Yaa Gyasi explores her home and her history in 'Homegoing'

Sunday, February 11, 2018 - 4:08pm

NOSELL

Courtesy of Yaa Gyasi

A pristine white castle, in all its majesty, claims its place on the Gold Coast in Ghana. Magnificent on the outside, inspiration struck from the cold underbelly. While the perfection on the outside was unchanging, Yaa Gyasi spoke of the smell that still today plagues the dungeons of the castle. The lingering smell of wrongdoings, of evil that endured while above colonial wealth thrived. It was during these 20 minutes that Yaa Gyasi spent in the castle where the story of “Homegoing” began. A haunted castle that reveals the curse of slavery; a beginning that we wish to be just a fable.

Yaa Gyasi’s unfaltering voice filled the Rackham auditorium accompanied by the silent attention of many Ann Arbor fans this past Tuesday. Opening the night with a reading, Gyasi’s voice emphasized the strong presence of time in her novel. As she read aloud, her voice had a fluidity and tranquility — beauty stemmed from a borderline monotony. Her voice always marching forward, without lingering or rushing, mimicking time. Just as the structure of the book spends an equal amount of pages on each character, Gyasi spoke with an entrancing consistency. Structural predictability mimic the ticking of a clock — the passing of days, to years, to seven generations, to tie together the lives of 14 individuals.

The night was intended to be a conversation with Yaa Gyasi and two University professors. While at times the questions were thought provoking, some felt as though the professors were trying to get a specific response from Gyasi regarding her own work. Gyasi, however, remained authentic and relaxed in her responses regardless of the moments when the structure of the lecture was pushing on.

Yaa Gyasi spoke of her research, inspiration and ideas with an unrehearsed elegance. She was humorous in her self reflection, joking with the audience while allowing them to relate on a personal level. Gyasi recalled the day she walked into the castle in Ghana. She described the castle’s beautiful outside, only to then be shown the dungeon, which still reeked of history’s wrongdoings.

Many themes surfaced throughout the night. The meaning of freedom, inheritance and home all came into question. Gyasi focuses on more than just legal bondages, the inheritance of trauma and the true expanse of home, constantly going beyond the physical. It is in the emotional and the spiritual that her novel has captivated so many. Through these aspects, people of all backgrounds can relate to and understand the story beyond historical facts.

Every individual has their own unique history that goes beyond their own lifespan. The connection we feel to our ancestors drives the feeling that life is more than just biology — an unexplainable inheritance that we feel, that we do not have to know. While an unintended consequence, Gyasi spoke of how many people have talked to her about their decision to purchase a 23andMe DNA testing kit. The reaction of Gyasi’s readers to go in search of their own heritage speaks to the profound power of ancestry portrayed in the novel.

Gyasi spoke of how she grew up with “Homegoing.” While she never felt she could claim Ghana as a home, having moved away at two years old, she did not feel like the United States was home either. But what if home can be more than somewhere you point to on a map, more than the place you think owns you? The term “homegoing” refers to the African American funeral tradition which revolves around the idea that once you die, your soul returns home. The funeral ritual is a celebration of the deceased returning home. Among the many themes “Homegoing” reflects on, this one lingers: Home can be people, a collection of places, a feeling, a security or even yourself. Home does not need to be a physical place; home can be inside of you.