Author’s debut novel digs into roots and impacts of slavery

Yaa Gyasi’s debut novel covers a huge sweep of history, touches on the lives of dozens of characters and takes place in two geographic settings - what is today the nation of Ghana, and the United States.

“I wanted it to be clear that the things we see in the present do not appear out of nowhere,” said Gyasi, the featured speaker at the May 18 meeting of the Rancho Santa Fe Literary Society, held at the Fairmont Grand Del Mar resort, discussing why she decided to cover such a large period of time in the novel.

The novel “Homegoing” covers the origins of the slave trade that joined Africa and America, and explores themes of love, loyalty, betrayal and cruelty, as well as painful truths about man’s inhumanity to man. The novel is structured as a series of interlocking stories, beginning in Africa’s northwest coast in the 1770s, and continuing to contemporary Harlem, Alabama and Palo Alto.

The book was published in 2016 by Knopf.

One thread that weaves through the novel is fire, and its flames lick at the reader’s consciousness from the book’s opening paragraph:

“The night Effia Otcher was born into the musky heat of Fanteland, a fire raged through the woods just outside her father’s compound. It moved quickly, tearing a path for days. It lived off the air; it slept in caves and hid in trees; it burned, up and through, unconcerned with what wreckage it left behind, until it reached an Asante village. There, it disappeared, becoming one with the night.”

Each chapter of “Homegoing” is named for a central character; the book’s chronology follows a family tree provided at the beginning of the novel. The story unfolds along parallel tracks, with each line of the family descending from one of two half-sisters.

In an interview, Gyasi, who was born in Ghana and raised in Huntsville, Alabama, said she got the idea for her first book when she was visiting her native country on a college fellowship to do research for her writing. She toured Cape Coast Castle, which was built by British colonizers, and learned that two different worlds existed simultaneously in the building.

Above ground, British officers - some of them with African-born wives - lived lives of relative luxury. But down in the castle’s dungeons, Africans destined to be shipped off to America for the slave trade were housed in horrific conditions. Gyasi set out to chronicle the dichotomy of those two very different experiences. At the center are the half-sisters, Effia and Esi, one of whom married a British officer and the other who was captured and shipped to America as a slave.

Along with the barbarism of slavery, the book grapples with historical details of the slave trade, including the participation of African tribes in selling their countrymen into bondage.

Details of the author’s own life wind up in her fictional account, as one character experiences racist attitudes at her high school in Alabama, and another pursues graduate school at Stanford, where Gyasi earned her undergraduate degree before attending the Iowa Writers Workshop MFA program.

Gyasi spent seven years working on her book, including a large amount of research on a wide range of topics. One searing chapter concerns a character’s entanglement with the infamous convict leasing system, in which freed slaves, after the Civil War ended, were jailed on minor or even made-up charges, then hired out by Southern states to private companies, such as mines and logging operations. The men were forced to work for no wages in a form of state-sanctioned slavery.

“That system was kind of the beginning of the project of criminalizing black men for petty crimes,” and today’s mass incarcerations, Gyasi said.

Gyasi, who now lives in New York, is working on a new novel, but said she is “superstitious” about discussing the project, which is in its early stages.

As for her early success as a writer - “Homegoing” was one of Oprah’s 10 favorite books of 2016, and it was also named NPR’s debut novel of the year - she said, “You never can predict how a book is going to do when you’re sitting at your desk writing it. So, to see it come to light in this way has been really amazing.”

Also at the May 18 meeting, the Literary Society named the winners of its 2016-2017 Season annual writing contest. They were Chelsea Xu, Torrey Pines High School, first place; Simran Israni, Pacific Ridge School, first runner-up; and Margaux Paul, Torrey Pines High School, second runner-up.