‘Homegoing’ Author Yaa Gyasi Chats with Trevor Noah on the Thread that Unites Africans & African Americans
“I really wanted this to be a story about the diaspora as a family.”
If you skipped The Daily Show Wednesday night because it's past your bedtime, then you missed out on host Trevor Noah’s poignant conversation about race with Ghanaian-American novelist Yaa Gyasi, whom some have dubbed “the writer of the new Roots of our generation,” as the South African comedian makes note.
Gyasi made an appearance on the show to discuss her debut novel, your summer read and The New York Times best-seller Homegoing, released by Knopf on June 7, which has been welcomed with rave reviews. The novel that—includes a foreword from Ta-Nehisi Coates of the The Atlantic—presents a series of interwoven short stories that trace the divergent paths of two half-sisters, Effia and Esi, born in different tribal villages who are unaware of each other's existence. Set amidst the backdrop of Ghana’s slave trade, the narrative exposes the indelible effect slavery has had on their descendants over three centuries, scattered between two continents.
“I really wanted this to be a story about the diaspora as a family,” Gyasi tells Noah. “If you go back far enough in time, the thing that connects us both for African immigrants and African Americans and just the broad diaspora, in general, is the fact that we were all related, all lived on this continent together. And I wanted to bring that down to the most elemental level and most familial.”
Gyasi says the concept for Homegoing was inspired by her visit to the Cape Coast Castle in Ghana. While on the tour, the Berkeley-based author heard that soldiers would marry the local women, something she was unaware of, that would later inform the narrative and destiny of sister Effia who marries an Englishman and lives in the luxurious Cape Coast Castle. Meanwhile Esi becomes a slave held captive in the castle's dungeon.
As she explains to Noah, “Once I took that tour and kind of started to hear people talking about the different ways African slave traders were involved in this broad trade, it made me really just aware of the fact that we shouldn’t have to travel to Ghana and visit this castle in order to have this history be more readily available.”
Their conversation also touched on Gyasi’s experience as a third culture kid. Gyasi says she grew up feeling not quite African, although she was born in Ghana, but not necessarily African American even though she lived in Ohio, Illinois, Tennessee and Alabama as a child.
“I had a varied sense of myself,” Gyasi says. “One of the things I found trickiest is navigating America’s race because I think that a lot of African immigrants would say they’re not used to identifying themselves racially, you know?”
At a later point, Noah turns to Gyasi to ask her to expound on why it was important to convey the pain of African Americans, many of whom are unable to trace their lineage beyond two or three generations, within the novel.
I think that kind of trauma is central to the African American experience. So many African Americans are incapable of tracing their families back past their grandparents, their great grandparents...And that loss I think is palpable, and it’s something that kind of distinguishes them from a lot of other different groups of people so I wanted to be allowed to connect the family for all of us. Not just for African Americans, but for African immigrants who don’t often get sight of this side of the family as well.
Their conversation below is definitely worth five-minutes of your time, and if you dig what you hear, catch Gyasi talk more about “Homecoming” Thursday night (as in tonight) at Greenlight bookstore in Brooklyn. You can find the details here.