No One’s Hands Are Clean: With Homegoing, Yaa Gyasi Writes the Perfect Novel

Yaa Gyasi

I cannot remember the last time I read a novel that made me want to use the adjective perfect. Perfection is usually the domain of short stories, of poems. Novels are messy, epic. Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing is a feat rarely achieved: a book with the scope of world history and the craft of something much smaller.

The novel opens on the Gold Coast in the 18th century. Effia Otcher and Esi Asare are half-sisters, though they don’t know it. One marries a British slaver; the other is sold by him. So divides their family tree: one branch spreading in what would become Ghana, the other, in the United States. Gyasi calls on a member of each successive generation—first Effia’s son, then Esi’s daughter, Effia’s grandson, Esi’s grandson, and on and on—all the way up to the 21st century. Homegoing demonstrates extreme, precise control: Gyasi spends only 20, 30 pages with each of its twelve characters. And yet the cumulative effect is staggering. These are not disparate stories, but one cohesive whole spanning six generations and two continents. It is the vastness and intimacy of history all at once. It condemns and it sorrows. It conveys the truest truth: that no one’s hands are clean.

Gyasi, born in Ghana’s Ashanti region and raised across the United States—Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, Tennessee, and finally Alabama—saw Homegoing as a way to bridge the continents. “If you grow up coming from a country that was involved in the slave trade, and you are in a place where the effects of the slave trade are still so strongly felt,” she explains, you will always be thinking about that relationship.

“I think Ghanaians, especially my parents’ generations, don’t,” she continues. “I asked my dad if he had studied the slave trade in school and he hadn’t.” Contemporary Ghana had divorced itself from the historical slave trade, she says. “This book was very much a way of navigating that.”

This gets at one of the central questions of Homegoing: What is the moral cost of slavery? And who should pay for it? Cape Coast Castle, one of 40 or so European-built fortresses in West Africa used for the slave trade, embodies the difficulty—and the importance—of the questions. Founded by the Swedish, conquered by the Dutch, rebuilt by the British, supplied by local middlemen, and filled with kidnapped human beings, the Castle shackles together many stories: of the people who did business there, of the people who grew up or grew old there, of the people held captive and brutalized there, of the people whose family history can be traced back through its Door of No Return.

Gyasi first visited Cape Coast Castle at twenty. “I went the summer between my sophomore and junior year,” she recalls. “It was the first time I had ever heard a lot of the things the tour guides said, including how the British soldiers would marry local women. I was staggered by all this information.” The extreme juxtapositions within the castle itself also struck her. “The cannons, the church, all of this exquisite beauty,” she says of the top floors. “But then you go down into the dungeons. There isn’t anything that can prepare you for taking that tour. I knew immediately it was what I wanted to center my novel around.”

Separated by an ocean, the novel’s bifurcated family bears witness to different faces of the same coin. In West Africa, a vacuum opens up, the legacy of the slave trade destabilizing as it once swallowed up whole communities. In the United States, the systems created to exploit black labor never fully disappear—they only change their appearance. “I was looking at something over a very long period of time, that something being slavery,” Gyasi says. “How it changed into colonialism in Ghana and institutionalized racism in American. And in order to follow that over a long time, 250 years, I felt like I needed to make pit stops in as many of those decades as I could.”

“All of it rests on the structure,” Gyasi explains. “It was the hardest thing and it took me the longest to figure out.”

She describes writing the first two chapters, which follow Effia and Esi, before tracing out their family tree. “I put it on my wall. The tree had the characters’ name and what country they would be in and their gender and the dates that I thought the bulk of their chapter would be in. That’s where the research would start.”

“I always wanted the historical information to feel very background, atmospheric,” Gyasi continues. Over the course of Homegoing, these distant cousins encounter the Anglo-Ashanti Wars, the Fugitive Slave Act, Christian missionaries, Jim Crow-era penal servitude, mental health crises, addiction. “I didn’t want it to be about the Civil War or the Great Migration, or whatever I knew was happening during that time period,” she says, “It was a way to see how that character might feel in that time period, and how they related to the things that were going on around them politically.”

The early success of Homegoing, which Knopf purchased in April 2015 for a rumored seven figures, has already begun to change Gyasi’s life. “I can now write full time, which is not something that a lot of writers get to do unfortunately,” she says. “It’s something that I’m incredibly, incredibly grateful for.” She’s already working on a second novel.

But the publication of her first book—which, when we spoke, had still not hit shelves—will likely yield even greater changes. It feels like a moment of calm before a great storm. Yaa Gyasi is arriving.

“We have a tendency to look back at history and make ourselves out as better than our ancestors,” she says of her novel. “‘I never would have owned a slave, I never would have sold a slave.’ Everybody in this book thinks that they are doing the right thing. Individuals are thrust into these circumstances. This is not to make excuses.”

“I want to show how easy it is to let something evil grow and not to fix it.”

(Check out Yaa Gyasi in conversation with Tracy K. Smith at Brooklyn Public Library’s Central Branch on Monday, June 13.)

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