Yaa Gyasi straddles two continents in her life and work.
The 26-year-old novelist was born in Ghana and moved with her family to the United States when she was 2.
Likewise, her accomplished debut novel, “Homegoing” (Alfred A. Knopf, 305 pp., $26.95), is set both in Africa and America. The epic story begins in West Africa in the 18th century with two half sisters, Effia and Esi. Effia is married off to the British colonial governor, leaving her village to live in the Cape Coast Castle; meanwhile Esi is captured by a rival tribe and sent to the castle’s dungeon as a slave.
Gyasi (pronounced “Jessy”) follows both branches of the family tree through 250 years of history. Esi’s descendants will endure slavery, escape to freedom, labor in the coal mines and migrate north to Harlem. Effia’s progeny will live under colonial rule, wrestle with their own involvement in the slave trade and agitate for independence.
Gyasi is a natural storyteller who effortlessly involves readers in the fates of her many characters. “Homegoing” had an early fan in award-winning author and journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates, who offered an endorsement for the book jacket.
A graduate of the Iowa Writers Workshop, Gyasi moved to Berkeley, California, last year. She spoke with Newsday by telephone; this is an edited version of the conversation.
What was the genesis of the novel?
In 2009 I got a grant from Stanford to travel to Ghana and conduct research for a novel. A friend came to visit and we decided on a whim to go to the Cape Coast Castle. It was basically a trading station for all sorts of things — gold, textiles, et cetera — but downstairs in the dungeon is where the slave trade took place. The traders would bring people in, they would be kept in the castle for a period of about three months, and from there they would be shipped to the Americas.
When the tour guide was telling us about how the British soldiers who used to live and work in the castle would sometimes marry the local women, I started to get the idea for this novel. And from there he took us down to the dungeons, and I was really struck by the fact that there could be Ghanaians living at the top of the majestic structure not truly aware of what was to become of the people who lived down in the dungeons.
There are echoes of so many great novels in “Homegoing.” Who are the authors who have influenced you as a writer?
One of the big ones is Toni Morrison — “Song of Solomon” was my favorite book when I was growing up; I was 17 when I read it. Another book that was huge for me was “One Hundred Years of Solitude” by Gabriel García Márquez. It’s so big and messy and it freed me up to do something more expansive than what I initially had intended on doing.
What about African writers?
You can’t escape Chinua Achebe’s “Things Fall Apart.” I love the oracular nature of that book. You feel like you could read it to anybody and it would be like they were sitting at a campfire just hearing a really great story.
“Homegoing” covers so many different time periods. Did you have to do a lot of research?
I wrote with a family tree on the wall. I had all the characters’ names in the position that they would appear in the book. And then the country that they would be living in and the time period in which the bulk of their chapter would take place. Then I would have just one big thing that was happening in the background during that time period — whether it was the Fugitive Slave Act, or the Great Migration. I would lightly explore whatever that subject was, and once I hit upon something that was enough to get my imagination going, I would set the book aside and start writing.
It’s a striking coincidence that your book is coming out at the same time as the remake of the TV miniseries “Roots.”
I never read [Alex Haley’s] “Roots” or saw the miniseries. It seems like it was just a huge, huge moment in this country, and probably elsewhere.
There is this newfound interest, I suppose, in talking about our history, black history, and how it ties back to Africa. All I can say is that I’m happy that it’s happening, and I’m happy to have this book be added into that conversation.
Yaa Gyasi will be interviewed by poet Tracy K. Smith at the Brooklyn Public Library, Grand Army Plaza, on Monday, June 13, at 7:30 p.m. She will also appear at Barnes & Noble, 82nd Street and Broadway in Manhattan, on Tuesday, June 14 at 7 p.m.