Born in Ghana and raised in Huntsville, Alabama, Yaa Gyasi is the author of the highly acclaimed novel Homegoing and a National Book Foundation’s 2016 “5 Under 35” Award recipient.
In 2019, Gyasi received a grant from Stanford University where she was furthering her studies by researching Ghana on a novel project. While on the trip, she took a tour of the Cape Coast Castle, “one of the most famous castles in Ghana’s dark episode of slavery,” which at one point housed “up tp 1,000 males and 500 females, whom were shackled and crammed in the castle’s dank, poorly ventilated dungeons, with no space to lie down and very little light.”
This newfound knowledge sparked “anger” and “rage” in Gyasi, which was the impetus she needed that helped inspire Homegoing.
According to Penguin Random House Speakers, “Homegoing is the story of two half-sisters, Effia and Esi, born into different villages in eighteenth-century Ghana. Effia is married off to an Englishman and will live in comfort in the palatial rooms of Cape Coast Castle, raising children who will be sent abroad to be educated before returning to the Gold Coast to serve as administrators of the empire. Esi, imprisoned beneath Effia in the Castle’s women’s dungeon and then shipped off on a boat bound for America, will be sold into slavery.”
When speaking to Shad of “Q on CBC” about her reaction to being in the space of the Cape Coast Castle for the first time, she mentions, “I was really angry, I think. It was actually the first reaction I had.” Gyasi continues, “It was a lot of rage, and also just grief. It was hard for me to picture what it might have been like for a person be in a space like that with no air and no light for months at a time.”
While it’s mentioned that the soldiers who worked in the castles married the local women, what stuck Gyasi was that there “could be women up above [the castle dungeon] walking free,” who were totally “unaware of what was going on below them.” In Homegoing, Effia is literally living right above Esi, her enslaved sister, each unbeknownst to the other. Shad of “Q on CBC” couldn’t help but notice the similarities and “eerie metaphor for present-day inequality”, a stigma we’re still reeling from.
“You know this was the very literal ‘upstairs-downstairs’ situation where you could be kind of walking above unaware of what was going on below you,” Gyasi said. As some of us are every single day of our lives, we tend to steer away from “investigating” and “digging” below the surface, in fear in seeing the “devastating” truths for who and what they are. Homegoing attempts to bring that full cycle of the readers.
Gyasi started her journey as a way of exploring how slavery and racism has moved and changed over time and throughout history over the long haul. She wanted to be “very clear” of the legacies that it leaves as it passes through generations, not only in America, but Ghana, and many other countries as well.
“Well, originally I thought I would have a book that just took place in the present and then kind of had flashbacks to the 18th century to the height of the slave trade in Ghana, but then, I was more interested in kinda being able to watch the way that slavery changed things very sutbletly over time and the kind of inhertiance that each generation got from slavery, Gyasi said.
“So not just the fact that slavary happened and ended, but it lead to things like the
Convict Leasing system in southern states or things like The Great Migration or things like mass incarceration. I wanted it to kinda be this way of looking at history through the lens of slavery.
Homegoing stretches from the wars of Ghana to slavery and the Civil War in America, from the coal mines in the American South to the Great Migration and twentieth-century Harlem. A powerful and emotional American novel about race and history, this is truly a book for our times.
Gyasi is a graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and lives in Berkeley, California. She is the winner of the National Book Critics Circle John Leonard Prize, the PEN/Hemingway Award for Best First Novel, and was a finalist for the Dayton Literary Peace Prize for Fiction and the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize. Homegoing also was a winner at the 2017 Audie Awards.