Yaa Gyasi - Connecting African and American History in "Homegoing"

August 16, 2016 - Yaa Gyasi & Sharlto Copley 08/16/2016 Views: 15,197

Yaa Gyasi explains how a trip to her native Ghana inspired her to write about ethnic identity and the U.S. slave trade in her debut novel, "Homegoing." (5:43)

Watch Full Episode

My first guest is a New York Times bestselling author

whose debut novelis called Homegoing.

Please welcome Yaa Gyasi.

(cheers and applause)

Welcome to the show.

Thank you.Thanks for having me.

Thank you for being herewith, honestly,

one of the most fantastic booksI've read in a long time.

It is a novel.

It is a storyabout two half sisters,

but really it's the storyof slavery, how it affected

many black Americans,how it affected, uh,

strangely enough,the history of, you know,

even white Americans andthe way they related to them...

-Yeah. -...and Africans thatstayed on the continent.

How do you even begin writinga book like this?

Yeah, well, for me,this book began with a trip

to the Cape Coast Castlein Ghana, which is a, um,

slave fort that-that'son the kind of coast of Ghana.

Um, and I just took the tour

that they giveto-to everyone who visits.

Um, and on this tour,the tour guide started to talk

to us about how some ofthe British soldiers who lived

and worked in this castleat the time, um, would marry

the local women, um,which was something

I had never heard before.

Y-your story fascinates me

because you've hadto skirt the lion.

You know, I've-I've readinterviews and stories

where you've talked about being,uh, not completely

African-Americanas people would think,

-Right.-but then at the same time,

not being completely African.

You-you live in the...in the space in between.

Yeah, I mean, I-I was bornin Ghana, but then we moved

to Ohio, Illinois, Tennesseeand then Alabama,

um, when I was nine.

Um, and, so, by the time I gotto Alabama, I kind of, um,

you know, kind of had this, uh,you know, varied sense of myself

in a lot of different ways,but one of the things

that I found trickiestwas navigating America's race,

um, because I think that a lotof, um, African immigrants

would say that they're notkind of... they're not used

-to identifying themselvesracially, you know? -Yes.

Um, they identifyethnically or-or whatever it is.

-Yeah, ethnically, tribally.-Yeah, exactly.

Wherever you go there'sa different world.

Whatever it is for you.

And, so, um, in Alabama,you know, you kind of are

constantly confrontedwith your race.

Um, and, so that kind of...

Really, in Alabama?

(laughs)Yeah.

-Who knew? Exactly.-Huh.

Um, so it became kindof the-the-the starting point

for me to thinkabout the different, um,

the different waysthat I could, you know,

start to-to writeabout race and ethnicity

and-and all of those thingsthat come up in the book.

It's a, it's a, it's a powerfulstory because it's not just,

you know, uh...stories that involve any...

retelling of slavery can eitherfall into the trap of being

a... a completely, you know,dismal world view.

-Just going, i-it's all bad.-Right.

Others can be too hopeful.

This-this-this reallyskirts the line.

It's-it's a beautiful story.

What I was fascinated bywas the fact that you also wrote

about African slave traders.

You don't hear much about that.

Yeah, you-you definitely don't.

And, you know, I think onceI took that tour and kind of

started to hear people talkingabout the different ways that,

um, that African slave traderswere involved in this,

you know, broad, um, trade,it made me really, um,

just aware of the fact thatwe shouldn't have to travel

to Ghana and-and visitthis castle in order

-to have this history.-Yeah.

You know, it should be morereadily available and-and,

you know, if you wantto paint a full picture

of the slave trade,you have to include

the African side of it, I think.

One thing you did, and I-I donot think in a tiny interview

I can do it much justice,is it's really a story

-about a family, though.-Yeah.

It's a story about sisterswho were separated

at a young age, but thencame back together, I guess,

-through their generations.-Right.

Is that somethingyou-you looked to do?

You-you don't have the booklaid out in a typical fashion.

You have a family treethat tracks people

throughout their lives.

When you were doing that,when you were researching that,

is something, is that somethingthat you set out to do

because you thoughtit was important?

Yes, absolutely.

I really wanted thisto be a story

about the diaspora as a family,you know.

If you go back far enoughin time,

the thing that connects us,

both African immigrantsand African-Americans,

and just the-the broad diasporain general,

is the fact thatwe were all related,

and all livedon this continent together.

And I-I wanted to, you know,bring it down

to that most elemental level,the familial.

Why do you, uh, think it wasimportant for you to express

the pain of people not beingable to track their history,

of people not being able to gofar and say,

"This is where I come from.

This is who I am"?

I think that that kind of trauma

is central to theAfrican-American experience.

So many African-Americansare incapable of tracing

their families back pasttheir grandparents,

their great-grandparents,whatever it is.

Um, and that loss, I think,is palpable,

and it's something that-that,um, kind of distinguishes them,

I think, from a lot of otherdifferent groups of people.

And so, I wanted to,I wanted to, you know,

be allowed to kind of connectthe family for all of us,

not-no just forAfrican-Americans,

but for African immigrantswho don't...

who don't often get sight of-ofthis side of the family as well.

It's a... it's-it's really,it's a beautiful story.

It moves fast.

You-you cry and you laughas you're reading it.

It's a, it's beautiful storythat I think is very hopeful,

whilst at the same timebeing very realistic.

You know, they've hailed youas-as the writer

-of the new Roots of our generation. -Oh.

Ta-Nehisi Coates, you know,writing a forward in the book.

-And, uh...-Yeah.

I think we're going to seea lot of you.

Thank you so muchfor being here.

-Oh, thank you so much.-It's really amazing.

-Wonderful having you.-Thanks for having me.

Homegoing is available now.

It's a beautiful storyabove everything else.

Yaa Gyasi, everybody.