More at Stake Here Than Beauty: An Interview with Yaa Gyasi




ON JUNE 9, I MET YAA GYASI at her hotel in Hollywood, California. Gyasi was here to talk about her much anticipated novel, Homegoing, as part of the Los Angeles Public Library ALOUD series. Gyasi is of Ghanaian parentage; raised in Huntsville, Alabama; and educated at Stanford and the University of Iowa, where she completed an MFA, and where she wrote and edited Homegoing.

But the novel had been something she had been thinking about and working on for the last seven years (she is 27 years old).

Growing up, she was a voracious reader of literature, attracted to the Victorians. In college, she encountered Toni Morrison and James Baldwin, seeing her own questions and reality on the page — a representation of what it meant to be part of the black diaspora. Then she received a research fellowship at Stanford to travel to Ghana, and here she encountered a narrative that had largely been hidden from her. Visiting the Cape Coast Castle, she learned the role of Africans in the slave trade, and began to rethink the transatlantic slave trade beyond the black/white dialogic: Africans too, she realized, were complicit in the enterprise of racial capital across the New World.

Homegoing follows the bloodlines of two sisters born into two different fates in 18th-century Ghana. Gyasi renders the various atrocities they faced in clear, unflinching, sometimes heartbreaking ways. Gyasi’s prose shines when she describes the razor’s edge of pain, the idealism of children attempting to break with their parent’s traditions, the heartbreak of knowing that tomorrow might be the day your wife or husband or child will be taken away from you.

In a way, each chapter is a kind of love story — in some, love may not be allowed to materialize; in others, it repudiates traditions; in others, yet, it surprises those in its hold. The most powerful visions of love are in Gyasi’s depictions of black families across the diaspora, families often torn apart against their will, brutalized, terrorized, and disfigured. She depicts sorrow, grief, and death, but also articulates these families’ remarkable resilience, the way, as Cedric Robinson put it, “they were […] more than was what was expected of them, they could invent, manufacture, conspire, and organize way beyond the possibilities.”

Homegoing is part of the wide-ranging, formally varied, and probing look into the black diaspora — joining the work of many other African diasporic writers, such as Dinaw Mengestu, Zadie Smith, Teju Cole, Binyavanga Wainaina, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Chinelo Okparanta, Taiye Selasi, and NoViolet Bulawayo. But Gyasi’s novel is also part of a deeply American literary tradition of interrogating the conditions of reinvention, assimilation, racialization, and abandoned homelands. In this regard, Gyasi’s work resonates with that of writers like Nathan Englander, Oscar Hijuelos, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, Philip Roth, and Salman Rushdie.

Our conversation includes some questions regarding craft and technique, and then moves toward the thematic and political concerns of writing an African diasporic novel as an immigrant black writer. We began the interview in person, and it was subsequently extended and edited via email.

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LEAH MIRAKHOR: Tell me a little about your experience at Iowa, where you began writing this novel.

YAA GYASI: I workshopped three chapters in Iowa. This novel had very discrete chapters. One of my favorite workshops was with Ayana Mathis. For one thing, most of the people of color flocked to it. But, more important, she has an elegant, smart style of talking about work and is incredibly accessible, even at her busiest. Even though The Twelve Tribes of Hattie had just been released, she came to class fully present, having read all our work. She is the most gracious teacher you could imagine. Having the time to write at Iowa was incredibly valuable; I had a crappy start-up job before I got there and was miserable. Also, Iowa is where I met my partner. And his notes on this book were a turning point. After I finished looking at his notes, that’s when I knew I was ready to send it to other people. He’s a writer too.

Did you complete the novel while in Iowa?

I finished a first draft of it a few weeks after I graduated from Iowa, and then I stayed for another year, and revised it for nine months. And then I sent it out to agents.

I know you’ve said you like to read your work out loud. What are you typically looking for?

I’ve read this book out loud a number of times. I started because I had a great teacher at Stanford who noticed that I had a grammatical problem, I kept switching verb tenses. He said, “Your work is really good, but you have this thing you keep doing, maybe you should try reading your work out loud.” So I started to do it, and as soon as I did, I realized, yes, I do do that. So it became a habit, and then I started to notice all kinds of other things aside from the grammar; I could tell if there was a phrase missing, or if it could sound better. It has helped my editing process a lot.

When you read the work out loud, do you feel you also notice thematic resonances?

There were definitely things I noticed thematically, particularly when I reread Ness’s chapter, in terms of play with language, access to language: Who gets access to language? How is it denied? I didn’t realize I was doing this when I read the first draft. So I thought, oh maybe I’ll play this up in my revisions.

But I don’t know if this was just because of reading it out loud. It’s more about getting a sentence right; reading out loud, I can decide if the sentence doesn’t sound right to me.

Was there a character who underwent more changes in his or her development than others?

Quey’s character, only because I completely rewrote his chapter after I started working with my editor. She said, very kindly, “I think you need to rewrite this chapter.” I was scared, but I’d always known that chapter needed something, I just didn’t know what, and didn’t know how to make it better. She said, “Maybe rewriting would free you up. If you hate it, you don’t have to use it.” So, after a minor panic attack, I did start rewriting it, and was really surprised by the new direction it took. One of the elements was already there from the first draft. The biggest change is that it used to take place in England, and now it doesn’t.

Quey’s queerness and his relationship with his childhood friend, Cudjo, are important features of his growth. How did you develop this?

In the first draft, he had this figure in England that had both a fatherly and a romantic angle to it. But it was very buried. But then, I thought — what if I went full-on with this and didn’t bury it? I have a couple stories where I play with being queer but not being out. It’s something I’m so used to, but in the first draft of Quey’s story, it was too buried. And now, it’s a lot more clear.

Yes, it’s clear that he is struggling, but it is not sentimentalized.

Yes, this is the chapter I worked on the most. It took me a long time to get it right.

The novel is a collection of love stories, a collection of family love stories.

Yes!

And stories of families who are violently fractured, ripped apart. Were you also exploring another form of queerness — that is, the way in which families sometimes are not (or cannot be) constructed around biological inheritance?

I wasn’t thinking about these as love stories initially until Sam Chang, my thesis advisor at Iowa (she was the first person to read the whole draft) told me: “These are love stories, Yaa.” Immediately after she said it, I thought, “Oh, yes, of course.” But as I was writing, it was a practical matter: each character needed to have a child in order for this family tree to work, so there were a lot of meetings and couplings. But then, as I thought about it, romantic love also figures into a lot of chapters (although not all). For some of them, romantic love is a huge source of trauma or betrayal. In this book, the thing that’s more important is familial love, and different representations of familial love, particularly among black families who have had jarring breaks in their lines. Often times against their will. So I’ve been thinking about ways to represent and talk about different kinds of families — multi-parent households, for instance — and all these different ways you can have family up against crazy circumstances that are working to force them apart.

I think one of the most striking examples of romantic love occurs where we would perhaps least expect it, between James and Effia. He comes back from the castle and she can smell the feces and sweat and despair on him. As one of the other characters says to her, “There are people down there, you know. There are women down there who look like us, and our husbands must learn to tell the difference.”

I think even Effia is surprised! Her mother had basically sold her into a marriage and yet she finds a lot of comfort in a man who she knows is doing something awful. Nobody is a total villain or a total hero. James is a good example of that. And as soon as you’re ready to call James villainous, you see the way he is with Effia, and you think: How is that possible? … And even with their son … he wants to protect him. It’s very complicated.

Yes, there are moments in the novel when I was enraged, then, all of a sudden, there was a moment of beauty or joy, and I had to retreat from my anger. But there are also a couple moments when I stayed angry.

[Laughs.] Yes.

One is the moment where Ness is taken into her master’s house and is disrobed. The mistress of the house looks at her back, her scar, and then totally loses it. That moment, for me, was you saying that there are people who have to live with atrocity — in this case as slaves — eating, working, breathing, taking care of kids. And then there are people who enact those atrocities and can’t even bear to look at what they’ve done.

This novel was an attempt for me to say: We cannot look away when something like this is happening. We can’t look away. We don’t get to. Because Ness doesn’t get to. She talks about those scars being actual physical representations of her past. The ghosts of her past made seeable. And if she has to live with it, then we have to look at it.

This is an indictment of whiteness, or whatever whiteness becomes, as an attempt to look away.

Yes. Absolutely.

The missionary in Akuya’s chapter is another version of this whiteness — committing the crime and then needing reassurance after his confession. We find out that he does something incredibly violent and horrific, and when he reveals this despicable secret to her, he wants her comfort.

Yes, which is another aspect of whiteness that can’t look at what it’s done. Like, if I call you out for saying something racist, suddenly then I have to comfort you.

Exactly. There’s a genealogy of this whiteness that reproduces itself, as the book shows.

Right. Like I did the most abominable thing, and I told you, now comfort me.

Do you want to address any of the critiques, in terms of your treatment of the African American characters versus the African characters?

I don’t know if I want to talk about it, but I am interested when other writers, particularly black writers, talk about it. It’s interesting to be on this side of things, and see how it comes up.

It’s interesting because this book comes from a place of always feeling like I wasn’t Ghanaian enough for Ghana and not African American enough for the United States. So it will also be interesting to see how Ghanaian critics respond to it, because I can imagine getting the opposite side of the critique, where they think my treatment of the African American characters is nuanced. I don’t know what to do about that. I have always existed in this weird, murky space where someone is allowed to say I’m not either thing, if they are that thing.

Do you plan on going to Ghana as part of the book tour?

I would love to do that. I haven’t made any concrete plans. 

What scared you the most (formally and/or thematically) as you were writing the novel?

People have asked me if I was really intimidated about the subject matter, taking on a project that was so ambitious. I didn’t feel that because in part it felt so personal and private in the beginning. I didn’t think anyone would read it. I was writing for myself, and thinking through a lot of these issues, my troubles with racial and ethnic identity. And not understanding where I fit in. And this map is a map that lives inside my head at all times.

But then, as I began to realize that other people would see it, not even as I was workshopping it, but probably more when I signed with my agent, new fears crept in about whether I was doing justice to these characters, and what questions about representation I would get, and if people would be offended by what I had dredged up about an aspect of their past. Not that I didn’t have as much at stake, but I didn’t have a specific allegiance to either side; I was interested to see what would happen if people did feel a very strong allegiance to one side or the other.

At Iowa, I sort of prepared for this. It was good to see the kinds of things people were going to say about the book. Like people who had problems with the structure — had only read two chapters and a synopsis. And said that structure won’t work. And now there are people who aren’t wild about the structure, and hearing this earlier gave me a chance to prepare for these critiques. Which actually was super valuable.

In terms of staying assured about your vision?

I felt like if I can take everything everyone has said, and ignore the things which I needed to ignore and keep the things I wanted to keep, I would be so assured in my choices that it wouldn’t bother me. I don’t know if this was true, but it’s how I was thinking at the time. It’s hard not to take critique personally. Especially when you think: I’ve been working on this for seven years.

That’s essentially your adult life. From the time you to started to think about the book, until now.

Yes. I had no idea what I was doing in the beginning, which is why it took so long. I tried a lot of different things, and went in a lot of wrong directions, and tried other mediums. It took me a while to get to this, as you see it.

The work emphasizes the personal/psychic dimensions of tribal wars, slavery, institutional racism, white supremacy, and how ongoing generations inherit these pasts. The novel begins with a raging fire the night Effia is born. It’s ominous.

I think what helped was that I didn’t work off an outline and I didn’t know any of the characters before I started writing. I made a family tree and taped it to my wall. I wrote it all chronologically, which gave me the opportunity to have the descendants reacting to the situations their parents had put themselves in, and then, in turn, them. It felt more natural to me, and I didn’t know much about a character until I got to him or her. Just thinking about my own life — had my parents not moved to the United States, I’d be in Ghana — and who knows what my life would have been like. So, I felt like I couldn’t say anything about a child unless I knew something about his or her parents. The first draft process is very free for me, I try not to restrict myself, so I’m always surprised when I read it over and realize what I’ve done subconsciously. Maybe my mind was always working toward something, and I wasn’t aware of it. For example, H’s character has this kind of great strength and great rage that lights everything he does. And, he doesn’t know it, but we know his grandfather was like that. And not writing off an outline allowed me let the characters just be who they were.

Many of the characters (like H) are incredibly self-determined.

In a lot of ways these characters have to be. What are you supposed to do if your mother is stolen from your father in Baltimore, under the Fugitive Slave Act? And you have no family members? You know nobody. What do you make of yourself and of your life?

You have to rewrite family. Because even as white supremacy attempts to tear black families apart, it cannot simply eradicate them. Black families are constantly constructing and reconstructing.

Absolutely, there is incredible resilience.

The novel stretches over three centuries and across two continents, but the history and social aspects of these periods aren’t the focus. It seems to be about the emotional life of people during these periods?

Yes, absolutely. My intention was to not make the novel stiff with research. A lot of people have said, “You must have done a lot of research.” It didn’t feel that much when I was doing it. I did enough to get my imagination flowing, and then I wanted to let the characters do what they were going to do. I never wanted a chapter to be about the Fugitive Slave Act or the Great Migration. No, it was really: This chapter is about Kojo, this chapter is about Willy. It’s the way we live now.

At some point, long after we are gone, there will be stories about our time, too. The war in Iraq, for example — many of us don’t feel it in our daily lives, and how it’s impacting us as we go about our day-to-day lives. But when historians look back at this period, that is something that they’re going to mention. 

In the final chapter, Marcus wonders how to explain the fact of his existence: “that he wasn’t supposed to be here. Alive. Free. That the fact that he had been born, that he wasn’t in a jail cell somewhere, was not by dint of pulling himself up by the bootstraps, not by hard work or belief in the American Dream, but by chance.” Chance.

Right. He could have easily been anywhere else on this family tree. Sometimes I think what would have happened if I followed Robert and his line down. This group of descendants who are walking around, thinking they are white, and not knowing they have this connection to blackness, to racism. How much would it shock them to find that information out?

And the novel is your attempt is to show the fullness of people who haven’t been given access to that fullness.

Especially those last two characters — we come to them knowing so much more than they will ever know about their lineage. We know why they do what they do — we know why they study the things they study, why they love the things they love. The novel explores this question of nature versus nurture. We know so much more about the characters than they do.

You’ve mentioned that you really loved James Baldwin. What about his work draws you to him? Why?

I think that Baldwin is the gold standard for writing that is both beautiful and rigorous. I first encountered his work in college when a teacher assigned “Sonny’s Blues” (a story I reread once a year) and it moved me so deeply that I sought out more and more of his work — not just his fiction but his nonfiction as well. Reading him always reminds me that writing can (and I think should) be about the difficult work of justice, of dismantling and unlearning and rejoicing and healing, while still being lovely and moving. I knew, after reading Baldwin, that I never wanted to be the kind of writer who wrote about pretty flowers in a meadow, that there was more at stake here than beauty.

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Leah Mirakhor is an assistant professor in the Department of English at the College of Wooster. Her articles have appeared or are forthcoming in African American Review and Studies in American Jewish Literature.


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