This Might Be The Most Important Book Of Summer 2016 & Here’s Why

Image: Urvi Nigrani.
Author Yaa Gyasi.
There was one chapter I read twice in a row in Yaa Gyasi's debut novel, Homegoing. I was so horrified by the story she tells in that section that I kept hoping I'd misunderstood something. In it, a Black man and woman named Robert and Willie, childhood sweethearts from a Southern mining town, relocate to New York City's Jazz Age Harlem with their young son, hoping to carve out a life for themselves. In time Robert lands a job, disappearing from morning until night, and eventually for days on end. Willie dreams of singing in clubs but finds work cleaning them instead, told her skin is too dark for the stage. One night while Willie is working, Robert comes into the club with his colleagues. These men think he is white: He's been passing with his light skin, which affords him a certain privileged way of moving through the world. When the men realize that Robert and Willie are not strangers, they force him to do something unthinkable to her. Robert then decides to leave his wife and child, ashamed of what he did to Willie but also knowing that if he goes it alone, he can have another kind of life. The saddest part is that Willie accepts he will be better off without her. This is just one of many heartbreaks in Homegoing, one of the summer's most highly anticipated novels by a strong new voice in the literary-fiction genre. Gyasi, who grew up in the States with her Ghanaian parents, took an ambitious route with her first book, tracing the history of two half-sisters over the course of three centuries. The chapters follow the path of lineal descent, from an African village to modern-day San Francisco. While each story could stand alone, together they give the reader an understanding of the full impact of trauma — and strength — passed down through generations. We spoke to Gyasi about her book, her heritage, and the legacy of slavery in America.
What was the inspiration behind Homegoing?
"In 2009, my sophomore year at Stanford University, I got a fellowship to complete either a research or creative project during the summer: I used mine to go to Ghana. I had a different novel idea in mind, but when I got to Ghana, it wasn’t really panning out. I was feeling kind of bummed about it. Then a friend came to visit, and we decided to go to the Cape Coast Castle [where slaves were held before being shipped via the Middle Passage]. It was my first time going to the castle — or really even thinking about the ways that the Ghanaians and the British soldiers who lived in the castle at the time interacted — and the tour guide started telling us about how the British soldiers would marry the local women, which was something I had never heard about before. "After taking us upstairs to the cannons that face out to the water and this grandiose beauty, he took us downstairs to see the dungeons. I don’t think that there’s anything that could compare to that experience, of going from upstairs to downstairs in a place like this. I kind of just immediately knew what my novel was supposed to be about and what I wanted to write." What did you see in the dungeons that day?
"There’s no real way to clean off the grime of just hundreds and hundreds of years of people being trapped there. It’s still dark brown and green. It still smells. It’s this awful place and so dark. You can imagine: With the door closed, there’s no light, there’s no air. So to have stayed there for three, four months — however long it was before being shipped out — in this place that's designed to weed out the stronger from the weaker...because a lot of people died just waiting to get on to the Middle Passage and then died on the Middle Passage and died in slavery. Just kind of these different levels of weeding people out really struck me."

An inescapable truth of writing this book is that Black families are really fractured.

Yaa Gyasi
One of the things that struck me about how this book fit together was the things that each generation inherited from the one that came before. How did that come into play while you were writing?
"I was definitely thinking about all of the invisible things that we inherit from ancestors that we don’t even know that we had. On the male side of things, I think about the character H, who has this superhuman strength almost and this very ignitable rage. We know, but he doesn’t know that his grandfather Sam was the same way. These people couldn’t be contained by their circumstances, and the sad thing is that H will never know his people. He kind of walks around with this invisible inheritance. I was thinking a lot about that: the things that link us from one generation to the next, that we might not be able to see, the traumas as well as the gifts. "One of the things that I couldn’t escape in a book like this, just because of the nature of slavery, was how fractured the families become. You have people being literally stolen away in the middle of the night from their beds in the early stages of the slave trade in the 18th century. But then, once they get to America, there are things like the Fugitive Slave Act, which made it possible just to rip people away from their families. Even beyond that, things like the convict leasing system after slavery ended made it possible to take men off the street and put them in mines, away from their families. I think one of the stories of the African-American family is the story of fracturing — of stealing. Even when it’s voluntary, like the great migration, when people moved from the South to the North, it still splits a family in a way that a lot of other families never had. An inescapable truth of writing this book is that Black families are really fractured.” You also deal with the concept of "passing" in this book, specifically a husband and wife who split up because one can pass for white and one can't. It's heartbreaking.
"That story kind of started with just research about Harlem in the 1920s, and learning about things like the brown paper bag test: Someone would hold a paper bag up to a woman’s skin if she wanted to work in a club. If she was darker than the paper bag, then she couldn’t work there. I started thinking about color, and the delineations within Black communities themselves. This gradient of color that speaks to whether or not you have white in your family — that kind of sneaking toward the privileges of being white afforded people in this country. "I think that chapter really was, for me, just to kind of look at the absurdity of racism. The fact that simply because people couldn’t tell that Robert was Black, he was treated differently, and that had they known he was Black, he would have been treated the way that Willie was. Which kind of just speaks to how mutable all of this is, how unnecessary and ridiculous this all is." Each chapter in this book takes up the story of a new generation. How did you settle on that narrative structure?
"Back when I first conceived this novel, I thought that it would take place mostly in the present, [from the perspective of the] last two people in the book, the last generation, with moments where it flashed back to the 18th century so that you could kind of see the beginnings and the endings, or the aftermath of the slave trade. But as I worked on it over the years, I realized I was more interested in actually being able to look at something very closely over a very long period of time — in this case slavery, colonialism, and institutionalized racism. I wanted it to be very clear how we got to the end so that you couldn’t just read the last two characters and think, ‘Oh, wow, what does that have to do with slavery?’ After I realized that, I decided it might be worthwhile to see if I could make pit stops in each generation between the beginning and the end. I threw out about 50-100 and started fresh."

If you’re Black and you write a book, it’s a Black book, and it’s supposed to speak for the masses.

Yaa Gyasi
What were some of the most memorable things you learned during your research period?
"The thing that’s most burned into my brain is the convict leasing system: I had never heard about it before and was just totally staggered by the fact that this was something that was happening post-slavery. The consequences are strongly felt — the beginnings of criminalizing Black people, Black men in particular, making them out to be these poorly behaved, monstrous people for things like vagrancy, which meant nothing. You could be standing on the street at night and be arrested for vagrancy. I think our current situation — our current mass criminalization, mass incarceration system — has roots in that criminalizing of Black men. "Part of the reason I wanted to write this book is that I think sometimes we have a tendency in this country to be like, ‘Slavery was a million years ago, why does it matter today?’ One thing I hoped this book will do is show how each historical moment left this trail that led to another decision. We could talk about racist housing policy; we could talk about racist schooling policy; we could talk about criminalization of Black people — there’s all these different sectors that, even after slavery ended, continued to be de facto in place. If we ignore the fact that history is not discreet, that it doesn’t just happen and end, it actually moves with us, we’re doomed to make all kinds of mistakes. What is one thing you want readers to take away from your book?
"We allow white people to have this multiplicity of experiences, of voices: No book is ever a white book. But if you’re Black and you write a book, it’s a Black book, and it’s supposed to speak for the masses when [actually] Black writers are doing the same thing that white writers are doing: writing distinct, unique, subjective experiences. "I don’t want to end up having to be this person who kind of speaks for everyone. I don’t have a sense of myself as an African-American; I didn’t grow up with African-American parents. I grew up with Ghanaian parents — there’s a difference. I hope that this book adds a new voice to that conversation. But if reading this book makes you want to go out and buy Angela Flournoy’s The Turner House, that’s great. And if reading this book makes you want to buy [Chimamanda Ngozi] Adichie’s Americanah, that’s great. There are many different ways to be Black in America. We should celebrate them all."
Homegoing, a Penguin Random House book, is out on June 7.

More from Books & Art

R29 Original Series