- An Interview with Yaa Gyasi
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The remarkable debut of Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing in 2016 almost defies belief. Born in Ghana and raised in Alabama, a graduate of Stanford University and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Gyasi reportedly received a seven-figure deal at the age of twenty-five from Knopf. Once published, Homegoing received glowing reviews from Ta-Nehisi Coates (who selected the novelist for the National Book Foundation’s 2016 5 under 35 list) and was chosen as one of Oprah Winfrey’s ten favorite books of the year. Winning numerous literary awards (including the National Book Critics Circle John Leonard Prize and the PEN/Hemingway Award for Best First Novel), Homegoing achieved the kind of success―both as a bestseller and in accolades from influential reviewers of literary fiction―that validates assertions about a boom in African literature in the twenty-first century. The rising visibility of African writers― sometimes dubbed Afropolitan writers―has led to new ways of narrating the contemporary and multifarious African landscapes both on the continent and across the globe.
But it should be said that Gyasi fits such influential storylines only obliquely even as her phenomenal success exemplifies these new accounts. That is, while many Afropolitan writers choose to turn away from the somewhat-expected frames of trauma and political allegory, highlighting ordinary life among middle-class Nigerians as in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah (2013), or the complexities of family interactions among Ghanaian expatriates as in Taiye Selasi’s Ghana Must Go (2013), Gyasi writes not about fashion, romance, or Afro-modernity, but about the history of Atlantic [End Page 471] slavery across two continents over three centuries. Eschewing the Afropolitan in favor of historical fiction, Gyasi joins the company of African diaspora writers of the genre known as neo-slave narratives. She thus demands to be read alongside such luminous predecessors as Toni Morrison, Edward Jones, Charles Johnson, Sherley Anne Williams, and Dionne Brand as much as alongside the contemporary African writers of her generation like Selasi, Adichie, NoViolet Bulawayo, Chris Abani, Dinaw Mengestu, and Teju Cole.
Because she may be read as part of both the African and the African American literary field, Gyasi also reveals the shortcomings of some influential and polarizing frames. For instance, it is commonly believed that after decades of amnesia and distortion, the turn to slavery among African American writers (most notably Morrison) helped create a memory of slavery that counteracted official narratives about the essential American greatness of the founding of the nation. Recent claims about the 1619 project launched by The New York Times to mark the four hundredth anniversary of the beginning of slavery in Virginia revisit this territory, insisting that 1776 must be displaced by 1619 to restore slavery to the center of national memory. At the same time, it is often assumed that African writers have not taken up this task of historical excavation. The aforementioned boom in African writing, in fact, seems squarely outside of the focus on trauma or what Paul Gilroy, in The Black Atlantic, influentially termed the slave sublime. And many of the most eloquent voices documenting the new African diaspora focusing on recent migrations to the United States such as Imbolo Mbue (Behold the Dreamers ) or Akwaeke Emezi (Freshwater ) do not make much use of the framework of Atlantic slavery.
In contrast, Gyasi fully embraces the memorial practices of Middle Passage fictions inaugurated by such writers as Morrison, Caryl Phillips, and Fred D’Aguiar. Homegoing intervenes in the construction of diaspora both in African and Atlantic contexts. On the African side, such critics as Achille Mbembe, Bayo Holsey, and Rebecca Shumway and writers like Ama Ata Aidoo and Manu Herbstein have variously drawn attention to the transformation of cultures, societies, and economies in West Africa. Gyasi joins this project in Homegoing, and by doing so, fills in an aporia in most neo-slave [End Page 472] narratives, which tend to represent life before the Middle Passage as a void.
In neo-slave narratives, constructions of the lost homeland of Africa...