Yaa Gyasi’s debut novel takes on 250 years of history and explores the ways our past, both recent and distant, influences who we are.
“Homegoing” begins in 18th-century Ghana with two sisters — one who stays in Africa and the other who is shipped as a slave to America. The story follows their descendants, telling a story of slavery on two continents. The novel was selected as the 2017 PEN/Hemingway Award winner, which honors a novel or short story collection of an American author who has not previously published a full-length book of fiction.
Gyasi, 28, is reading from her book Friday as part of the University of Idaho Hemingway Festival. She shared more about her work in a recent phone interview:
Inland 360: Are there ways in which your writing is like or has been influenced by Hemingway’s?
Gyasi: Any English major in America has encountered Hemingway’s work in some capacity, so his influence is kind of inescapable. One thing I love about Hemingway, and that he does incredibly well, is that he’s so concise — concise and also precise. He was deeply interested in getting something exactly right and choosing the perfect word in every sentence. I try to emulate that in my own work.
Inland 360: How did you arrive at the concept for this story and structure?
Gyasi: The idea came about during a trip to Ghana where I got to visit the Cape Coast Castle, a slave fort that still stands. I had gotten a fellowship my junior year of college, which was given to me to write a novel. I had a different idea in mind that centered around a mother and daughter and so I thought I’d go to Ghana and see if anything came up for me. It wasn’t until I went to the castle that I had a really clearly defined idea.
Inland 360: Was it a challenge to write a cohesive story that doesn’t have the same characters throughout the story?
Gyasi: Yes and no. I think there’ve been a number of writers who have written books that have multiple points-of-view characters, so I did have some models for how you might have a novel cover so many characters. I think one of the challenges for “Homegoing” specifically was that I was trying to cover so much time, and that’s not something you see as often in fiction that has multiple characters. It had a structure that never allowed me to go back to another character, it always had to move forward. That was the greater challenge, I would say.
Inland 360: Your book has had such a positive response with readers, but writing always opens the door to criticism. How do you respond to that?
Gyasi: You start by recognizing that the work is not really about what a critic might think of it. More it’s about what you wanted to do — and if you feel like you accomplished your own goals and aims then it’s OK if someone doesn’t agree with your accomplishment.
Inland 360: Do you have any advice for young writers like yourself?
Gyasi: It’s helpful to finish a project or get to the end of a project before you start to invite too many other voices into the work. I would say try to finish whatever you start and see if it’s speaking to your vision before you share too much of it.
Inland 360: What’s wonderful and glamorous about now being a beloved writer — and what’s not so wonderful and glamorous?
Gyasi: All of the traveling you do to promote your book can be a double-edged sword — it’s wonderful and glamorous, but also it does take you away from the writing itself. Part of the great thing is you get to meet all these readers who have had, often times, a very lovely response to the work. But it does mean you have to re-learn how to orient yourself, making sure you’re making time in your life to sit quietly with your thoughts and if you want to write again, to write again as well.
IF YOU GO
9th Annual Hemingway Festival
“Papa’s Shadow: Hemingway in East Africa” film screening
1 p.m. Thursday
Kenworthy Performing Arts Centre, 508 S Main St., Moscow
PEN/Hemingway Winner, Yaa Gyasi public reading
7 p.m. Friday
Moscow High School Auditorium, 402 E 5th St., Moscow
Hemingway Fellowship Fundraiser Dinner, with a staged reading of “Hills Like White Elephants”
6 p.m. Saturday
Bloom, 403 S. Main St., Moscow
$70/person, for tickets call (208) 885-6156
See additional festival events, including readings, discussions and receptions at: https://www.uidaho.edu/class/hemingway/events