Novelist Yaa Gyasi Discusses Intergenerational Trauma And Restoration At Scripps

Yaa Gyasi wears a grey shirt and looks at the camera.
Yaa Gyasi, author of “Homegoing,” one of the National Book Foundation’s 2016 “5 Under 35” award winners and recipient of the 2017 Hemingway Foundation award, spoke at Scripps College Feb. 20. (Courtesy of Scripps College)

Scripps College hosted Ghanaian-American novelist Yaa Gyasi at Garrison Theater for a Scripps Presents talk in conversation with professor Myriam J. A. Chancy, the college’s Humanities Department chair Feb. 20.

Gyasi opened the evening by reading the first chapter of her 2016 debut novel “Homegoing,” one of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ selections for the National Book Foundation’s 2016 “5 under 35” award.

Gyasi, who published the book at the age of 26, also won the 2017 PEN/Hemingway Foundation Award for first book of fiction, the American Book Award, and the National Book Critics Circle’s John Leonard Award for best first book.

“Homegoing” begins with the story of two half-sisters born in 18th-century who are separated when one is kidnapped and brought across the Atlantic Ocean to be sold into slavery in the U.S. Gyasi proceeds to tell the individual stories of eight generations of the sisters’ descendents and the familial cycles that are introduced and eventually resolved.

After Gyasi’s reading, Chancy said it was “wonderful to hear a writer read their own words.”

Gyasi said that reading aloud was an important part of her writing process. She said it helped her “identify the tonality of each character’s voice” — a crucial endeavor, as “Homegoing” shifts through 14 primary characters descended from one another.

The event was well-received by many audience members, including students who are currently reading “Homegoing” in their Core II class, Subversive Selves.

“Just in class today we were talking about the title of the book, ‘Homegoing,’ so it’s really cool she answered a question at the end that answered something we talked about just a few hours ago in class,” Abby Power SC ’21 said.

Other students gained similar insights into Gyasi’s mindset.

“I had the question in class of how this book ties to Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome,” Amy Azubuike SC ’20 said. “[Gyasi] said that she didn’t really think about that while she was writing — which was honestly really surprising — because she didn’t want it to influence her writing, which I understand, but, wow, she literally wrote a book about Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome without knowing about it while she was writing it.”

Other students found personal connections to “Homegoing.” An important theme of the novel is intergenerational differences, particularly with regard to familial migration, which Chiugo Akujuobi SC ’21 said resonates with her own experiences.

“I was born in Nigeria. I have Nigerian parents so every conversation is about tension,” Akujuobi said. “We grew up in different worlds similarly to how [a father and son pair in ‘Homegoing’] grew up in different worlds.”

Gyasi said the book’s title originated as a term created by enslaved people to describe deaths in their community; the deceased were believed to “return to the place from which they were stolen.” She said naming her book “Homegoing” was an act of restorative justice.

While the novel describes eight generations that each, in their own way, experienced the trauma of slavery, Gyasi said she wanted each chapter to also be a story of either romantic or familial love, to illustrate how the members of this family tree can continue to strive for survival through cycles of abuse, violence, and despair.

Gyasi said that in writing “Homegoing,” she wanted to tell the stories of slaves who were never given a voice in the recorded history of slavery. To do this, she said it was important to her to create nuanced and complicated narratives in which no character was portrayed as the antagonist or the hero.

She wanted readers to grapple with this duality in her book’s characters the way she had when writing their storylines, she said.

Gyasi’s highest priority in writing “Homegoing” was honoring the authenticity and ambiguity of her characters’ voices, rather than crafting satisfying or happy narratives.

“It doesn’t matter if I’m happy with the idea; it matters if it’s true,” she said.

Gyasi said the working title of her book was “African America,” which she changed mainly because she felt it only addressed one side of the story the novel tells and because Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s “Americanah” — another novel that deals with similar themes — had just been published.

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