One of Oprah’s Best Books of the Year and a PEN/Hemingway award winner, Homegoing follows the parallel paths of these sisters and their descendants through eight generations: from the Gold Coast to the plantations of Mississippi, from the American Civil War to Jazz Age Harlem. Yaa Gyasi’s extraordinary novel illuminates slavery’s troubled legacy both for those who were taken and those who stayed—and shows how the memory of captivity has been inscribed on the soul of our nation.
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The night effia otcher was born into the musky heat of Fanteland, a fire raged through the woods just outside her father’s compound. It moved quickly, tearing a path for days. It lived off the air; it slept in caves and hid in trees; it burned, up and through, unconcerned with what wreckage it left behind, until it reached an Asante village. There, it disappeared, becoming one with the night.
Effia’s father, Cobbe Otcher, left his first wife, Baaba, with the new baby so that he might survey the damage to his yams, that most precious crop known far and wide to sustain families. Cobbe had lost seven yams, and he felt each loss as a blow to his own family. He knew then that the memory of the fire that burned, then fled, would haunt him, his children, and his children’s children for as long as the line continued. When he came back into Baaba’s hut to find Effia, the child of the night’s fire, shrieking into the air, he looked at his wife and said, “We will never again speak of what happened today.”
The villagers began to say that the baby was born of the fire, that this was the reason Baaba had no milk. Effia was nursed by Cobbe’s second wife, who had just given birth to a son three months before. Effia would not latch on, and when she did, her sharp gums would tear at the flesh around the woman’s nipples until she became afraid to feed the baby. Because of this, Effia grew thinner, skin on small birdlike bones, with a large black hole of a mouth that expelled a hungry cry which could be heard throughout the village, even on the days Baaba did her best to smother it, covering the baby’s lips with the rough palm of her left hand.
“Love her,” Cobbe commanded, as though love were as simple an act as lifting food up from an iron plate and past one’s lips. At night, Baaba dreamed of leaving the baby in the dark forest so that the god Nyame could do with her as he pleased.
Effia grew older. The summer after her third birthday, Baaba had her first son. The boy’s name was Fiifi, and he was so fat that sometimes, when Baaba wasn’t looking, Effia would roll him along the ground like a ball. The first day that Baaba let Effia hold him, she accidentally dropped him. The baby bounced on his buttocks, landed on his stomach, and looked up at everyone in the room, confused as to whether or not he should cry. He decided against it, but Baaba, who had been stirring banku, lifted her stirring stick and beat Effia across her bare back. Each time the stick lifted off the girl’s body, it would leave behind hot, sticky pieces of banku that burned into her flesh. By the time Baaba had finished, Effia was covered with sores, screaming and crying. From the floor, rolling this way and that on his belly, Fiifi looked at Effia with his saucer eyes but made no noise.
Cobbe came home to find his other wives attending to Effia’s wounds and understood immediately what had happened. He and Baaba fought well into the night. Effia could hear them through the thin walls of the hut where she lay on the floor, drifting in and out of a feverish sleep. In her dream, Cobbe was a lion and Baaba was a tree. The lion plucked the tree from the ground where it stood and slammed it back down. The tree stretched its branches in protest, and the lion ripped them off, one by one. The tree, horizontal, began to cry red ants that traveled down the thin cracks between its bark. The ants pooled on the soft earth around the top of the tree trunk.
And so the cycle began. Baaba beat Effia. Cobbe beat Baaba. By the time Effia had reached age ten, she could recite a history of the scars on her body. The summer of 1764, when Baaba broke yams across her back. The spring of 1767, when Baaba bashed her left foot with a rock, breaking her big toe so that it now always pointed away from the other toes. For each scar on Effia’s body, there was a companion scar on Baaba’s, but that didn’t stop mother from beating daughter, father from beating mother.
Matters were only made worse by Effia’s blossoming beauty. When she was twelve, her breasts arrived, two lumps that sprung from her chest, as soft as mango flesh. The men of the village knew that first blood would soon follow, and they waited for the chance to ask Baaba and Cobbe for her hand. The gifts started. One man tapped palm wine better than anyone else in the village, but another’s fishing nets were never empty. Cobbe’s family feasted off Effia’s burgeoning womanhood. Their bellies, their hands, were never empty.
In 1775, Adwoa Aidoo became the first girl of the village to be proposed to by one of the British soldiers. She was light-skinned and sharp-tongued. In the mornings, after she had bathed, she rubbed shea butter all over her body, underneath her breasts and between her legs. Effia didn’t know her well, but she had seen her naked one day when Baaba sent her to carry palm oil to the girl’s hut. Her skin was slick and shiny, her hair regal.
The first time the white man came, Adwoa’s mother asked Effia’s parents to show him around the village while Adwoa prepared herself for him.
“Can I come?” Effia asked, running after her parents as they walked. She heard Baaba’s “no” in one ear and Cobbe’s “yes” in the other. Her father’s ear won, and soon Effia was standing before the first white man she had ever seen.
“He is happy to meet you,” the translator said as the white man held his hand out to Effia. She didn’t accept it. Instead, she hid behind her father’s leg and watched him.
He wore a coat that had shiny gold buttons down the middle; it strained against his paunch. His face was red, as though his neck were a stump on fire. He was fat all over and sweating huge droplets from his forehead and above his bare lips. Effia started to think of him as a rain cloud: sallow and wet and shapeless.
“Please, he would like to see the village,” the translator said, and they all began to walk.
They stopped first by Effia’s own compound. “This is where we live,” Effia told the white man, and he smiled at her dumbly, his green eyes hidden in fog.
He didn’t understand. Even after his translator spoke to him, he didn’t understand.
Cobbe held Effia’s hand as he and Baaba led the white man through the compound. “Here, in this village,” Cobbe said, “each wife has her own hut. This is the hut she shares with her children. When it is her husband’s night to be with her, he goes to her in her hut.”
The white man’s eyes grew clearer as the translation was given, and suddenly Effia realized that he was seeing through new eyes. The mud of her hut’s walls, the straw of the roof, he could finally see them.
They continued on through the village, showing the white man the town square, the small fishing boats formed from hollowed-out tree trunks that the men carried with them when they walked the few miles down to the coast. Effia forced herself to see things through new eyes, too. She smelled the sea-salt wind as it touched the hairs in her nose, felt the bark of a palm tree as sharp as a scratch, saw the deep, deep red of the clay that was all around them.
“Baaba,” Effia asked once the men had walked farther ahead of them, “why will Adwoa marry this man?”
“Because her mother says so.”
A few weeks later, the white man came back to pay respects to Adwoa’s mother, and Effia and all of the other villagers gathered around to see what he would offer. There was the bride price of fifteen pounds. There were goods he’d brought with him from the Castle, carried on the backs of Asantes. Cobbe made Effia stand behind him as they watched the servants come in with fabric, millet, gold, and iron.
When they walked back to their compound, Cobbe pulled Effia aside, letting his wives and other children walk in front of them.
“Do you understand what just happened?” he asked her. In the distance, Baaba slipped her hand into Fiifi’s. Effia’s brother had just turned eleven, but he could already climb up the trunk of a palm tree using nothing but his bare hands and feet for support.
“The white man came to take Adwoa away,” Effia said.
Her father nodded. “The white men live in the Cape Coast Castle. There, they trade goods with our people.”
“Like iron and millet?”
Her father put his hand on her shoulder and kissed the top of her forehead, but when he pulled away the look in his eyes was troubled and distant. “Yes, we get iron and millet, but we must give them things in return. That man came from Cape Coast to marry Adwoa, and there will be more like him who will come and take our daughters away. But you, my own, I have bigger plans for you than to live as a white man’s wife. You will marry a man of our village.”
Baaba turned around just then, and Effia caught her eyes. Baaba scowled. Effia looked at her father to see if he had noticed, but Cobbe did not say a word.
Effia knew who her choice for husband would be, and she dearly hoped her parents would choose the same man. Abeeku Badu was next in line to be the village chief. He was tall, with skin like the pit of an avocado and large hands with long, slender fingers that he waved around like lightning bolts every time he spoke. He had visited their compound four times in the last month, and later that week, he and Effia were to share a meal together.
Abeeku brought a goat. His servants carried yams and fish and palm wine. Baaba and the other wives stoked their fires and heated the oil. The air smelled rich.
That morning, Baaba had plaited Effia’s hair. Two long braids on either side of her center part. They made her look like a ram, strong, willful. Effia had oiled her naked body and put gold in her ears. She sat across from Abeeku as they ate, pleased as he stole appreciative glances.
“Were you at Adwoa’s ceremony?” Baaba asked once all of the men had been served and the women finally began to eat.
“Yes, I was there, but only briefly. It is a shame Adwoa will be leaving the village. She would have made a good wife.”
“Will you work for the British when you become chief?” Effia asked. Cobbe and Baaba sent her sharp looks, and she lowered her head, but she lifted it to find Abeeku smiling.
“We work with the British, Effia, not for them. That is the meaning of trade. When I am chief, we will continue as we have, facilitating trade with the Asantes and the British.”
Effia nodded. She wasn’t exactly sure what this meant, but she could tell from her parents’ looks that it was best to keep her mouth shut. Abeeku Badu was the first man they had brought to meet her. Effia wanted desperately for him to want her, but she did not yet know what kind of man he was, what kind of woman he required. In her hut, Effia could ask her father and Fiifi anything she wanted. It was Baaba who practiced silence and preferred the same from Effia, Baaba who had slapped her for asking why she did not take her to be blessed as all the other mothers did for their daughters. It was only when Effia didn’t speak or question, when she made herself small, that she could feel Baaba’s love, or something like it. Maybe this was what Abeeku wanted too.
Abeeku finished eating. He shook hands with everyone in the family, and stopped by Effia’s mother. “You will let me know when she is ready,” he said.
Baaba clutched a hand to her chest and nodded soberly. Cobbe and the other men saw Abeeku off as the rest of the family waved.
That night, Baaba woke Effia up while she was sleeping on the floor of their hut. Effia felt the warmth of her mother’s breath against her ear as she spoke. “When your blood comes, Effia, you must hide it. You must tell me and no one else,” she said. “Do you understand?” She handed Effia palm fronds that she had turned into soft, rolled sheets. “Place these inside of you, and check them every day. When they turn red, you must tell me.”
Effia looked at the palm fronds, held in Baaba’s outstretched hands. She didn’t take them at first, but when she looked up again there was something like desperation in her mother’s eyes. And because the look had softened Baaba’s face somehow, and because Effia also knew desperation, that fruit of longing, she did as she was told. Every day, Effia checked for red, but the palm fronds came out greenish-white as always. In the spring, the chief of the village grew ill, and everyone watched Abeeku carefully to see if he was ready for the task. He married two women in those months, Arekua the Wise, and Millicent, the half-caste daughter of a Fante woman and a British soldier. The soldier had died from fever, leaving his wife and two children much wealth to do with as they pleased. Effia prayed for the day all of the villagers would call her Effia the Beauty, as Abeeku called her on the rare occasions when he was permitted to speak to her.
Millicent’s mother had been given a new name by her white husband. She was a plump, fleshy woman with teeth that twinkled against the dark night of her skin. She had decided to move out of the Castle and into the village once her husband died. Because the white men could not leave money in their wills to their Fante wives and children, they left it to other soldiers and friends, and those friends paid the wives. Millicent’s mother had been given enough money for a new start and a piece of land. She and Millicent would often come visit Effia and Baaba, for, as she said, they would soon be a part of the same family.
Millicent was the lightest-skinned woman Effia had ever seen. Her black hair reached down to the middle of her back and her eyes were tinged with green. She rarely smiled, and she spoke with a husky voice and a strange Fante accent.
“What was it like in the Castle?” Baaba asked Millicent’s mother one day while the four women were sitting to a snack of groundnuts and bananas.
“It was fine, fine. They take care of you, oh, these men! It is like they have never been with a woman before. I don’t know what their British wives were doing. I tell you, my husband looked at me like I was water and he was fire, and every night he had to be put out.”
The women laughed. Millicent slipped Effia a smile, and Effia wanted to ask her what it was like with Abeeku, but she did not dare.
Baaba leaned in close to Millicent’s mother, but still Effia could hear, “And they pay a good bride price, eh?”
“Enh, I tell you, my husband paid my mother ten pounds, and that was fifteen years ago! To be sure, my sister, the money is good, but I for one am glad my daughter has married a Fante. Even if a soldier offered to pay twenty pounds, she would not get to be the wife of a chief. And what’s worse, she would have to live in the Castle, far from me. No, no, it is better to marry a man of the village so that your daughters can stay close to you.”
Baaba nodded and turned toward Effia, who quickly looked away. That night, just two days after her fifteenth birthday, the blood came. It was not the powerful rush of the ocean waves that Effia had expected it to be, but rather a simple trickle, rain dripping, drop by drop, from the same spot of a hut’s roof. She cleaned herself off and waited for her father to leave Baaba so that she could tell her.
“Baaba,” she said, showing her the palm fronds painted red.
“I have gotten my blood.”
Baaba placed a hand over her lips.
“Who else knows?”
“No one,” Effia said.
“You will keep it that way. Do you understand? When anyone asks you if you have become a woman yet, you will answer no.”
Effia nodded. She turned to leave, but a question was burning hot coals in the pit of her stomach.
“Why?” she finally asked.
Baaba reached into Effia’s mouth and pulled out her tongue, pinching the tip with her sharp fingernails.
“Who are you that you think you can question me, enh? If you do not do as I say, I will make sure you never speak again.” She released Effia’s tongue, and for the rest of the night, Effia tasted her own blood.
Reading Group Guide
The introduction, author biography, discussion questions, and suggested reading that follow are designed to enhance your group’s discussion of Homegoing, the stunning debut novel by Yaa Gyasi.
1. Evaluate the title of the book. Why do you think that the author chose the word Homegoing? What is a homegoing and where does it appear in the novel? In addition to the term’s literal meaning, discuss what symbolic meanings or associations the title might have in terms of a connection with our place of birth, our ancestors, our heritage, and our personal and cultural histories.
2. Explore the theme of belief. What forms of belief are depicted in the book and what purpose do these beliefs seem to serve for the characters? Does the author reveal what has shaped the characters’ beliefs? Do these beliefs seem to have a mostly positive or negative impact on the believer and those around them?
3. What perspective does the book offer on the subject of beliefs and otherness? For instance, does the book delineate between superstition and belief? Why does Ma Aku reprimand Jo after he is kicked out of church? What do the Missionary and the fetish man contribute to a dialogue on beliefs and otherness? Does the book ultimately suggest the best way to confront beliefs that are foreign to us?
4. Evaluate the treatment and role of women in the novel. What role does marriage play within the cultures represented in the novel and how are the women treated as a result? Likewise, what significance does fertility and motherhood have for the women and how does it influence their treatment? In the chapter entitled “Effia,” what does Adwoa tell Effia that her coupling with James is really about? In its depiction of the collective experiences of the female characters, what does the book seem to reveal about womanhood? How different would you say the treatment and role of women is today? Discuss.
5. Analyze the structure of the book. Why do you think the author assigned a chapter to each of the major characters? What points of view are represented therein? Does any single point of view seem to stand out among the rest or do you believe that the author presented a balanced point of view? Explain. Although each chapter is distinct, what do the stories have in common when considered collectively? How might your interpretation of the book differ if the author had chosen to tell the story from a single point of view?
6. Consider the setting of the book. What time periods are represented and what places are adopted as settings? Why do you think that the author chose these particular settings? What subjects and themes are illuminated via these particular choices? How does the extensive scope of the book help to unify these themes and create a cohesive treatment of the subjects therein?
7. In the chapter entitled “Quey,” Fiifi tells Quey that “[the] village must conduct its business like [the] female bird” (53). What does he mean by this and why do you think that Fiifi chooses this approach?
8. Why was Quey sent to England? After his return home, why does Quey say that it was safer in England? Why might he feel that what he faces at home is more difficult than the challenges he faced in leaving home and living abroad?
9. James’s mother, Nana Yaa, says that the Gold Coast is like a pot of groundnut soup (89). What does she mean by this?
10. Why does Akosua Mensah insist to James, “I will be my own nation” (99)? What role do patriotism, heritage, and tradition play in contributing to the injustices, prejudices, and violence depicted in the book? Which other characters seem to share Akosua’s point of view?
11. Explore the theme of complicity. What are some examples of complicity found in the novel? Who is complicit in the slave trade? Where do most of the slaves come from and who trades them? Who does Abena’s father say is ultimately responsible (142)? Do you agree with him? Explain why or why not.
12. Examine the relationships between parents and children in the book. How would you characterize these relationships? Do the children seem to understand their parents and have good relationships with them and vice versa? Do the characters’ views of their parents change or evolve as they grow up? How do the characters’ relationships with their parents influence the way that they raise their own children?
13. What significance does naming have in the book? Why do some of the characters have to change or give up their names? Likewise, what do the characters’ nicknames reveal both about them and about those who give or repeat these names? What does this dialogue ultimately suggest about the power of language and naming?
14. Explore the motif of storytelling. Who are the storytellers in the book and what kinds of stories do they tell? Who is their audience? What might these examples suggest about the purpose and significance of a storytelling tradition?
15. According to Akua, where does evil begin? Where else in the book do readers find examples that support her view? What impact does Akua’s opinion have on Yaw’s lifework? Does he agree with Akua’s view or refute it? Do you agree with her? Discuss.
16. What is history according to Yaw? What does he tell his students is “the problem of history” (226)? Who does Yaw say we believe when reading historical texts and what does he say is the question we must ask when studying history? How might these ideas influence your own reading of Gyasi’s book and reshape your ideas about the historical subjects and themes treated therein?
17. Sonny says that the problem in America “wasn’t segregation but the fact that you could not, in fact, segregate” (244)? What does he mean by this? What does Sonny say that he is forced to feel because of segregation? Which of the other characters experience these same feelings and hardships? Does there seem to be any progress as the story goes on? If so, how is progress achieved? Alternatively, what stymies and slows progress in this area?
18. What is Marcus studying and why isn’t his research going well? What feeling does he indicate that he hopes to capture with his project? Why does Marcus go to Ghana and what does he learn from his experiences there? Marcus believes that “most people lived their lives on upper levels, not stopping to peer underneath (298). What does he mean by this? Where do we find examples of this elsewhere in the book? Are there any characters in the novel who defy this characterization?
19. Consider the book’s treatment of colonialism and imperialism. In the chapter entitled “Esi” at the start of the book, what does Esi’s mother tell her daughter that weakness and strength really are? How does her definition of weakness and strength correspond to the dialogue about colonialism and imperialism that runs throughout the book? Discuss how this dialogue expands into a deeper conversation about freedom and human rights. Have the issues surrounding colonialism, imperialism, freedom, and human rights featured in the book been resolved today or do they linger? If they remain, does the book ultimately offer any suggestions or advice as to how this might be remedied?
The night Effia Otcher was born into the musky heat of Fanteland, a fire raged through the woods just outside her father's compound. It moved quickly, tearing a path for days. It lived off the air; it slept in caves and hid in trees; it burned, up and through, unconcerned with what wreckage it left behind, until it reached an Asante village. There, it disappeared, becoming one with the night.Yaa Gyaasi's debut novel, Homegoing, fuses family history with the history of the enslavement of Africans, following the story of two half sisters and their descendants, moving between the a revelatory historical narrative of life on Africa's Gold Coast and a corresponding intergenerational American saga that takes in the politics of village life, the vibrancy of twentieth-century Harlem, and many more brilliantly drawn settings.
Homegoing brings the legacy of slavery into a subtly dramatized dialogue with the enduring pain of American racism, all encapsulated with the moving and complex portrayal of a family's journey through decades and centuries. The result is one of the most celebrated novels of 2016, and the emergence of an exciting new voice on the literary scene.
This summer, Yaa Gyaasi and her editor, Jordan Pavlin, sat down in front of an audience at Barnes & Noble's Upper West Side Manhattan store to talk about the origins of Homegoing, its roots in history and its meaning for 21st-century readers. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation. Miwa Messer, Director, Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers
Jordan Pavlin: Where on earth did this amazing story come from? Can you talk about the genesis of the idea, and a little bit about Cape Coast Castle?
Yaa Gyasi: Sure. In 2009, my sophomore year at Stanford, I received a grant to travel to Ghana and conduct research for a novel. I had a different idea in mind. I wanted to write a novel about mothers and daughters, and I thought it would be nice to go to my mother's home town in the central region of Ghana. But that idea wasn't really panning out, and a friend came to visit, and we decided, kind of on a whim, to go see the Cape Coast Castle, which I had never seen before and never really thought about before deeply.
It was while at the castle that I took the tour, and the tour guide started to tell us about how the British soldiers who lived and worked in this castle at that time would sometimes marry the local women. From there, he took us down to see the dungeons where the slaves were kept before being sent out on the Middle Passage. I thought how crazy is it that there could be women up above married to these British soldiers, walking around, kind of unaware of what would become of these women in the dungeons. So this book really started for me with thinking about those two first sisters, the half-sisters, that start the book that juxtaposition of the one who gets to stay and the one who is stolen and taken away.
JP: How did you proceed? It covers such a vast expanse of time. Did you know the structure when you began? Did you write chronologically?
YG: In the beginning I had a more traditional structure. I thought that the book would take place in the present, kind of with the last two characters, though I didn't know them at the time, and then just flash back to those two sisters in the eighteenth century. I probably wrote about 100 pages or so like this, until I got to Iowa and I realized I didn't like those pages. So I kind of threw everything out and started over again.
I realized that what I was more interested in doing was kind of showing how something can change subtly over a very long period of time in this case, 250 or so years. So I wanted to write about slavery and colonialism and institutionalized racism, but as they moved and changed over time. So once I realized that was the project I was more interested in, I decided that I needed a different kind of structure, one that would allow me to stop in as many places as possible, so I could look at it from different years and from different angles.
Once I landed on that, I probably wrote the first two chapters just kind of as you see them. They didn't change much from then to now. Then I made a family tree that I put above the desk. That tree just had either sister on either side, and then had the descendent, the name of the descendent if I knew it, and then the time period during which the bulk of the chapter takes place, and then maybe just one thing that was happening politically or historically in the background of that time period. Something like the advent of cocoa farming in Ghana, or the Fugitive Slave Act. Then I wrote chronologically, and when I got to a new chapter, I would just find research texts that kind of centered around whatever that thing was that I had decided I wanted to look up about the time period. I did just enough research to feel as though my imagination was sparked, and then I would close the book and try to just write from there. So I like to say that my research was wide but shallow, just a little bit of a lot of books.
JP: One thing that I find so remarkable about the book is the way it really does make history visceral and immediate, and by taking us through so many generations you create a sense of the inexorable. You capture the contingencies of accident and fate, the things that had to happen in one generation to make other events happen in succeeding generations. In something like six generations down the line, we find one of the novel's most incredible characters teaching a class called "History Is Storytelling."
I want to quote from that. He's teaching this class, and this character has a scar across his cheek, and we see in one of the novel's opening chapters the origin of that scar. But now, many generations later, this character himself has no idea how he's become disfigured. He asks his students to tell him the story of the scar, and everyone comes up with a different idea of how he might have gotten it. Then this character says, "Whose story is correct? We cannot know whose story is correct, because we weren't there. We believe the one who has the power. He is the one who gets to write the story." So when you study history, you must always ask yourself, "Whose story am I missing?"
When I got to that point in the novel, I had goosebumps because I felt that this is the story that we are missing. And I wonder to what degree you felt that, and whether it was your intention at the outset to sort of shine a light on the problem of history. I have read in interviews you've done that, in the course of your research, many of the books you read about Ghana during this time period were written by white British men. So I'm curious about how you begin to fill in those blanks.
YG: That was something that I was definitely thinking a lot about. A book that I began my research with was titled The Door of No Return by William Sinclair. It's a book that takes you through the castle, so you get to see what the life of the soldiers might have been like. It has a chapter on the women, a chapter on their daily activities, a chapter on the children. But what it was missing was a chapter on what was going on down below a chapter on the slaves. I thought this book was my opportunity to lend a voice to a group of people who had been silenced, who hadn't had an opportunity to tell their own stories. The British brought their written language with them to Ghana. So there are a lot of stories, I think, that went untold. Or at least unwritten, unrecorded. They were told in other ways. So I felt like it was important in this book to have a chapter that takes place in the dungeon, so that we can see something from a perspective that is often not there.
JP: This is a book about time, and how you are putting all of this history towards the purpose of illuminating the present moment. Can you talk about how this ties into the present moment, or what your intention was there?
YG: Initially I'd wanted it to be a more traditional novel that was set in the present. But then I realized that it's easy, kind of, to not take into consideration the full scope of history when you're talking about the present, to not understand how it is that we got to be here. It was really important to me that if I was going to write a book that dealt with the legacy of slavery, that I would be able to show it from the beginning to the end, not just what it meant in the eighteenth century in Ghana and America, but what it means now to Ghanaians and to Americans. So as I wrote, this project just ballooned outward and outward, and I kind of just let it, and tried to see where it would go and what it might look like to have a book that could hold a lot of time and a lot of places and a lot of characters all at once.
JP: I know that one of the things that many reviewers have remarked upon, one of the things that Ta-Nehesi Coates was most compelled by, was your willingness to address the complexity of the time, and notions of complicity, and the idea that we are all implicated. Can you talk about that?
YG: I felt, again, if I was going to tell this story, I couldn't just avoid talking about the parts of it that make me uncomfortable. So I felt like I really needed to take a look at the ways in which Ghanaians were complicit in the slave trade, not in a way to put blame on anyone, but to tell a more fully rounded story than the one that we usually hear. I always say to you that I didn't want this to be the kind of book where you could leave it thinking that you very clearly understood who the villains and who the heroes were, because I don't see it that way. I don't think the situation was very black or white, literally black or white. I wanted it to have more nuance and more complexity than that. Because while people were exploiting other people, they were also being exploited, and I wanted that roundness to be in the story as well.
JP: Also, there's a very strong sense that permeates the entire novel of dislocation. There is one scene that I found particularly fascinating, where Sonny, who is a character in twentieth-century Harlem, he asks his girlfriend why she calls herself Imani. She says, "It has nothing to do with Africa." He says to her, "It has nothing to do with Africa but you're using an African name?" She says, "We can't go back to a place we haven't been to in the first place. It isn't ours any more."
But the reader experiences this in a completely different way, because we see this line that stretches back generations, a line that is obscured certainly to them but we see it quite clearly. I just found this very provocative way of confronting the question of home, where home is, and the title itself.
YG: Traditionally, the term "homegoing" refers to slave funerals. The idea was that once a slave died, their spirit could return home to whatever country they had been stolen from. Many African Americans still use that term today "Homegoing." I thought that was particularly resonant for a book that was trying to kind of create a home for a very large family. I think one of the huge tragedies about slavery, though there are many, was just the fact that these families got fractured in such ways so completely that they didn't even know where whole sides of their families ended up, and a lot of African Americans still don't know which country on the continent they came from. So this book was a kind of attempt to restore home for both sides of this family who maybe got lost along the way.
JP: You were born in Ghana and raised primarily in Huntsville, Alabama. I'm curious to know how much of the drive toward the exploration of this particular theme comes from your own experience, and what your own experience of home has been.
YG: I felt really displaced growing up. I am Ghanaian, but I came to America so young that I don't really have a sense of myself as a Ghanaian, and I so rarely went back. I left when I was two. We went back all together as a family when I was eleven. Then I didn't go back again until I went by myself for that trip in 2009. So large parts of my family, I don't see every day. I don't know them well. So in many ways, that trip in 2009 was about kind of me getting a chance to reconnect with my roots and to feel this kind of large familial connection that in a lot of ways I had been cut off from. Growing up here, I felt like I was never really Ghanaian enough for Ghanaians, and never really African American enough for African Americans, and kind of trying to figure out how to navigate those two worlds and straddle those two lines. I think that was really important to me. This book has all of my questions in it, all of my questions around racial identity, ethnic identity, what home means, what family means. That's something that I was always searching for.
JP: What do you hope people will take away from this novel?
YG: I think the thing that I most wanted this novel to do was to show that people who are caught in these really difficult, traumatic situations, things like slavery, things like the Holocaust. It happened to individuals who are just like us, people with hopes and dreams and fears just like we have, not to a nameless, faceless mass. Each chapter is happening to a person, so you get to see a face that is attached to the Fugitive Slave Act, a face that is attached to the Great Migration. So you can't leave this book not feeling it, not feeling the weight of what 250 years of institutionalized racism leaves a group of people. That was really my biggest hope for this book.
JP: Well, I certainly think you've achieved that and will achieve that. I have to ask, because this is your first novel and you are so young: Were you always a writer? When did you know?
YG: Yes, I was always a writer. I was born in Ghana, and then we lived in Ohio, Illinois, Tennessee, Alabama. So we moved around a lot, and I had a really hard time making friends, so I became obsessed with books. They taught me everything that I know about people, about empathy. In a real way, it felt like books were my best friends. Very early on for me, reading and writing went hand-in-hand. I always wanted to see if I could do the thigs that I was reading. The first story that I ever wrote, called "Just Me and My Dog," I was seven, and I wrote it for the Reading Room Young Writers and Illustrators Competition.
JP: Did you have a dog?
YG: I didn't have a dog. It was fiction. It was an indictment of my parents for not allowing me to get a dog. But Levar Burton framed my certificate and sent it back, and I kind of felt like I've arrived. That was a big moment for me. But I didn't really understand when I was younger that writing was a profession that you could have, that you could do it as your job. I always thought I'd do something else and then write on the side. It wasn't until I read Song of Solomon when I was seventeen that I realized that not only can do this, but you can do it brilliantly and beautifully. So Toni Morrison's work was a real kind of turning point in my life, where I saw a black woman having this kind of career and being so successful at it. It really made me feel like I could at least try. So that's kind of when I started telling other people that I wanted to be a writer, and by college I had basically decided.
JP: Other important books to you, literary touchstones?
YG: I really love the short stories of Edward P. Jones. I love James Baldwin. Chinua Achebe. Chimamanda Adichie. I have a lot of heroes.
JP: As your editor I have to tiptoe a little around this question, but I know all of us here are very curious to know what might be next.
YG: I've started working on another novel. I always like to have something that I can move to so I don't have to stress out about the other thing that I'm working on. This one has been in the works for a while. It's still in the very early stages. It feels a lot different already than this book. I've only written the one book, but I already get a sense that each one is going to be really different and the process of writing each one is going to be different. You kind of have to relearn how to write. So that's where I am right now.
JP: I'm sure I speak for everyone when I say we just cannot wait to see what comes next.
September 15, 2016