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Homegoing: Tippecanoe high-school students interview author Yaa Gyasi

From left to right: Aimee Noel, Amelia Campbell, Yaa Gyasi, Davis Featherstone, Matt Salmon and Drew Wichterman
From left to right: Aimee Noel, Amelia Campbell, Yaa Gyasi, Davis Featherstone, Matt Salmon and Drew Wichterman

Homegoing is a novel about an African-American family separated by the slave trade. Recently, Dayton Youth Radio students from Tippecanoe High School got a chance to meet the author of the book, Yaa Gyasi; here are some excerpts from their conversation.

(Transcription)

Matt Salmon: And I was wondering, "How did you come up with the different stories for each character? Did you rely on inspiration and personal connections or was there a lot of extensive research involved or maybe a combination?"

Yaa Gyasi: I made a family tree at the start of my writing that looks a lot like the one that's at the front of the book now. And I kind of mapped out, you know, how long it would take me to get from 18th century Ghana to present day America. And from that, I could see what points in history I might be in based on how many characters I needed to get from Point A to Point B. And that helped me to think about what the characters would be going through. And those situations, I think, started to bring to light who the characters might be.

Matt: What would you say is the most difficult part about the writing process? What do you think was the most difficult for you to do when you were writing this novel?

Gyasi: The research for this novel was incredibly difficult, in great part because I was not a skilled researcher and still not a skilled researcher. It was just kind of flying by the seat of my pants, trying to figure everything out as I went. But that process of discovery and kind of learning on my feet was important, I think, for getting the result that I got.

Amelia Campbell: So, Homegoing is now being taught both in high-school and college classes across America. Is there one thing you wish you could say to every student and teacher that is reading, analyzing and discussing this book?

Gyasi: I suppose if there is one thing that I would say, it would be to think of ways to try to connect the story of Homegoing to things that are happening and are present. And part of what I wanted to get across in this book is that that we carry our history with us, that the things that we are seeing today are birthed out of all of these moments that came before it. And so there are things that are happening today that could just be another chapter of Homegoing. And so if your students want to talk about that, I think they should have the opportunity to.

Davis Featherstone: Obviously, this book begins hundreds of years in the past, and it begins in a place very different from modern-day America being in Ghana, pre colonialism. So in your research process, did you ever feel it was difficult to accurately capture what those people were going through because of a lack of information or just a lack of knowledge beforehand?

Gyasi: Absolutely. It was an incredibly difficult period trying to write about because there isn't very much information, certainly, about what the lives of the people who were taken looked like from their perspective. Like, I could find research texts and I did use research texts that were written by colonialists who were talking about the period and talking about their work, their work being slavery. But I couldn't find things from the people themselves. And so this became imperative for me to kind of try to see around what the texts were saying in order to kind of build out the character from this vantage point of a slaver or of a colonizer, and not from their own vantage point, trying to find the balance between what wasn't being said and trying to infer what could have happened, what might have happened so that it felt as accurate as possible, even though there's no way to kind of to test the book against an actual text, that was a huge challenge.

Amelia: Do you have any advice for authors that are trying to get into publication?

Gyasi: Yes. The first piece of advice would be to keep reading and to read as much as possible, as widely as possible, as voraciously as possible, because after publishing, you will have other demands on your time that will take that book that will like kind of shift the priorities in a way that make the reading feel less important. And it is and continues to be the most important aspect of this work is remembering that what you're trying to do is get a book that will be on a shelf that people can pick up and read. And so if you stay tuned in to that feeling that made you want to write in the first place, then you'll kind of always be able to find your way back to the writing.

Amelia: All right, thank you so much! We appreciate having this discussion with you and being able to talk to you. And we really appreciate your answers and everything you've brought. So, thank you so much.

Gyasi: My pleasure, thanks.

Support from the Tipp City Foundation, Tippecanoe Educational Endowment, Robinson-Walters Family Fund, Dayton Literary Peace Prize, and WYSO made the in-person event with Yaa Gyasi possible.