated the discussion, Aida Levy-Hussen, who has an interest in African-American literature, and Gaurav Desai, who is interested in African literature. Yaa Gyasi’s work belongs to both of these areas of study. Homegoing spans generations and continents. Two half sisters in 18th-century Ghana are born into different villages and come to lead very different lives due to their circumstances. The book follows the women and their descendants through eight generations, part of which takes place in Ghana, the other part in America.
The evening began with Gyasi reading from the book, inviting us into its rhythm, language, and evocative landscape. The short selection communicated to the readers/listeners that this is a story about history and legacy, cycles and tradition. This is an expansive book.
When asked what compelled her to write this novel, Gyasi said she came to the subject matter indirectly. As an undergraduate student, she applied for a research grant that allowed her to travel to Ghana. Gyasi said she had a “really vague idea that should not have received the grant at all.” After the audience finished laughing, she talked about her visit to the Cape Coast Castle. Above ground, they were these beautiful castles with picturesque views of the Atlantic Ocean. Below, however, were dungeons where individuals had been held for months at a time before traveling the Middle Passage.
As she considered this contrast and got into writing the book, Gyasi found herself thinking about what it means to be free, what it means to be able to direct your life. She also considered the notion of bondage as a vocation, as a family business, something one can be born into. What limitations do we inherit?
Gyasi kept a diary when she traveled to Ghana, and once she realized Homegoing was the book she was going to write, she journaled, “I’m scared of how much research this book is going to take.” She wrote the novel chronologically, but without an outline. There's a family tree printed in the beginning of the book that acted as her guide, and she referred to a list of important historical dates as she wrote to give the story context. When asked about how she approached that balance between history and the story, she said, “At a crossroads, I chose the story.”
She also aimed to write a story that felt right, authentic. During her process, she asked her family a lot of questions. Gyasi said she is generally secretive about projects, so while she asked many questions of her family, they didn’t necessarily know what she was going to do with their answers. But once she finished the book, Gyasi asked her father, a Ghanaian who had grown up there, to read all the Ghana-based chapters.
When asked about the roles of scars/scarification in the work, Gyasi said she had become interested in the idea of emotional scars, and also in the idea of heritable trauma. “By the time Effia had reached age 10, she could recite a history of the scars on her body,” Gyasi wrote in Homegoing. One of her characters bears a scar on his face, a different character has a scarred back, and these situations impacted the way these characters moved through the world. This made me consider how physical appearance functions in the same way: how the way you walk through your experience, the world, is intricately tied to your physical appearance, your size, your skin, your hair.
The novel delved into colorism as well. Gyasi found herself thinking about the European soldiers who would marry local Gold Coast women and their subsequent families. Their children would often attend school in England, mingling among the middle and upper classes. In some ways, their proximity to whiteness translated to a sense of worth, begging the question of why proximity to whiteness is valued.
Gyasi originally thought Homegoing would be set in the present with flashbacks to the future. But as she worked through the material, Gyasi thought about how important time is in the story. She also thought about how slavery and colonialism worked together, the push and the pull. She realized that time itself was a character in the book and chose to tell the story in a way where she could explore the gradual shifts that happened to these families. The novel also responds to the idea that slavery happened so long ago that it is no longer a relevant topic of discussion. Gyasi mentioned another book that informed her work, Douglas A. Blackmon’s Slavery by Another Name. The book talks about sharecropping, which Gyasi said is slavery by another name, and she asked questions about what it really means to be free, whether it can be permanent, whether it is an illusion.
Gyasi was asked if she sees Homecoming as a novel that is in conversation with other books that grapple with the topic of chattel slavery such as Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Edward P. Jones’ The Known World, and Charles Johnson’s Middle Passage. She said Toni Morrison and Edward P. Jones are two of her favorites and she sees herself as owing great debts to both of them. Gyasi sees their books as examples of what is possible in fiction and views them as towering figures. She also said her writing is in conversation with their's, seeing her work as furthering the discussion about slavery.
Gyasi sees also sees her work in conversation with contemporary African novelists such as Chimamanda Adichie and Taiye Selasi. In fact, Homegoing’s working title had been African America, but when Adichie’s Americanah was published, Gyasi knew her book wouldn’t have the word America in the title. Additionally, because she had immigrated to the United States when she was two years old, at one time Gyasi wondered whether she could claim Ghanaian literature.
When asked whether her work had caused her to think about what home means, she said it did. Maybe it turns out "home" can be more ephemeral than a physical place. Maybe it is something you can take with you.
And maybe there is a lesson there that I can carry with me. Maybe reading books like this one is something different than I thought before attending this talk.
Sherlonya Turner is the manager of the Youth & Adult: Services & Collections Department at the Ann Arbor District Library. She can be found diving headfirst into all sorts of projects over at sherlonya.net.
Visit aadl.org/aareads/events to see the remaining 2018 Washtenaw Reads events.