When Yaa Gyasi was two years old, she moved with her parents and two brothers from Mampong, Ghana, to the United States, landing first in Ohio, then bouncing to Illinois, Tennessee, and, finally, when she was nine, to Huntsville, Alabama, where her father is a French professor and her mother is a nurse.
She was a shy kid, and her best friends were books. "I read voraciously when I was a child, and, for me, writing is still just an extension of my love for reading," she says. "I've always wanted to be a writer."
Her debut novel, Homegoing, took seven years to finish. By the time it was done, the manuscript had sparked a bidding contest among 10 book publishers, with Knopf winning the sale with an offer of over $1 million. It was a good purchase: Homegoing was a New York Times bestseller for nine weeks, climbing to No. 15 on the list.
Ta-Nehisi Coates blurbed the book, calling it "what happens when you pair a gifted literary mind to an epic task." Time deemed it one of 2016's 10 best novels, listing it alongside Colson Whitehead's Underground Railroad and Jonathan Safran Foer's Here I Am. And Gyasi was named one of the National Book Foundation's "Five Under 35." Critics seem to agree that Homegoing is a new classic.
Its plot opens in 18th-century Ghana, when two half-sisters, who don't know of each other's existence, fall to different fates: One marries a British official, lives in a luxurious castle, and sends her kids to fancy English schools to become Ghana's future leaders. The other gets stolen by African slave traders and lives a harsh existence in the same castle's ghastly dungeon until she's shipped to the U.S. to be sold as a slave. Homegoing tells not only the two sisters' stories, but also the stories of seven generations of each of their descendants, spanning over 250 years in both Africa and America.
Gyasi fits this into just over 300 pages. Even though she takes readers into the lives of 14 characters (for easy reference, the book includes the family tree that served as Gyasi's only outline as she wrote) and works through a number of meticulously researched historical events, she handles it with elegance. Her novel evokes empathy for anyone whose life was altered by the slave trade, either directly or by inheritance.
It's no coincidence that much of the book's plot happens in the places that made Gyasi who she is, especially Ghana and the American South. "Both of those places deeply inform my novel," she says. "The fact that I was raised in a state where the legacy of slavery is still so strongly felt, but was from a country that had a part in the slave trade, was something that weighed heavily on my mind as I worked."
Gyasi wrote Homegoing, in part, while she was a graduate student getting her master's in fine arts degree at the prestigious Iowa Writer's Workshop. Before that, she was an undergraduate at Stanford University, majoring in English with an emphasis on creative writing. (She got into every university that she applied to, and Stanford was her first choice; one of her Homegoing characters goes to Stanford too.)
Her sophomore year of college, Gyasi traveled to Ghana to start research for her novel. The trip drastically changed her initial idea for the book—especially a visit to the Cape Coast Castle, where a tour guide told how slaves-in-waiting would be imprisoned downstairs in the dungeon, while British men lived in the upper floors, in palatial style, with the Ghanaian women they took as wives. The dichotomy struck Gyasi, and she was surprised that the castle was so close to where she'd been born. Some of its captives, of course, had been shipped to Alabama, where Gyasi had grown up dealing with the everyday implications of being racially and culturally different from everyone around her.
"I am a storyteller focusing on the lives of those in the African diaspora," Gyasi says. But she didn't always think a black woman could be a published author: "Even though I loved reading and writing when I was young, I so rarely saw books that reflected my own experiences—books that were written by or about people who looked like me."
Then she picked up a book by Toni Morrison, then another and another. Suddenly, Gyasi believed that she, too, could get published. If Gyasi could meet anyone on Earth, she says, "I would choose Toni Morrison in order to tell her how much her work means to me."
Today, Gyasi lives in New York City—and she's working on another novel. "I'm too superstitious to say what it's about," she says, "but I hope my books continue to expand ideas of what is possible in fiction."
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