Ghanaian-American author Yaa Gyasi joined The Stream on Al Jazeera on Tuesday to speak about her seven-figure book deal, Africa’s complicity in the slave trade, and the tensions between Africans and African-Americans in the USA.
Gyasi sold her debut novel, Homegoing, for over a million dollars. “I don’t know if anyone could ever see something like that coming,” she told The Stream’s hosts, Femi Oke and Malika Bilal. “This business is so uncertain. I think a lot of writers, a lot of artists would agree that when they decide they want to do this for a living they kind of sign away the idea of making any money, so it really did shock me and blow me away. On the other hand, I’ve wanted to be a writer my whole life, so it’s also been magical and beautiful that I’ve not only been able to do it but be able to do it in such a way that I’ve been able to reach so many people.”
The bestseller follows the family tree of two half-sisters born in 18th century Ghana, one sold into slavery and the other married off to a British soldier at the Cape Coast Castle.
One of the themes of the novel is Ghana’s complicity in the slave trade. “Everyone was responsible. We all were… we all are,” she writes in Homegoing.
Her thoughts on slavery were partly shaped by a tour of the Cape Coast Castle in 2009 – “a very important centre both of colonialism and the slave trade… It was established as a trading centre generally but the main trade was the slave trade.”
She says she only visited the castle “because I was with a friend and needed touristy-type things to do… The castle, even though it stands only 52 miles away from my mother’s hometown, is not really a part of Ghanaian identity, Ghanaian experience…. I had asked my parents if they had learned this kind of thing in school and they said no.”
Another major theme of the book is what it means to be black in the USA. On The Stream, Gyasi discussed the shared experience of being black in America, but also the tensions between African immigrants and African-Americans, with their different histories and lived experiences.
“The American dream is still very much denied African-Americans,” she says. “You still can have access to whole worlds as a black immigrant that you don’t get as African-American. I’ve certainly heard about how when percentages are given about how many black students are in a college, for example, typically there are large percentages of Ghanaians or Nigerians, or Haitians or Jamaicans or whatever, who also make up that group. Does that mean it’s denying African-Americans access to these same spaces? That’s a larger part of this conversation: what do we have access to and what don’t we have access to and what privileges are afforded African immigrants that aren’t afforded [African-Americans].”
She says she wrote the book primarily for herself. “I try not to write with an audience in mind. It’s easier before you sell your first book because you can imagine that no one is going to read it. For me, this book was very much a personal project. I wrote it because I was having so many questions about identity: ethnic identity, racial identity, what it means to be black in America. So if I was to give this book an audience it would be me in middle school, when I had all these kinds of questions.”