Yaa Gyasi, whose debut novel sold for at least $1 million last year, was 20 when she stepped into the haunted dungeon of Cape Coast Castle for the first time. It was 2009. She had just completed her sophomore year at Stanford University and was spending the summer in Ghana, the country she left as a toddler.
Her tour guide explained that at the height of the slave trade, British officers—and the black women they married from the Gold Coast—had lived in comfort in the upper chambers of the whitewashed castle. Meanwhile, in the reeking dungeons below, men, women and children waited for the slave ships that would take them across the ocean.
Ms. Gyasi, who is black, snapped a photo of a wooden door that led from the dungeon to the beach. Above it was a sign that said: “Door of No Return.” Suddenly, she felt angry. She had never heard her family talk about the castle, or what it represented.
“It’s conveniently left out that there was this complicity on our side, too,” said Ms. Gyasi, who is now 26 and lives in Berkeley, Calif.
Her debut novel, “Homegoing,” begins with two half-sisters in 18th-century Ghana. One marries a British officer and lives with him high in Cape Coast Castle. The other passes through the dungeon below. Sweeping across more than 250 years of history, the book follows the descendants of both sisters—one family in Ghana, the other in America—devoting one chapter to a member of each generation.
The book is due June 7 from Alfred A. Knopf. The publisher is printing 50,000 copies before the release date, a large number for a literary debut novel.
“ ‘Homegoing’ will break your heart over and over…and leave you optimistic and in awe,” Nichole Solga McCown, a bookseller for Bookshop Santa Cruz in Santa Cruz, Calif., wrote in a review for the American Booksellers Association’s Indie Next List.
Ta-Nehisi Coates, author of last year’s runaway best-seller and National Book Award-winner on race in the U.S., “Between the World and Me,” tweeted: “Finished Yaa Gyasi’s ‘Homegoing’ yesterday. Thought it was a monster when I started. Felt it was a monster when I was done.”
Ms. Gyasi was born in Mampong, a small town 160 miles north of Cape Coast. She moved to the U.S. at age 2 when her father was working on a Ph.D in French language at Ohio State University. The family moved to Illinois and Tennessee before settling in Huntsville, Ala., the summer she turned 10.
She was a precocious reader, devouring Charles Dickens and Charlotte Brontë and racing through the young-adult medical dramas of Lurlene McDaniel.
Most of her friends and classmates were white, and, though she didn’t realize it at the time, so were most of the authors she read, both in school and at home. (The Francophone-African texts her father studied didn’t yet interest her.)
“Growing up, one of the things I found most difficult was trying to figure out where I fit in, particularly because while my family is black, obviously we aren’t African-American,” she said. “And because I grew up in predominantly white spaces, I think it could be difficult to figure out how to navigate America’s racial tension.”
When she was a senior in high school, she read her first book by a black woman: “Song of Solomon” by Toni Morrison.
“It felt as much as a religious calling as you could probably ever get in the secular field,” she said.
She had imagined becoming a writer. Now she was convinced that she could do it. She made an early attempt at writing the book after that 2009 trip to Ghana, but she didn’t begin working on it in earnest until she enrolled at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. She wrote without an outline—just a family tree drawn on letter-sized paper, taped to the wall of her apartment.
She had never felt like she quite belonged in either Ghana or the U.S. “A lot of this book stems from…trying to figure out what things connect those two places and how I fit into all of that,” she said.
“Homegoing” is flecked with magic, evoking folk tales passed down from parent to child. One side of the family lives through slavery, Alabama’s convict-leasing system, the Great Migration, the Harlem Renaissance and the heroin epidemic to the present day. On the other side of the Atlantic, the novel explores uncomfortable truths about the participation of Ms. Gyasi’s Fante and Asante ancestors in the slave trade.
The book has structural and thematic similarities to Alex Haley’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1976 book, “Roots,” and its landmark TV series adaptation starring LeVar Burton as Kunta Kinte, a man sold into slavery in 18th-century Gambia. A remake of the “Roots” miniseries adaptation, which traces the family’s history well into the 20th century, is set to air on the History, Lifetime and A&E channels starting Monday.
“It’s ‘Roots’ for the 21st century,” said Ivan Held, president of G.P. Putnam’s Sons, which bid $1 million for “Homegoing” but lost out to Knopf. Ms. Gyasi, knowing that her novel would explore similar territory, said she decided not to read Mr. Haley’s book.
One of her characters is Marjorie, a daughter of Ghanaian immigrants in the U.S. After she is born, Marjorie’s parents mail her dried umbilical cord to her grandmother Akua in Ghana, so the elderly woman can place it in the ocean. Should Marjorie’s spirit start to wander, Akua wants her to know which place is home. At a spot not far from Cape Coast, Ms. Gyasi’s grandmother had done the same for her.
Artcle via Wall Street Journal