Award-winning author Yaa Gyasi speaks to packed Rackham Auditorum
On Tuesday, author Yaa Gyasi spoke at the University of Michigan in front of a crowded Rackham Auditorium to discuss her award-winning novel “Homegoing.” After its publication, Gyasi won the National Book Critics’ Circle’s John Leonard First Book Prize. The novel has also been selected as the 2018 book for the Washtenaw Reads program.
“Homegoing” highlights the story of two half sisters and their descendants through eight generations, going over two hundred years of Ghanaian and American history. It also highlights illuminating themes of racism, family and unity.
To begin the event, Yaa Gyasi, sat down with English professors Gaurav Desai and Aida Levy-Hussen. She opened the discussion by reading a powerful excerpt from her novel, detailing the life of her character “Afiyah” and the physical abuse she suffered at the hands of her father. She then transitioned to the discussion with Desai and Levy-Hussen, as they discussed the novel’s origins and several of its central themes. In their discussion, Gyasi explained how she traveled to Ghana to conduct research after receiving a grant from her alma mater, Stanford University. She detailed visiting a British castle in Ghana, and how its prominent structure hid its dark history of British officers abuse of their Ghanaian wives and other local people.
“It’s the only time, I think, in my life where I felt like this space might be haunted,” Gyasi explained. “Where I felt like something is happening here that I wanted to explore further.”
The experience stuck with her, and ultimately motivated her to begin her project.
Levy-Hussen said she was captivated by the structure of the novel.
“What really resonates for me was the structure of the novel itself,” she said. "It was structured as this intergenerational family tree.”
While Gyasi said she initially intended on highlighting the experiences of four people in two different generations, she ultimately realized the importance of time and wanted to emphasize it in her writing. Therefore, she decided to write about the family over the course of eight generations, showing how successive generations were affected by the experiences of their ancestors.
Gyasi said she used the structure to emphasize the effects of slavery, and that slavery continued long past the civil war.
“In many ways, this novel felt to me like a response to people who say things like, ‘Slavery happened a million years ago,’” Gyasi explained.
She then discussed how Aish, a character in the novel born after the Civil War, was essentially treated as a slave while working as a sharecropper because of the deficiencies of Reconstruction and the unjustifiable implementation of Jim Crow laws in the south.
Following the discussion, the Gyasi fielded questions from the audience. When asked why she dedicated the same amount of pages to each character, she explained that she did not want to favor any generation over another, rather give a holistic view of the family’s story through the generations.
Business student Emily Foley said she was amazed by Gyasi’s multi-generational approach. While she did not read the book, she said she found the story’s structure compelling.
“I didn’t realize the interesting literary tactic or technique she used with the 20 to 30 pages per character over such a long period of time to really make time a character itself,” she said. “And to show how slavery has impacted seven generations.”