Yaa Gyasi on the Long Shadow of Slavery in America

Ghanaian-American writer Yaa Gyasi talks to Haaretz about what inspired her acclaimed debut novel, 'Homecoming,' in which two different worlds - 18th century Ghana and present day America – are linked by devastating exploitation

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Yaa Gyasi.
Yaa Gyasi.Credit: Natan Dvir
Tzach Yoked
Tzach Yoked

NEW YORK – At first glance, Cape Coast Castle in Ghana looks like a fusion between an ancient luxury estate and Alcatraz penitentiary. It’s an impressively large architectural structure, 160-by-80 meters of white concrete walls, spacious balconies that run along almost its entire length, a red-tile roof, large windows that overlook the waters of the Atlantic, two huge courtyards and an arched entryway surrounded by heavily foliaged trees. Like the former American penal institution, which in its day was considered the most heavily guarded in the world, nothing about the Ghana fortress’ pleasant breezes and ocean view betrays the structure’s cruel story. Testimony cast in concrete crumbles into a tragic tale that provides a glimpse into a dark period of history and stretches yet again the boundaries of human evil.

The story of the castle-fortress, whose construction was completed in 1653, is in large measure the story of all of Africa, and of Ghana in particular. It’s a story of exploitative European colonialism, in which the indigenous black population becomes the private property of the white conquerors, who enslave the populace for their own private ends, and pass them from hand to hand like coin of the realm. It is one fortress out of dozens of similar structures, exhilarating in its size. It contained, one floor above the other, pampering accommodations for the white masters, and a cramped dungeon below in which local blacks were incarcerated while they awaited deportation.

It was not the fine view enjoyed by the British soldiers who would inhabit its dozens of large rooms that led to the decision to build the fortress precisely on the Atlantic coast – soon after its construction by the Swedish Africa Company, Cape Coast Castle was captured by the British – but purely logistical considerations. One after another, the people of the region were herded onto cargo ships that anchored off the coast and taken against their will to North America and to Europe, to begin new lives as slaves.

“After they were married, James gave Effia a tour of the Castle,” Yaa Gyasi writes in “Homegoing,” her acclaimed debut novel from 2016 (and recently published in Hebrew translation). It’s the second half of the 18th century. Effia, a local black woman, has married James Collins, a British general and the governor of Cape Coast Castle. Collins, it hardly needs to be said, is not young Effia’s choice for a husband. It’s her mother who pushes her into the relationship, impelled by cold considerations of profit and loss and to maximize the amount her daughter will fetch, as part of the custom of arranged marriages whereby future husbands, whether local or not, pay the bride’s family.

As Effia discovers, “On the ground floor of the north wall there were apartments and warehouses. The center held the parade ground, soldiers’ quarters and guardroom. There was a stockyard, a pond, a hospital. A carpenter’s shop, smithy, and kitchen. The Castle was itself a village. Effia walked around with James in complete awe, running her hands along the fine furniture made from wood the color of her father’s skin, the silk hangings so smooth they felt like a kiss.”

But then Effia hears faint sounds of weeping from the basement. She bends toward the floor, listening in apprehension, and is exposed to the dark secret of the castle of which she was unaware, and which, in large measure, is also the dark story of the man she has just married.

A slave fortress in Cape Coast, Ghana is shown in this Dec. 6, 1996 file photo.
A slave fortress in Cape Coast, Ghana is shown in this Dec. 6, 1996 file photo. Credit: CLEMENT N'TAYE / ASSOCIATED PRES

“‘But how can you keep them down there crying, enh?’ Effia said. ‘You white people. My father warned me about your ways,’” Gyasi writes, describing Effia’s stunned reaction to her discovery. And continues, “She didn’t realize she’d been screaming until she felt James’s hand on her mouth, pushing the lips as though he could force the words back in.” At that moment she understood “that he was a man capable of hurting, that she should be glad to be on one side of his meanness and not another.”

Effia, it’s important to emphasize, is Gyasi’s fictional creation, though the character is based, at least in a general way, on the story of many Ghanaian women who were married against their will to invading British soldiers. Like James Collins, these men lived double lives, with a local wife in Africa, and another family waiting for them back in England.

Gyasi’s attraction to Ghana is not accidental. She was born in 1989 to a Ghanaian family that immigrated to the United States when she was 2 years old. She first encountered the fortress during a visit to Ghana eight years ago, as a student curious to learn more about it – an event that profoundly influenced the writing of the novel.

'These people loved their Ghanaian spouses, and yet at the same time they did these horrific things. It seems like you had to shut off part of your brain to go see your wife.'

Can you tell me about the first time you saw the castle in Ghana?

“In 2009, I got a grant from Stanford University to go to Ghana for research on the book. I took a tour of the castle, and they take you through the upper level, where you can see the church and where they lived. The guide noted that often the British soldiers who lived and worked in the castle married local women. From there he took us down to see the dungeons where the local men and women were held, and it is just a very dark, small place, it still smells bad, there is dirt all over the walls. So, standing in this room and thinking about the fact that there were free people walking above made me want to work on the book and learn more about the castle.”

Gyasi, who spoke with Haaretz at a Brooklyn coffee shop, describes Collin’s attitude toward Effia as positive, noting that he tried his best to make her feel comfortable. While reading the book, I found it difficult to reconcile the disparity between the brutal nature of the foreign-born governor’s work and the gentleness he shows toward his Ghanaian wife.

“All my research indicates that these people loved their Ghanaian spouses, and yet at the same time they did these horrific things," Gyasi says. "So trying to figure out how to portray someone like James didn’t feel to me like a black-and-white thing. It seems like you had to shut off part of your brain to go see your wife” – that is, when going home to the fortress and a locally born spouse after dealing all day with the slave trade.

Effia’s story is only the start of one half of the plot. In the book’s second chapter (each chapter is devoted to a different character), the reader is introduced to a young woman named Esi, Effia’s half-sister (they have the same mother). The two grew up in different villages, and neither was aware of the other’s existence. In a reality in which a thin line can separate a comfortable life in the fortress from being sent into slavery in an unknown land, as was Esi’s fate – the two sisters find themselves living temporarily one floor apart. So close to each another, yet in two worlds that could not be more different.

“The traders slapped their legs with sticks, making them move faster,” Gyasi writes about the tribulations of Esi, from the Asante people, who falls into the hands of a rival group who works with the slavers, and ends up in the castle. “For almost half of that week, they walked both day and night. The ones who couldn’t keep up were beaten with the sticks until suddenly, like magic, they could. Finally, once Esi’s own legs had started to buckle, they reached the edge of some Fante village. They were all packed into a dark and damp cellar, and Esi had time to count the group. Thirty-five. Thirty-five people held together by rope.”

Dungeons to coal mines

Effia and Esi come from one trunk, from which spring two branches of the same family, a dynasty that extends across 250 years and spans distant continents.

'Homecoming' author Yaa Gyasi.
'Homecoming' author Yaa Gyasi.Credit: Natan Dvir

There is the daily struggle for survival of Ghana’s black inhabitants, on the one hand, and the harsh conditions of slavery in the United States, on the other. The brutal suppression over a century ago of Ghana’s black population by British occupiers, juxtaposed with the systematic violence of white police in the United States toward the African-American population, even up to these very days. Violent tribal strife in southern Africa and humiliating segregation in America.

There were those who were wrenched from their families under the aegis of the slave trade, and those in the United States who abandoned their families under the specter of severe drug addiction. From the dungeon in Cape Coast Castle to the Sisyphean conditions of labor in coal mines in Alabama. From the pummeling of black slaves by their white masters in the Gold Coast to the drug lairs and dark jazz clubs in Harlem. Two different continents, two opposite worlds, where only the exploitation, abuse and crushing of the rights of the blacks in both remains the same.

'African Americans who were brought here not by choice, there is no option, they were forced to create a new identity, a new culture, they can’t figure out the kinds of things that other immigrants can.'

“Homegoing” drew high critical praise when it was published last year in the United States, turning its author Gyasi (the name is pronounced “Jessie”), at the age of 27, overnight into one of the great hopes of American literature. “Gyasi’s prose shines when she describes the razor’s edge of pain, the idealism of children attempting to break with their parent’s traditions, the heartbreak of knowing that tomorrow might be the day your wife or husband or child will be taken away from you,” Leah Mirakhor wrote in The Los Angeles Times in her introduction to an interview with the author.

On Buzzfeed , Isaac Fitzgerald wrote, “An important, riveting page-turner filled with beautiful prose, ‘Homegoing’ shoots for the moon and lands right on it.” And The New York Times’ veteran reviewer Michiko Kakutani noted that, “the book leaves the reader with a visceral understanding of both the savage realities of slavery and the emotional damage that is handed down, over the centuries, from mothers to daughters, fathers to sons.”

You started to work on the book before you were 20 [during her sophomore year at Stanford]. Where did you get the boldness to take on a loaded issue like the slave trade and the suppression of blacks in the United States?

“I think that all you can do as a writer is to follow your interest, and this was the thing I was interested in at the time. Maybe in other books I’ll want to write a love story or something more intimate, but for me, at that time of my life, that’s what fascinated me and that’s what I wanted to spend my time studying and working on.”

You talk a great deal about the trauma experienced by many African Americans who can’t trace their family history, as we see in the case of several of the book’s characters. Yet in many respects, this is a classic American story of immigrants who come to this country, leave their past behind them and reinvent themselves.

“The difference is choice: They chose to come here and they chose to make these blockages, so if they wanted they could find out more about their families, they could go back, their children can go back. But for African Americans who were brought here not by choice, there is no option, they were forced to create a new identity, a new culture, they can’t figure out the kinds of things that other immigrants can.”

A case in point in “Homegoing” is Marcus Clifton, who, because of the traumatic experienced undergone by his family’s grandfather, will never be able to reconstruct the family tree beyond the grandfather. Marcus is the character whose story, together with that of a young woman, Marjorie Agyekum, ends the book. Marjorie is a distant descendant of Effia; he’s from Esi’s side of the family. A chance meeting leads them to one another: two educated young people whose present life circumstances seemingly don’t attest to their painful family history.

They meet for the first time in a museum at Stanford, where Marcus is completing a Ph.D. in sociology. Marjorie, who is well aware of the family’s past, has visited Ghana a number of times, but for Marcus, the past is a kind of black hole. His personal story is one of triumph against all the odds, of a boy growing up in an urban slum amid violence and drugs, but going on to become a doctoral student at a prestigious university.

But six generations after Effia and Esi, social racism and institutional discrimination continue to beset the two young people. “If [Marcus] started talking about the war on drugs, he’d be talking about how nearly half of the black men he grew up with were on their way either into or out of what had become the harshest prison system in the world,” Gyasi writes. “And if he talked about why friends from his hood were doing five-year bids for possession of marijuana when nearly all the white people he’d gone to college with smoked it openly every day, he’d get so angry that he’d slam the research book on the table.”

The family circumstances in which Gyasi herself grew up are the very opposite of what she portrays in her novel. Though she and her family were immigrants to the United States, her mother’s job as a nurse and her father’s as a professor of French at the University of Alabama in Huntsville enabled the family to lead a comfortable life free of economic difficulties in a safe residential environment, far from Harlem and Baltimore as they are depicted in the book.

'Being the only person of that race in my class was an alienating experience.'

‘Black is black’

Still, during our conversation, I had the feeling that Gyasi was expressing something of her own personal pain through her characters. Thin of frame and with gentle facial features, she has a smile that oozes optimism, but underlying the soft cadences of her speech is an unsettled account with the country that’s been her home since the age of 2. The book’s great success, the positive reviews and the hefty advance she is said to have received (more than $1 million, according to media reports), and the fact that she’s become an in-demand interviewee have not only not softened Gyasi, but have gone some way into transforming her into a champion of the struggle for change.

She appears to bear with acceptance the heavy burden that rests on her lean shoulders. Alabama, she says, is a place that forces you to cope with your race all the time. In an interview with National Public Radio, she described the state in which she grew up as “a place where slavery is still so strongly felt institutionally, as racism is still so strongly felt.”

You once said that you never felt at home in Alabama. Can you explain why?

“I think that because I came from such a different background from most people in Alabama, and most people in the United States. By the time we moved to Alabama, there were very few Ghanaian families there. I’d been used to having Ghanaian families around, so Alabama felt more foreign to me than the other states we’d lived in, such as Ohio, which has a very large Ghanaian population. So it’s not just leaving Ghana or leaving my family; it’s just seeing fewer and fewer people who are similar to me.”

How far did the race issue impact you as a little girl?

“It had a huge impact everywhere in America, but Alabama is still dealing a lot with the issue of racism in this country. I lived in a predominantly white neighborhood and went to a predominantly white school, so I certainly noticed my race there more than I had elsewhere.”

Like Gyasi, Marjorie, the protagonist of the novel’s last two chapters, grows up in Alabama in the early 2000s. And like Gyasi, she is subjected to racial slurs. At one point in the book, Marjorie is asked by a teacher she is very fond of to share her personal story with the class, to talk about what it means to be an African American. Marjorie flinches at what she finds to be an offensive request. “She wanted to tell [the teacher] that at home, they had a different word for African Americans. Akata. That akata people were different from Ghanaians, too long gone from the mother continent to continue calling it the mother continent,” Gyasi writes. To which the teacher snaps back, “‘Listen, Marjorie, I’m going to tell you something that maybe nobody’s told you yet. Here, in this country, it doesn’t matter where you came from first to the white people running things. You’re here now, and here black is black is black.’”

You said that institutional racism is still strongly felt in Alabama – can you give an example of that?

“I think racism is everywhere, but it’s much more explicit in Alabama, where you meet many more people who call you racist names right into your face. That’s one manifestation of it. Another one, in my hometown, is that the schools are very much segregated to this day. You have to go to school that is walking distance from your house, and the zones are created in such a way that you live with people of the same race as you, so de facto there is a white school and a black school on the other side of town. Recently the court said that the town didn’t really do anything to desegregate the schools. Needless to say, the white school is much better than the black one.”

And because of your parents’ background, you went to the white school.

“Yes. Back then I was the only black student in my class and one of the only two black students in my grade, and that had a lot to do with my not feeling at home there. Being the only person of that race in my class was an alienating experience.”

Were there moments of crisis similar to what Marjorie experiences in “Homegoing”?

“One time a girl told me that she felt sorry for me because I would never find a boyfriend. In her perception, black men, having the reputation they have, were not good enough as partners.”

'Homecoming' author Yaa Gyasi.
'Homecoming' author Yaa Gyasi.Credit: Natan Dvir