Wonderings and Wanderings
As a child, Ghanaian American writer Yaa Gyasi’s family moved often. It was a boon for a young girl curious about who she might become.
Yaa Gyasi is an acclaimed novelist, best known for her award-winning debut Homegoing.
Born in 1989 in Mampong, Ghana, Gyasi moved to the United States as an infant so her father could pursue a PhD at Ohio State University. After stints in Ohio, Illinois, and Tennessee, her family settled in Huntsville, Alabama.
An omnivorous reader as a child, Gyasi began writing at an early age, winning an award from the TV show Reading Rainbow at age 7. She earned a BFA at Stanford University and an MFA from the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Gyasi returned to Ghana on a research trip after her sophomore year at Stanford. This research formed the basis of her first novel, Homegoing (2016), about the descendants of two Ghanaian half-sisters, one of whom is sold into slavery in the United States. Gyasi received a million-dollar advance for the book, which received numerous prizes including the PEN/Hemingway Award and an American Book Award.
Her second novel, Transcendent Kingdom (2020), follows a Ghanaian American PhD student at Stanford and her struggling family members. It was shortlisted for the 2021 Women’s Prize for Fiction.
By the time she was nine, Yaa Gyasi’s family had moved five times.
Yaa Gyasi: It was Ghana, Ohio, Illinois, Tennessee, Alabama.
Yet those nomadic years gave her a perspective on how location can help shape a person.
Gyasi: I was aware of the fact that in each new place that we lived in, there was like a new set of rules, new ideologies. What people thought to be inherent to them, I could see as an outsider as being in part informed by where they had grown up and the people they had grown up around. And so I became kind of obsessed with doing these little thought experiments, like if I stayed in Ghana who would I be? If I stayed in Ohio, who would I be?
Those hypothetical questions are, of course, impossible to answer, but Gyasi isn’t as interested in answers as she is in rigorous questioning. For her, this interrogation of the world takes form in writing, which she likens to prayer.
Gyasi: Because I did grow up in the church, I’m thinking of it as that kind of daily sustained practice that feels at times even as you’re doing it feels pointless, but you again feel faithful that something will come out of it, even if you don’t know what that thing is.
Growing up, Gyasi says books were her closest friends, and a love for reading quickly led to a love for writing. When she was seven, she submitted a short story to a competition on the children’s television show Reading Rainbow and won an honorable mention. As a teenager, she wrote young adult fiction, which she admits almost no one has seen. But it was in college that she took the leap that would shape her writing for years to come. After her sophomore year, Gyasi traveled to Ghana, only her second time back since leaving as a child. She kept the reason for her trip from her parents.
Gyasi: I had gotten a fellowship to research a novel, but I didn’t tell them that, and so they just kept telling everyone that I was there to do research, but they didn’t know what it was for, or what it was.
It would take another six years for the novel she was researching to become Homegoing. It’s hard not to see the book as the embodiment of those what if’s Gyasi had asked herself growing up. It begins with two Ghanaian sisters separated early in life. One is sold into slavery, the other stays in Ghana. From there, we follow the stories of their descendants over the next several hundred years, tracing the intergenerational consequences of that long ago separation.
(Excerpt from Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing)
A month passed, and it was time again for Marcus to return to his research. He had been avoiding it because it wasn’t going well. Originally, he’d wanted to focus his work on the convict leasing system that had stolen years off his great-grandpa H’s life, but the deeper into the research he got, the bigger the project got. How could he talk about great-grandpa H’s story without also talking about his grandma Willie and the millions of other black people who had migrated north, fleeing Jim Crow? And if he mentioned the Great Migration, he’d have to talk about the cities that took that flock in. He’d have to talk about Harlem. And how could he talk about Harlem without mentioning his father’s heroin addiction, the stints in prison, the criminal record? And if he was going to talk about heroin and Harlem in the sixties, wouldn’t he also have to talk about crack, everywhere in the eighties?
For Gyasi, Homegoing became an answer to a quandry of identity. An immigrant child of African parents, she was reluctant to write about Ghana, having left so long before. But her parents also raised her to see herself as Ghanaian rather than Black or American.
Gyasi: I have this long ethnic history that’s separate from the American, Black American, experience, so it feels, I do feel like there’s a kind of separation for me, and I wouldn’t want to say that my experience is exactly the same as someone who grew up here, whose parents are descended from enslaved people.
AJC: But you still have to deal with the slings and arrows?
Gyasi: Oh yes, sure. Sure. But there are also protections that come along with having this Ghanaian ancestry. The sense of being displaced is not one that I have, and that’s a psychological thing. It’s hard to explain, but I can if I want to, I could trace my family back past the great-grandparents, past the great-great-grandparents. But I recognize that to Ghanaians, to people who had grown up there their whole lives, I’m this other thing. I’m American. And so that distance was always one that I didn’t know whether or not I was comfortable navigating.
Homegoing was an astronomical success. Gyasi won the PEN/Hemingway Award for a Debut Novel in 2017, as well as another eye-catching and life-chancing achievement: an advance for her first book of over a million dollars.
AJC: Describe to me the moment when the agent called you, and said you’ll never believe this, but they want to give you this much money.
Gyasi: Yeah. They already kind of suspected that it was going toward that, because there was a bidding war. But then when he said the final number, I think I was very silent, and he asked if I was okay. And I said yes. I think I played it very cool, but then when I got off the phone with him, I started crying. Yeah.
AJC: With joy, or with fear, or with both?
Gyasi: With both. Joy and anxiety, and a very complicated mix of emotions. Mostly because I recognized that my life was going to change completely. Anxiety in those years was that feeling, that worry that I hadn’t protected my inner life somehow, and I wouldn’t be able to figure out how to return to whatever that quiet place is that I need in order to write, that I’d given too much away somehow.
In the aftermath of Homegoing Gyasi recovered that inner life by once again displacing her outer life. She moved to Berlin to work on her second novel, Transcendent Kingdom. This time, she limited herself to one protagonist, a neuroscientist named Gifty who’s working through the traumas that have torn her family apart. Many parts of Gifty’s life mirrored Gyasi’s. Both are black women born to Ghanaian parents. Both grew up in Huntsville, Alabama, and both went to Stanford. But that doesn’t mean Gifty is any sort of stand-in for Gyasi. If writing for her is prayer, then those similarities are just a starting point for deeper contemplations.
Gyasi: I think of those autobiographical details as a kind of scaffolding that you put up to build the house, but it doesn’t matter, ultimately. Anything that is from my life that goes in the book is unrecognizable, to me, at least, by the time I finish it. So for example, when my brother, my older brother, read the book, one of his first reactions was, “I really don’t like that main character.” And I was like oh okay, phew. That means it’s not me. So I’m always trying to get to know the character as I’m writing, and a first draft is really an opportunity to kind of listen to what a character might be trying to say, or how they might want to reveal themselves. It’s a kind of communication with something that you can’t see. I’m asking something to come forth, but I don’t know what it is. And I don’t know when I’ll know. I just have to be faithful and keep doing it.
This searching applies just as much to Gyasi’s external world as her inner one. The latest stop in her odyssey is New York City, but that doesn’t mean she’ll live there forever. Even after living in multiple countries on different continents, she’s never felt completely content in any one place.
Gyasi: My brother calls it having a hot foot, like this restlessness of needing to move every couple of years, or wanting to move every couple of years, has mostly been the case for me. I haven’t ever been very attached to a place, or felt like this is where I belong in some way, that feels like it’s quieting some need in me to go onto the next thing. I don’t know if a place could make me feel that way, but maybe I just haven’t found the place.
It could also be that place isn’t something to be found, but rather created and cultivated. In spite of a lack of attachment to any one location, Gyasi doesn’t feel unmoored or rootless. Instead she finds a sense of stability and control in the people and work she surrounds herself with.
Gyasi: There is for me a rootedness in the fact of my family, my family support, and their continued presence in my life. And then also the writing. I think that the writing gives me a sense of rootedness that’s really helpful. When I was writing Homegoing, I think I had so many more questions about identity and place and where I fit, and as I wrote, not that I started to answer those questions, but I started to care less about what the answers to those questions were.
For Yaa Gyasi, the act of questioning itself can be a sort of answer. The aim isn’t certainty or correctness, rather it’s finding a way to exist with the inevitable changes, contradictions, and complexities of life. And her winding journey has a ways to go, with so many more questions to ask, and stories to tell.