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Savannah Book Festival: Yaa Gyasi’s debut novel tackles hundreds of years of history

  • Yaa Gyasi (Photo by Michael Lionstar)

Savannah Book Festival: Yaa Gyasi’s debut novel tackles hundreds of years of history

08 Feb 2017

Early in Yaa Gyasi’s New York Times bestselling novel “Homegoing,” the narrator makes an observation: “Asking if the story had been heard before was a part of the story itself.”

The line refers to a tale told by one slave to another in a dark, rank dungeon on the west coast of Africa. This old folk tale shared in a moment of utter oppression captures the two competing elements that drive “Homegoing” forward.

First, the novel is a narrative, at times brutal, of the slave trade. But no matter how oppressive the subject, Gyasi channels an oral storytelling tradition to make the book compulsively readable.

“I was thinking a lot of the nature of storytelling in general,” she says, “and also about fables and folk tales. The idea that you can have a kind of oracular way of telling a story that feels larger than life, and that’s in these traditions of African American and West African fables and folk tales.”

The story spans several generations of a single family, starting with two half-sisters who would never meet. Each chapter takes up the story of a new generation, bouncing back and forth between West Africa and America.

The novel’s greatest achievement is its cohesion and sense of forward motion, even though no single character appears in more than a couple of chapters. It also succeeds in presenting fully realized, fully human characters, both the oppressors and the oppressed.

“It didn’t feel realistic to me to have a book where there were clear-cut heroes and clear-cut villains. People are these complex, nuanced beings who have different motivations for why they do what they do. If I was going to tell the story of slavery in a way that felt true to me, it had to be well-rounded. It couldn’t just be good guys versus bad guys.”

While the narrative never flinches, even when looking at some of the darkest moments of human history, it never preaches, either. Gyasi knows the story speaks for itself.

“I felt like the more didactic the book got, the less enjoyable it would be as an object of art. Also, I think the more complex you’re trying to be thematically, the simpler you should be in how you approach it. I wanted it to feel accessible, easy to read, pleasurable to read, so that the kind of scenes I was covering didn’t overshadow the act of reading itself.”

“Homegoing” is Gyasi’s first book, which took her seven years to complete, and she’s experienced a whirlwind of publicity since it was released, including winning the National Book Critics Circle’s John Leonard Award for best first book.

“It’s been really, really wonderful, and also overwhelming. Certainly unlike any other time in my life. It feels very new and a little scary. But mostly it’s just very wonderful. I’ve wanted to be a writer for my whole life, so to not only have achieved that dream but to have achieved it in this way just feels remarkable to me.”

But for anyone who’s read her book, her success is not much of a surprise. And it seems likely that similar successes await Gyasi in the future.


Book: “Homegoing”

When: 1:40 p.m. Feb. 18

Where: Baptist Church Sanctuary, Chippewa Square