An alumna novelist returns to the campus where her book began
Yaa Gyasi’s acclaimed first novel, Homegoing, whisks the reader across two continents, four centuries and seven generations as it traces the damage done to a family by slavery.
As far-flung as the story is, it began right here at Stanford. Gyasi, ’11, was a sophomore English major when she obtained the Chappell-Lougee grant that sent her to Africa and sparked her literary quest. She acquired critical tools at Stanford to engage with the issues of race, heritage, evil and humanity that she explores in her book. Its audacity and ambition embody the Stanford spirit.
Homegoing follows the lineages of two Ghanaian half-sisters: one taken in slavery to America, one given in marriage to the British governor of the castle in whose bowels enslaved people like her half-sister are held.
One half-sister’s progeny stay in Ghana, battered by colonial pressure on an Asante kingdom not lacking its own brutality and greed. The rest endure the U.S. antebellum South, the Great Migration, the civil rights era and beyond.
‘Diaspora’ is a family. Your families are ripped apart in these irreparable ways. This book was a way to offer this connective tissue to a family, even if it was a [fictitious] family.
– Yaa Gyasi, ’11
The novel’s genesis was a trip to Ghana’s Cape Coast Castle that Gyasi took while on her Chappell-Lougee travel grant, she told students Oct. 12 at Stanford’s Women’s Community Center.
Born in Ghana, Gyasi moved to America with her parents when she was a toddler. She intended to use the Chappell-Lougee grant to research her mother’s family but caught an unexpected spark. At the Cape Coast Castle, a former slave depot at a port of embarkation, she learned that the British officers in charge often married local women.
“And that started the idea of these two women juxtaposed,” Gyasi said, “a woman living above and a woman down below.”
She began to ask herself, “If my family hadn’t moved to America, who would I be?”
The narrative she constructed over the following years, first at Stanford, then at the University of Iowa Writers Workshop and beyond, explores that question.
“It started out as a conventional novel with two contemporary characters flashing back,” she said of early pages written at Stanford, but found “it became important to see how things like slavery and colonialism shifted over time.
“I researched the topics and then pictured people around that topic: What might it be like to be living in Baltimore during the Fugitive Slave Act?
“I knew I wanted fourteen chapters, covering seven generations. I filled in gaps in the narrative with research questions. Doing it incrementally made it much more manageable. It felt like one small project at a time.”
Homegoing’s plot has a Stanford pivot as well. In Green Library’s Lane Reading Room, the character Marcus, a graduate student struggling with a thesis topic, has the epiphany that ties together the themes of the book and, though he doesn’t know it, sets in motion the reunion of the long-split family.
Multigenerational novels, as a genre, tend to run very long – hundreds of thousands of words. Gyasi held her book to a conventional novel’s length despite pressure to the contrary, a decision that makes Homegoing seem fresh and new.
To cope emotionally while working with difficult subject matter, she gave herself space to breathe, “to write for three hours, then go do something that had nothing to do with slavery at all.”
“For everything that happens to a character in my book, I read something far worse that happened to a real person.”
Still, she said, “I didn’t want my writing to be about pretty flowers in a field. I wanted to be engaged with the world around me.
“‘Diaspora’ is a family,” Gyasi said. “Your families are ripped apart in these irreparable ways.
“This book was a way to offer this connective tissue to a family, even if it was a [fictitious] family.”
In this Wall Street Journal video, Gyasi talks about the book.