A year later, Yaa Gyasi reflects on her sensational literary debut

Photos – local – ae1qanda04z-b
Yaa Gyasi, author of “Homegoing.”

It’s been exactly one year since Yaa Gyasi made her sensational literary debut with Homegoing, a stunning novel about the legacy of slavery in America that chronicles nearly 300 years in the life of two families, one in America, the other in Africa, who share a common ancestry.

In 14 discrete chapters devoted to one character each, we experience the cumulative effect slavery had on the Africans brought to America and those left behind, including the men and women who participated in the slavery trade as owners or traders.

Born in Ghana, raised in Alabama, and educated at Stanford University, Gyasi was 26 and fresh out of the University of Iowa’s famed graduate writing program when she made headlines after selling the book for more than $1 million, an almost unheard-of amount for a literary novel by a first-timer.

Homegoing received universal critical acclaim and won Gyasi a raft of accolades and awards, including the PEN/Hemingway Award for debut fiction.

The author is back on the road this month to promote the paperback edition.

She will appear at 7:30 p.m. Thursday at the Free Library of Philadelphia’s Central Library in a double program also featuring Jamaican novelist Kei Miller.

You were 26 when you were hit by this avalanche of praise and publicity. Were you at all wary of all the attention, or did you just sit back and enjoy the ride?
It’s a combination of both. It’s definitely been a great ride. But, you know, it’s so hard to prepare for this kind of experience because it certainly is so rare, especially for a first-time novelist, so I certainly was overwhelmed by it. And I feel a kind of responsibility now that I didn’t really feel before the book came out, to live up to everything that people have put behind it.

Writers with hit debuts have talked about the added pressure they feel when it comes to producing their next work.  It can be debilitating. Are you worried?
No, I’m definitely comfortable producing the work that I want to produce. I think all that you can do as a writer is to do the thing that interests you and that you are passionate about. To follow those thoughts through onto the page. I don’t have control over what happens once a book is out. But what I can control  is writing the book that I want to write.

What’s the next book? Are you ready to share? Or are you still caught up with the Homegoing hubbub?
Well, right now I’m just trying to catch my breath.

Were you always a writer?
I’ve always wanted to be a writer. And I read a lot when I was young. The two go hand in hand, and so I’ve always wanted to try my own hand at this medium that I loved so much, so I began writing short stories really in elementary school.

The novel opens in 18th-century Ghana, and it’s about the descendants of two women, one a slave bound for America, the other a local beauty who weds the British governor.
They’re half-sisters, though neither knows the other even exists, and they both live in [the British slaving post] Cape Coast Castle, one upstairs and the other downstairs in the dungeon.

But that’s not exactly the story you set out to write.
I started out with a more traditional structure in mind, and it was going to be set in the present but with some flashbacks to the 18th century. It was going to be about these two characters who meet in the present.

That would be Marjorie and Marcus, two Stanford University students who generate sparks when they meet one night.
Yes, they’re now at the very end of the book. The idea was that I was going to look at the way the past interacts with the present and how it influences the present. So the story was going to be about [Marjorie and Marcus], but it would flash back to the two sisters.

The brief flashback grew. And grew.
Over time, I became much more interested in looking at that whole sweep of time. So I wanted to find a structure that would allow me to stop in as many generations as possible.

That’s when you added 12 more protagonists and broke up the book into a series of stories unfolding over the course of three centuries?
The experience of reading a book like this is that you are going to get to those two last characters with so much more information about who they are and why they might be who they are. I don’t think Marcus or Marjorie will ever tell you they feel any particular relationship to their histories or their ancestors. But, I mean, we get to see that they do.

How come the novel changed so radically?
It happened in 2009, when I won a fellowship at Stanford to do research for a novel. So I went to Ghana, and I took a tour of Cape Coast Castle. I remember the guide talking about how the British soldiers would sometimes marry local girls. And then he took us to the basement, to the dungeon, where they kept the slaves.

So these soldiers interacted with one set of locals as human beings – as people they would befriend or marry. And another set of the same population as goods to be sold?
That’s exactly it. And when I saw that dungeon, I knew immediately what I wanted to write, something that would  juxtapose the lives of these two sets of people, one upstairs, the other downstairs.

The research into the lives of American slaves could not have been easy. You tried to capture the inner lives of people who were denied literacy and a literature of their own, so that there are few firsthand accounts in writing.
Yes, a lot of books have been written that pay attention to how the people in the dungeons had no literature of their own and so couldn’t represent themselves or communicate themselves for a wider public. It is a shame, and so much has been lost because of it. But that doesn’t mean we can forget how these people did carry on and how they did find other ways to create meaning and beauty in their lives, moments of hope for themselves. And so, for a writer who is trying to talk about their experiences, I think the best I can do is to try to honor that.

Yaa Gyasi: Homegoing, with Kei Miller: Augustown. 7:30 p.m. Thursday at the Free Library of Philadelphia, Central Library, 1901 Vine St. Admission:
Free. Information: 215-567-4341 or freelibrary.org