“I Was Thinking About Blackness in America”

Yaa Gyasi on her debut novel, Homegoing; the writer as public figure; and getting blurbed by Ta-Nehisi Coates.

Yaa Gyasi.
Yaa Gyasi.

Wall Street Journal

Yaa Gyasi’s debut novel, Homegoing, arrives this month with the sort of pre-release hype that is only heaped on several books per year. First there were the stories about the high price (at least $1 million) that Knopf paid to acquire the book last year from then–25-year-old Gyasi. And now comes the massive promotional campaign, with advance press in the major newspapers and a long, generous blurb form Ta-Nehisi Coates that appears on both the front and back covers.

The book itself is only 300 pages, but it is large in scope, packs an immense emotional punch, and features a number of superb scenes. The novel moves between centuries and continents, starting in the 18th century in what is now Ghana. There, at the real slave fort known as Cape Coast Castle, one African woman lives upstairs with her British husband while her sister, locked below, is a slave to be sent to America, where her descendants in present-day America help round out the story. Gyasi herself was born in Ghana but then raised in Alabama from the age of 9. After attending Stanford and receiving an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, she moved to Berkeley, California. (Some of the book is set in the Bay Area.)

On a recent morning, we met at a coffee shop in Oakland, California. Over the course of our conversation, we discussed the development of the book’s plot and structure, writers she admires, and what Homegoing says about being black in America. The conversation has been edited and condensed.

Isaac Chotiner: Did the idea for the book come to you at once, or did different sections occur to you at different times, and then you put it all together?

Yaa Gyasi: The structure was the hardest thing to figure out. I had gone to Ghana on a grant from Stanford the summer after my sophomore year. I had a different idea in mind, something about mothers and daughters, something more traditionally structured. I had hoped to go to the central region of Ghana, which is where my mother’s side of the family was from. I had never really spent much time there. … But then a friend came to visit, and we decided to go to Cape Coast Castle on a whim. And while I was there, I took the tour, and the tour guide was talking about how British soldiers used to marry the local women, which is something I had never heard about before.


Exactly. And I guess I wasn’t really thinking about the ways that the Ghanaians were involved with the British and how much contact they actually had. It never occurred to me. And then he took us down to the dungeons, so you get that very literal upstairs-downstairs thing. So at the beginning I thought I was just going to write about those first two characters, and then also somehow I wanted to tie it to present day, and so I thought maybe I would set it in the present and have these flashbacks to the castle in the 18th [century]. I worked that way for the first three years, and it wasn’t really what I wanted. And I think during my time in Iowa what I realized was that I was more interested in kind of getting to look at the ways that slavery and colonialism changed really subtly over a very long period of time. And so once I realized the book was more about time than about the other things, I decided that this structure that the book currently has would be a better way to go.

“The book was more about time” is an interesting phrasing.

One of the reasons that I felt like the book was about time was that I wanted to talk about how the moments that we are dealing with in the present didn’t just appear out of nowhere. They are connected to every single moment in time that came before, tracing back to this huge thing in the 18th century. But I felt it would be easy to lose the thread of time if I just talked about the present. It would be easier for people to say, “Slavery was a million years ago. Why does it matter?” But if I showed the ways that it changed over time …

How much historical research did you do? I know authors hate getting asked that question.

Yeah, it’s hard to answer. I say that my research was wide but shallow. I read a little bit of a lot of books and online articles and Wikipedia and all of that. I worked with this book called The Door of No Return a lot. That helped with the first two chapters. It is just about the Cape Coast Castle. It gave me an idea of what it might be like to live or work in the time period. That was the only book I read all the way through. For the rest, once I got to a new chapter and knew what the time period was for the bulk of that chapter, I would look at a book that centered around it. The research felt very exploratory. I didn’t want to feel stifled by having to get everything exactly right. If I found one line, that was enough to get my imagination going.

Was trying to inhabit characters from hundreds of years ago a different process than doing so with present-day characters?

You know, I felt a lot of freedom with this, in part because there isn’t very much written about [these] people—particularly people from the Cape Coast from that time period. The British brought the written language with them. There is nothing to check it against. It made it a lot of fun to do those earlier chapters.

The book examines the complicity of Africans in the slave trade. What made you want to focus on that?

Ghanaians don’t talk about this castle at all. They don’t talk about complicity at all. I asked my parents whether they learned about it at all in school; they don’t really teach it, to my understanding. It is not something I would have been interested in if I had not lived in America or had not grown up in Alabama, where you get to see the result of what all of that is. You put it out of your mind if you or your family ended up in Ghana but not when you end up on the other side. I am happy to have the conversation be a little more open than it used to be.

What was it like for you and your parents as Ghanaian immigrants in Alabama?

It’s the place I think of as home. My parents almost always lived in predominantly white areas. We lived on the south side of Huntsville, which was very white. My school was almost entirely white, and there weren’t a lot of other African immigrants at the time we moved there. I remember that every time we would move to a new place my dad would take the phonebook and look for Ghanaian-sounding last names and just call them to try and build the community wherever he was. But in Huntsville that was really hard. We had a family of Nigerian friends, and that was really it. Now there are a lot more Ghanaian immigrants. My mom is actually president of the Ghanaian Association of Huntsville.

She must be very proud right now.

She is very excited.

What do your parents make of the book?

They … have not read it.

I have a spare copy, if that’s the problem.

[Laughs.] No, I sent it to them. They have it. My mom is reading it right now. My dad’s read all of the chapters that take place in Ghana because I wanted some feedback. I will see how they feel about the whole thing probably this week.

That sounds worse than waiting for a review.

Yeah, a little bit. I think they’ll like it. [Laughs.]

So after leaving Alabama you eventually did your MFA in Iowa. What was that experience like?

I really liked Iowa. I mean, I had problems with it. It is more diverse than it used to be, but that is still not saying very much. I took a year off between college and Iowa, and I was working at a startup in San Francisco that I hated and never got any work done. And so for me Iowa was 100 percent about having the time to work on this book, and I finished it while I was there. It did everything I wanted it to do. People debate whether you can teach writing, but I don’t feel like a lot of people who go there do so because they feel like they need to be taught to write. A lot of them just need some time and some money to be able to do what they are doing.

So that was what was most important to you, the time and the money?

Oh, absolutely.

Was there any aspect of your writing that you feel like it helped you with?

I mean, I found a lot of readers while I was there. My thesis adviser read the entire novel and gave me feedback that was very helpful. I met my boyfriend while I was at Iowa, and he gave me like 20 pages of notes that made the book a lot better than it would have been otherwise. That aspect of it was great—finding people who are there to make your work better, and make the book the book that you want it to be, and not impose their own ideas on it. I felt like that was the best thing that happened at Iowa—other than the time and the money.

It’s all about time with you.

Exactly. Time is very important to me.

At some point you switched from merely someone writing fiction to someone that a big company was putting a ton of money and press behind. I know some writers are more outgoing than others—


Have you thought a lot about the public aspect of this career you have?

It is—I don’t know. This is really a bizarre position because obviously every writer hopes that one day someone else will be reading her book, not just her. But you don’t write really—or I don’t write really—with an audience or a public reception in mind. I didn’t have much published before this novel, so I hadn’t really encountered people reading my work before this. And I am not the most public-facing, outgoing person, so this is all very new to me. I don’t think there is a way to prepare for what this looks like. I have started another novel, but I am not very far into it. I haven’t really thought about how all this will affect what I will end up writing.

Do some novelists have a public posture you admire?

That’s a good question. I haven’t really paid attention to that aspect before this. I was just reading novels and not really paying attention to how people behave in public. But now …

Just don’t be Naipaul.

What does he do?

Racism, misogyny, general grumpiness.

Hopefully I can avoid the racism and misogyny pretty easily. [Laughs.]

What writers do you most like as writers?

I really love James Baldwin. Edward P. Jones, particularly his short stories. Jhumpa Lahiri I love. She’s really, really excellent. Toni Morrison was big for me when I was young. Song of Solomon was like my favorite book ever.

Not anymore?

I still love her. Just thinking about her effect on my earlier life—it was a lot bigger than it is these days. I am really into [Chimamanda Ngozi] Adichie. I have read all of her books.

Have any writers reached out to you?

No, no. I mentioned in the Wall Street Journal that I read a lot of Lurlene McDaniel medical dramas, and she emailed me, which was great. There were all of these books about sick children, and I devoured them.

How did you get that long Ta-Nehisi Coates blurb?

Oh God, I don’t even know. I didn’t know he had the book. I think my editor or publicist gave it to him. It was amazing. It was also the busiest time in his life, I am sure, when he was writing Between the World and Me. I am surprised he found the time, but I am really grateful.

From the time you started the book to the time you finished it, a lot changed around the conversation about race in America—even if the realities didn’t—and his book was part of that, obviously. Did your mindset change on anything you were writing about?

I don’t know if it influenced it. I was already working on the book when a lot of these things started to happen. I think it made me feel good that I was writing this, that I have been thinking about these things for as long as I have.

What specifically, when you say “these things?”

When I started the book, I was thinking about this broad question of what it means to be black in America. That was actually what I put at the top of my blank computer screen. So I was thinking very broadly and very vaguely about this book being an answer to this question. I was thinking about blackness in America. That’s why I wanted to get to these immigrant characters.

So what about being black in America do you think the finished product addresses?

In part I was thinking about how it is easy for African immigrants, when they get here, to believe themselves to be set apart from African Americans, and in a lot of ways they are. I heard Adichie talking to Zadie Smith about this very thing, and how she wished she could give African immigrants this manual about what slavery was when they get to America, so they aren’t so inclined to be as judgmental as white people are about African Americans. I thought that was an interesting thing to say, and that’s what I was thinking about—the things that connect us, not the things that make us different.