Toni Morrison

1 Story




Yaa Gyasi’s debut book and New York Times bestseller, “Homegoing,” (Penguin Random House), traces the generations of family who follow, as their destinies lead them through two continents and three hundred years of history, each life indelibly drawn, as the legacy of slavery is fully revealed in light of the present. From the plantations of the South to the Civil War and the Great Migration, from the coal mines of Pratt City, Alabama, to the jazz clubs and dope houses of twentieth-century Harlem, right up through the present day, “Homegoing” makes history visceral, and captures, with singular and stunning immediacy, how the memory of captivity came to be inscribed in the soul of a nation.


Directly following her discussion with visual artist Toyin Ojih Odutola at NeueHouse Madison Square, Gyasi sat down with NeueHouse member, Larry Ossei-Mensah, to share further insight into her world and the world of “Homegoing” including, putting a name to the lost faces in history, her fascination with Yaa Asantewaa, and her mantra in life.


Larry Ossei-Mensah: You were born in Ghana and raised in Alabama. Did the juxtaposition of your upbringing influence the initial storyline for Homegoing? If so, why?


Yaa Gyasi: The juxtaposition is really what Homegoing is all about. It’s about putting these two worlds, Ghana and America, against one another. It’s about having them in conversation with one another to inform each other and look at all of the ways that we became separated between Ghanaian and African American culture. It’s also the way that we connect the two. I think it’s everything.


LOM: Homegoing is your debut book. What was the curation process like when creating a compilatory book that focuses on several different centuries at a time? How did you decide what particular periods to focus on and what to not focus on?


YG: I knew that I wanted this book to cover a long period of time, to start in the 18th century and end in the present. As I was writing, I was thinking about different moments in history that might be nice to have pit stops in and some of those moments include the advent of cocoa farming in Ghana or the Fugitive Slave Act in America. Once I figured out the places that I was interested in exploring, I would structure the novel so I could stop at these places and let people see what life in that time and place might have been like.


LOM: You mentioned that each of the characters taught you something as you were going through the process of writing. What is the most significant thing you’ve learned from writing this book?


YG: The most significant thing I’ve learned is that it is important that we see people as individuals. It is imperative that we recognize the people who faced these extreme circumstances by speaking their name and not allowing them to become part of this nameless, faceless mass. It’s important to draw out individual stories, so that we can see the people who were thrust into these circumstances are just like us with the same kinds of hopes, fears, and dreams that we have for ourselves.


LOM: Was it difficult to come face to face with the horrific realities that you discovered through your research when writing the book?


YG: It was really difficult. Some of the moments in this book are really traumatic. I felt how traumatic it was for me to research it and write it, and, of course, it was ten-fold more traumatic for the people who were going through it. I felt like I had a responsibility to them, to these characters, and to the people that they represent from our reality to tell their stories and to talk about them.


LOM: I read that reading and writing was your best friend growing up. How would you describe your writing style now, particularly working on the next project? What do you keep from Homegoing and what do you let go of?


YG: From Homegoing, I will always keep this privileging of storytelling over some of the other things that writers sometimes privilege. It’s important to me that you tell a good story as well as learn something and write beautiful prose, but it’s important to me that people enjoy the story that they are reading and so, I will take that with me to the next book.


LOM: When you were writing the book, was that something you were constantly thinking about in terms of these parallels between the past and present? Many of the characters dealt with a variety of issues such as how people of color engage with the police, people in uniform, familial  relationships, loving each other, and loving themselves. Was that something you were consciously thinking about when writing the book?


YG: Yes. I was thinking about all of that. What we inherit–physical inherencies and emotional inherencies, these scars that we carry with us from these decisions our ancestors made, from the decisions that our governments make–it impacts our life in a very real way.


I was also thinking about repetition, these moments in history that come back and the ways we can recognize them. In Kojo’s chapter, when he makes his children present their free papers to him, that kind of looks a lot like the way black parents talk to their kids today about interacting with the police. So these moments that I think have a rhyme and this repetition to them, I wanted to bring them out.


LOM: If you could live in any other period in time, thinking about the generations that this story spans, when would it be?


YG: You know, a lot of these periods, it’s hard to be black and a woman, so I don’t know if I would want to go back to any of the times that I write about. If anything, I would want to go forward. So, the future.


LOM: Which historical figure do you most identify with?


YG: I don’t know if I identify with her most, but I am so fascinated by Yaa Asantewaa who I write about in one of these chapters. Just the fact that she rallied her people against the British in this major war –she’s our Ghanaian Joan of Arc, yet so many people don’t know her story. It was great for me to be able to write about her.


LOM: What do you want readers to walk away from after they’ve read your book?


YG: I want readers to recognize that a lot of things we are dealing with in the present today, they have a precedent, they’ve come from these other historical moments. This current political climate didn’t appear out of thin air. It was built and we can see exactly how it was built. I want this book to kind of connect this present to our history.


LOM: Which living person do you most admire?


YG: I suppose I would go to some of my writing heroes. Toni Morrison has to be one of them.


LOM: What is your mantra in life?


YG: Be kind.



Larry Ossei-Mensah is a Ghanaian-American independent curator and cultural critic who has documented contemporary art happenings for various publications including Uptown and Whitewall Magazine. Ossei-Mensah is also the Co-Founder of ARTNOIR, a global collective of culturalists who design multimodal experiences aimed to engage this generation’s dynamic and diverse creative class. ARTNOIR serves as a tangible extension of Ossei-Mensah’s curatorial vision of “bridging cultural gaps” through the power of art.


Photography: Andrew Boyle for NeueJournal