Berkeley writer Yaa Gyasi adjusts to fame, accolades for debut novel ‘Homegoing’

Yaa Gyasi. Photo: Michael Lionstar
Yaa Gyasi. Photo: Michael Lionstar

By Frances Dinkelspiel and Mal Warwick

Yaa Gyasi had just returned to her Berkeley home after a whirlwind tour of bookstores around the country to promote her debut novel, “Homegoing,” and she sounded a bit tired Tuesday on the phone.

Her book, which starts with the tale of two half-sisters in Ghana in the 18th century and then follows 12 of their descendants for 200 years throughout Africa and the U.S., was published in early June to extraordinary reviews. The New York Times wrote about it twice (with Pulitzer-Prize winning author Isabel Wilkerson calling it a “hypnotic debut) as did scores of other media outlets, including NPR, Time Magazine, the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, and Slate. Mal Warwick said in his review for Berkeleyside (which appears at the end of the article) that Gyasi has a “marvelous way with words.”

After Ta-Nehisi Coates, author of the mega-bestseller on race, “Between the World and Me,” finished the book he exclaimed his delight on Twitter: “Finished Yaa Gyasi’s ‘Homegoing’ yesterday. Thought it was a monster when I started. Felt it was a monster when I was done.”

Of course, the fact that the book was sold for about $1 million in 2015 after 10 publishing houses competed to buy it increased the hype factor.

Gyasi, 26, who moved with her boyfriend to Berkeley in August, said she has been surprised – and a bit exhausted – by the attention.

“I didn’t really expect any of this,” said Gyasi, who makes her home in the Elmwood district right near the border with Oakland. “Like most writers I was just writing quietly for myself, unaware of whether or not my book was going to see the light of day, even. This has all been incredibly exciting and I’m grateful the light is not only there, but that it’s so bright.”

Gyasi’s official book tour is winding down and one of her last appearances is in Berkeley tonight at 7:00 p.m. at Revolution Books, 2444 Durant Ave. in the Telegraph Channing Mall.

Gyasi straddles two worlds – Africa and the United States – and her book is in part, a reckoning withHomegoing book that dual identity as well as the legacy of slavery. She was born in Mampong, a small town in Ghana, but left that West African country when she was two when her father enrolled in a Ph.D program in French language at Ohio State University. The family then moved to Illinois and Tennesse until they settled in Huntsville, Alabama when Gyasi was 10. She attended a mostly-white school in a town that had almost no other Africans. At home, however, Gyasi’s parents instilled a respect for Ghanaian history and culture in their children.

So Gyasi had the experience of being black in America, but not African-American.

“I was born in Ghana but I grew up primarily here,” she said. “My ethnic background was different than most African-Americans’ and yet I’m black. The distance between race and ethnicity was something I used to think about a lot growing up, trying to figure out all of the normal identity stuff that young people have to figure out. It definitely influenced the book.”

Gyasi is able to explore those themes because the descendants of the two half sisters,Effia and Esi, live in either Africa or the United States. At the end of the book, there is a meeting of the two branches of the family back in Ghana and a reckoning of sorts

Gyasi got the inspiration for Homegoing after her sophomore year at Stanford. She had received a fellowship that allowed her to travel to Ghana for only the second time since her family had emigrated. One day, she took a tour of Cape Coast Castle, one of about 40 “slave castles,” or forts in Ghana that had been used during the slave trade.

The tour guide told the group that many British slavers married Ghanaian women and lived in the upper floors of the castle. The dungeon that held the captives who would be sold into slavery was below.

Gyasi had not known much about the Ghanaian involvement in the slave trade before the tour. Her novelist’s mind was struck by the fact that Ghanaians in the 18th century could live in such in completely different circumstances, one in luxury on the top floors of the castle and one in inhumane conditions in the dungeon. That discrepancy became the basis of her book as one of the sisters marries an Englishman and lives in comfort at the castle, not realizing her half sister sits in a dungeon downstairs. She is sold into slavery and eventually ends up in America.

Gyasi had been writing a book about mothers and daughters before she visited Cape Coast Castle, but soon shifted her focus. She returned to Stanford where she worked with a number of inspiring creative writing teachers, she said, including Elizabeth Tallent, Peggy Phelan, and Molly Antopol. After an unpleasant year working for a start-up in San Francisco, Gyasi attended the Iowa’s Writers Workshop. It was there that she completed “Homegoing”. After graduation, she moved to Berkeley.

“It’s a lot different than San Francisco,” she said. “It’s a lot more laid back, a little more conducive to an artist’s lifestyle.”

Mal Warwick provides a review of “Homegoing.”

A review of Homegoing: A Novel, by Yaa Gyasi
@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

Yaa Gyasi’s extraordinary debut novel, Homegoing, traces the story of a Ghanaian family over more than two centuries through the lives of two branches of its descendants, one in Ghana, the other in the United States. The book opens in the mid-eighteenth century, when the slave trade was at its peak, follows the rollercoaster fortunes of the family through the turbulent years of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and concludes in present-day Ghana, where two descendants of the family have returned to explore the land of their ancestors — and the meaning of their lives. The tale in Homegoing parallels the story told in Alex Haley’s Roots over roughly the same period.

Unforgettable characters

Gyasi has a marvelous way with words. In brief chapters, using the most economical language, she celebrates the lives of her characters in ways that will stay with readers for a long time to come. Beginning with Effia and Esi, the two half-sisters whose descendants people the novel, through the generations to follow, Gyasi spells out the legacy of slavery without resorting to stereotypes. There is evil on every side: in the British who manage and profit from the slave trade; in the Asante and Fante warriors and traders who deliver their captives to the British; in the American slave-owners and their successors, who impose lynching and Jim Crow; and in the Northerners who sustain housing segregation and practice racism with only slightly less malice than their Southern counterparts. Yet the members of the family are far from blameless: all the stereotypical afflictions of Black America are to be found here, from the cruelty of recent Irish immigrants to the drug addiction and broken families, yet each of Gyasi’s characters, no matter how unexpected, is easy to believe. This is a novel that meets the sensibilities of our time, when the passage of history has allowed us to gain perspective over the evil in our past. This is historical fiction at its best.

Continue reading the rest of the review on Mal Warwich’s Blog on Books.

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