Event Review: Award-Winning Novelist Yaa Gyasi Talks About Finding Home with Students at University of Michigan

Credit: Eleanor Taylor, New York Times

On Tuesday, February 6, Yaa Gyasi, author of the award-winning novel, Homegoing was part of a panel at the 2018 Jill S. Harris Memorial Lecture at the University of Michigan. The event, Homegoing: A Conversation with Yaa Gyasi was structured as a conversational, Q&A format between University of Michigan professors Gaurav Desai and Aida Levy-Hussen and the author herself.

I read Homegoing a few months prior to this event and I loved it, so I was excited to to see author Yaa Gyasi in person and listen to her speak about hr book and life as a writer.

Gyasi is somewhat soft-spoken, but has a sense of humor and warmth about her that instantly makes you feel comfortable, like talking with an old friend. I thought she was charming, highly intelligent and she provided a lot of interesting insight into the process of writing Homegoing, as well as the ideas and concepts she wrestled with throughout the process — these she hoped translated into the final text.

What fascinated me most about Gyasi’s process of crafting the novel was how organic her approach was. She had a vague idea about writing a novel that centered around Ghana, her place of origin, but did not have any clear ideas about plot or characters. It was only when she traveled to Ghana on a research grant and visited the Cape Coast Castle that an idea began to form.

In conducting the extensive research that a sprawling, historically-based novel such as Homegoing demands, Gyasi was also able to grow along with her piece. She talked with her family members and unearthed many key and sometimes-overlooked events in American history that relate back to slavery, such as the oppressive coal mining industry in Alabama. However, perhaps most importantly, Homegoing was a way for Gyasi to undergo self-reflection, as she examined her dual identities as both a black woman in America as well as a woman who emigrated from Ghana at a very young age.

Gyasi discussed other themes during the lecture that included the prevailing themes of freedom and bondage, what it means to be free and in charge of your own life, and the idea of finding the middle ground between the things and challenges we inherit and those that we choose, and how both of those elements shape our identities. The idea of trauma as something that can be inherited through collective memory was also addressed, in addition to the challenges of combining so much historical knowledge with the fictional elements of storytelling.

Near the end of the lecture, Gyasi stated how Homegoing is her way of responding to those people who claim that slavery was fully terminated once it became illegal. She also emphasized, very eloquently, that “home” is a place that one carries within oneself; home is less of a physical space than something that one always possesses, regardless of where one ends up. Forgiveness is not necessary to access that internal space, and that is a concept that she took on with her novel.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Image courtesy of Penguin Random House © Michael Lionstar

Yaa Gyasi was born in Ghana and raised in Huntsville, Alabama. She holds a BA in English from Stanford University and an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where she held a Dean’s Graduate Research Fellowship. She lives in New York City.

 

 

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