New York Times bestselling author Yaa Gyasi described her writing process of “Homegoing” during her speech Wednesday evening at the Alumni Center as “making it up as she went along.”
“In the early days of writing this novel, I used to describe it as a fishtail braid; two sections feeding into each other, one after another,” Gyasi said. “The beginning of the novel was quite clear to me from the start.”
“Homegoing” follows the descendants of two women who were held at the Cape Coast Castle in Ghana; one as a slave to be traded, and the other as the wife of an English soldier. Each chapter talks about a different character descended from one of these two women.
“I didn’t know at first that they would be sisters, I didn’t know at first that I would follow down the lines to present day,” she said. “Now, you have some insight into my very refined process, which basically consists of making it all up as I go along.”
Her vision first came when she visited the slave castle the book’s first two chapters takes place in during a trip to Ghana.
“I wish I could describe to you what it felt like to stand in those dungeons,” she said. “They still smell. Even though centuries have passed, they’re still covered in grime. The death can’t be washed away from those walls. I knew that day, in that castle, that I wanted to write about that history.”
However, she said it’s hard to know when the book really first started in her mind, saying it could have been when she was engrossed with reading as a child, or during that trip.
“I read because I was bored,” she said. “I read because the public library was free. I read because I was lonely. By the time I turned 10, I had already lived in three countries and four states. Moving at this rate made it difficult to accumulate and maintain friendships.
“I cannot say that I truly believe that loneliness made me a writer or that I find loneliness necessary or conducive to the act of writing itself. But I will say that most days of my own transient childhood, I felt unknowable and unseeable, and the only solace I could find from that feeling was within the pages of books.”
It took Gyasi seven years to write “Homegoing,” and she said the first three were spent looking in the wrong direction. Originally, the book was going to be focused on two characters in modern time looking back at stories they’d been told about their family and life in Ghana.
“I thought this would be enough,” Gyasi said. “But as I worked, I started to feel as though I was taking the easy way out by not following the legacy of slavery as it shifted gradually over time.”
Gyasi, originally from Ghana, but immigrated to the U.S. as a toddler, said she didn’t feel a responsibility to anyone in the beginning of writing, but that feeling started to change as she worked more on the book.
“When I was writing the first part of this book, it felt so deeply personal and also it began with … you’re not really sure whether anybody else is going to see it or not,” she said. “So I didn’t really feel any sort of responsibility until later when I started to do a little bit more intimate research and write those earlier chapters.”
“Homegoing” has been out for almost a year and is a New York Times bestseller. Gyasi said one of the reactions she’s heard while on tour that she hadn’t expected was that the book inspired others to start researching their genealogy.
“The fun thing about literature, certainly from a reader’s perspective, not always from the writer’s perspective, is that it is this relationship between readers and writers,” she said. “After you finish a book, in some ways it no longer belongs to you, it’s kind of up to people to determine what it is, what it means, what it’s legacy will be.”