Yaa Gyasi: “Homegoing: A Novel” | Talks at Google

thank you all for coming. I’d like to welcome you
on behalf of the Africans at Google and BGN. And I feel very
honored to be here and to host this rather
unique event for Google. My name is Marian Croak, and I’m
a VP in the Next Billion User organization. And soon I will be
moving into SRE. So before we get started,
I just want to give you a couple of announcements. Right after the event, right
across this opposite Slice Cafe, will be 23 and
ME ancestry kits. And they’re for Googlers who
are interested in their origins, and especially those
of African descent, who, in line with the
story you’re about to hear, want to know more about where
they may have descended from. So that’s one thing. Second thing, and
maybe more importantly, is also right outside
will be books, the [? “Homecoming” ?] books. And you’ll hear more
about the story from Yaa. But you can buy
them, and she will be available for signing them. And the first 100
Googlers who sign up, or who line up for the books,
will receive one for free. So you have to be quick. But anyway, I want to tell
you I was fortunate enough to read the story. It’s beautifully written. It’s very painful to read. So sometimes, I would
actually have to put it aside. But it’s a story that
needs to be told. And I think all of
us need to read it. It helps to understand
the underpinnings of the racial
complexity and the times that we are living through now. So I would encourage
all of you to read it. And I want to tell you a bit
about the author, Yaa Gyasi, who’s going to join us
onstage in a few minutes. She is originally from Ghana. And she’s a Stanford alum. And she also graduated
from the Iowa– it’s very esteemed– the
Iowa Writers’ Program. So we’re honored
to have her here, and blessed to have her here. Her book tells the story of
two sisters, Effia and Esi. And they grew up during
the 18th century in Ghana, and they lived in two
different villages. And Effia is married
off to an Englishman and lives in a very
palatial castle, but right below
her is her sister. And her sister
lives in a dungeon, right below this castle. And it’s a women’s dungeon. Of course, they also
had one for males. And she’s imprisoned
in this dungeon, and is eventually given over to
people that put her on a ship and send her off to America
to be sold into slavery. And this book, this
beautifully written book, tells the story of
these two sisters and their descendants
over a 300-year period. So it goes through the
wars in Ghana over slavery. It then takes us to the war
in America over slavery, to the coal mines in
the deep south where many of the freeing
slaves had to work, and then to the great
migration north, and to the 20th century
Renaissance in Harlem, to the present day. And it’s an amazing,
amazing journey. And I think we’re still on
that journey, as you know. But I would encourage you
all to please read the book, because it really
helps give you insight into what’s going
on inside ourselves, and inside this country,
and across the world. Joining Yaa on the stage
will be two Googlers who are descendants
of African origin. And one is Bash. And he shares the
same lineage as Effia. And the next one is Kanika. And she shares the
lineage of Esi. And they will join
Yaa in a conversation. And you’re all invited to
participate in the conversation as well. So please join me and
welcome them to the stage. [APPLAUSE] SEGUN BASH: Hi, everyone. It’s so exciting to see
this room almost full. We’re very excited about that. Thanks to everyone for coming. And I’m so excited to see Yaa. As she walked up
earlier, I was like, OK, I think I’m a
little star struck. So just before we get into
the conversation everyone’s excited to have about the book,
I think it’s important for us to just learn more about Yaa. So that’s actually where
we’re going to get started. YAA GYASI: OK. SEGUN BASH: Can you give us
a little bit more context about yourself? We know you moved here when
you were little to Huntsville, Alabama, but tell us a little
bit about the story of Yaa. YAA GYASI: So I was born
in Ghana, in Mampong. And then my family moved
when I was two to America. And we first moved
to Ohio, my father was getting his PhD at
Ohio State, in French. And he’s a French professor. And then kind of as he was
looking for a tenure track job, we moved a lot. So we lived in Ohio first,
and then Illinois, Tennessee, and then Alabama. And we moved to Alabama
when I was nine. And I stayed there
until 18, when I left to come to Stanford. And then, after that, I took
a year off between college and grad school. And I went to graduate school
at the University of Iowa at the Writers’
Workshop, which is where I wrote most of “Homegoing.” SEGUN BASH: Amazing. KANIKA: Yeah. SEGUN BASH: Thank you. All right, Kanika? KANIKA: So Yaa,
I’m just thrilled to be up here with you,
so thank you again. YAA GYASI: Yeah. KANIKA: So I think,
between Bash and I, we have probably seen every
interview you’ve done, every article written about you,
and read a few of the articles you’ve written yourself. And so we know that
you’ve wanted to be a writer since you were young. We’re curious, what is
it that you would be doing if you weren’t a writer? YAA GYASI: Oh, man. I don’t know what I would be
doing if I weren’t a writer. I really hadn’t thought
of any other career that I wanted to do. I mean, I sang growing up. Actually, one of the people
that I used to sing with is in this room, Adam Seaton. And so, I think, for a
brief period of time, I thought that I
wanted to be a singer. But that felt
completely unattainable. And if you can
believe it, writing felt like the more stable
career choice to go for. So that’s what I decided. KANIKA: Not the startup
that you worked at? YAA GYASI: No. KANIKA: No? When we saw that,
we were, like, well, Google’s kind of a startup-ish
with 70,000 people. YAA GYASI: Very different. KANIKA: Still trying to
preserve that startup culture. YAA GYASI: Yeah. KANIKA: But I know that
you were at a startup, for those of you who don’t know. Was it right after college? YAA GYASI: It was right
after college, yeah. KANIKA: And it doesn’t
sound like that worked out? Just curious why it
wasn’t a good match. YAA GYASI: No. I went into it knowing that
I was just taking a year off between college and
grad school, so I didn’t feel like I was there to stay. KANIKA: Got it. YAA GYASI: And I
think I only ended up being there for eight months. And I left and started
working on the writing that I would be doing once
I got to graduate school. SEGUN BASH: Awesome. For anyone in the room that’s
familiar with African parents, singing and writing sound
like very hard sells. I think my mom is in here, but– I shouldn’t say– it felt like
I had three options growing up. I was going to be a doctor,
an engineer, or a lawyer. That’s it. YAA GYASI: Mm-hm. Yeah. SEGUN BASH: So how did
that go about at home? YAA GYASI: It
didn’t go over well. I mean, I have to say, I
guess, my parents encouraged me in that my dad’s a professor
and he teaches French in Francophone
African literature, and so books were always in our
house and a part of our lives, and reading was always
a part of my life. And so that part wasn’t really
a surprise to them at all. But then, suddenly,
I think, when I started to vocalize that
that was what I wanted to do with my life was
to become a writer, I faced some
resistance, I would say. And really, I think
freshman year of college was when it kind
of came to a head. I think I was
fighting with my mom, basically, every day about what
I wanted to do with my life and what I wanted to
be, which I understand. You know, you come to America,
you sacrificed so much, and you’ve made this very deep
investment in your children. And so if they
tell you that they don’t think that this path that
you’ve kind of started them on is the one that they
want to go on themselves, I think it can be
really scary for them. But now they both have amnesia
about that whole period in my life. SEGUN BASH: Very convenient. YAA GYASI: Yeah. SEGUN BASH: So what
was the tipping point? I think there’s a lot of
wonderfully talented folks in the room that may be
passionate about writing, or singing, or doing something. What was the tipping
point to help gain that support from family,
stop the fighting, essentially? YAA GYASI: It was
really just kind of saying that there was nothing
else that I wanted to do. I think, in part, once
they saw how unhappy I had been in any other kind
of path, in that startup, I think that they realized that
that I was very serious when I said that this was
what I wanted to do and started to kind of take
me seriously at that point. But you do have to kind of,
I guess, be willing to say, this is a line, and I’m
not going to cross it– if either of you can come with
me on this journey, or not. And that’s kind of hard
to do when you’re young and still kind of feeling
out whether or not you can make it in
the world of art, which is a difficult, difficult
world to get your feet in. SEGUN BASH: To get into–
makes perfect sense. KANIKA: So to quote someone,
who shall remain nameless, I heard someone say, Yaa’s
hair’s always on fleek. And I agree. I agree. YAA GYASI: Thank you. KANIKA: And I was just curious. As an African-American woman,
I think we always grapple with, how am I going to wear my hair? Am I going to wear it straight? Am I going to wear it natural? If I wear it natural, what
am I going to do with it? And how are people
going to receive it? Curious about your inspiration
behind the different hairstyles that you have. YAA GYASI: Oh, I’ve never
gotten that question before. I went natural about
three years ago, I guess. And I’m one of those
people who had never seen her natural hair. My mom slapped a relaxer into
my hair when I was like five, and so I didn’t even
know I didn’t even know what my hair looked
like growing out of my head. And so I think I was
just in graduate school, and I felt like I had
the time to figure out how to take care of it myself. And so I just chopped it all off
and started this natural hair journey. I don’t know if I have
inspirations for my hairstyle. At this point, I’m
traveling so much that it’s just whatever is easy,
and fast, and will kind of last me a long time. So I do it about once a week. I wash it and twist it out,
and that’s all that I do. KANIKA: I think we can
all relate to that. YAA GYASI: Yeah. KANIKA: And add on to that. Anybody who’s been at Google
long enough knows about every– maybe every month, there’s
an email that goes out to the Black Googler
network, BGN, that says, hey, I just moved to the Bay Area,
where can I get my hair done? YAA GYASI: Yeah. Yeah. KANIKA: So if you
want to share, if you have any good spots
in the Bay Area that you’d like to recommend
and give a shout-out to, we welcome that. YAA GYASI: No, I
can’t remember where I used to get my hair done
when I was in college, but I definitely sent
that email a few times. I think I would even look at
pictures of people whose hair I liked on campus,
and then email them and ask where they’ve been
getting their hair done. Yeah, it’s kind of a
desperate situation out here. KANIKA: Yes. Thanks. SEGUN BASH: I love
that targeting. We need to start
doing that with BGN. Gotta get that
list with pictures. Let’s switch gears for a
sec and dive into the book. Tell us a little bit
about the inspiration, where this started. You went back home
sophomore year. Let’s hear a little
bit more about that. YAA GYASI: Yeah. So when I was at Stanford,
my sophomore year, I received a fellowship,
called the Chappell-Lougee. And they give it to
sophomore students to complete a research or
a creative-based project the summer between
sophomore and junior year. And I knew that I
wanted to use mine in order to research a novel. And initially, I’d had a
different idea in mind. I thought I wanted to
write a book about a mother and her daughter. And so I thought it would be
nice to go to my own mother’s hometown, which is Abakrampa
in the central region of Ghana, and just kind of see
if anything struck me, if any inspiration happened,
which is not the right way to approach accepting a large
sum of money to do research. But thankfully, a
friend came to visit. And we ended up going to
the Cape Coast Castle. And it was my first time there,
and kind of my first time really interacting
with it in any way. I hadn’t really thought
about it before. And it was while at the
castle that I took the tour. And it was a really kind of
popular tour at that point, because Obama’s family
had just been there, I think, a week before me. So a lot of people were kind
of flocking to the castle. And the tour guide kind
of just took us around, and he started to
talk to us about how the British soldiers, who
lived and worked in the castle, used to married the local
Ghanaian women, which was something I had
never heard before and really fascinated me. And I wondered about
the lives of those women and how they could possibly
kind of be walking around free above these captives,
because the next thing that the tour guide did was to
take us down into the dungeons. And I don’t know if they
do this in every tour, but they closed the door,
so you can see how dark and how small it is. And there’s just a
little ring of light. And so I just was
immediately struck by that juxtaposition,
the idea of this upstairs, downstairs thing. And I knew, immediately,
that I wanted to write about that
place in some capacity. I didn’t exactly know
what it would look like, or how long it would take,
or anything like that. I just, I think it was maybe the
first time in my writing life where I felt anything like
a stroke of inspiration. I just knew that I wanted
to write about this place. SEGUN BASH: Wow. That’s powerful. YAA GYASI: Yeah. KANIKA: So Marian gave us
a lovely setup and overview of the book, but I want to
dig a little bit deeper. And set up the context for us. Tell us a little bit about
what was going on in history at the start of the book. YAA GYASI: So the book
starts with these two half sisters, Effia and Esi. Effia is born into
this Fante village. And she’s kind of the daughter
of a relatively powerful man, not an incredibly powerful man. But her village chief
decides that their village is going to become a part of
facilitating the slave trade, so they’re going to kind
of be a stop on this road from the inland to the coast. And meanwhile, her
family’s also thinking about who to marry her to,
because she’s coming of age. And they ultimately
end up, more or less, giving her away in this
marriage to the British governor of the Cape Coast Castle,
which was the kind of seat of British colonial power in
Ghana during that time period. And so she ends up moving
to the castle, living there, seems like she has a relatively
good life, loves her husband, loves her kid, but
at the same time, is somewhat aware of
something very nefarious that is happening below
her, which is Esi’s story. Esi, the second half
sister is an Asante. She’s born to a very
powerful warrior who lives in the inland area in what
was then called the Gold Coast, present day Ghana. And her father kind
of has led her village into all of these
battles, and they’ve won. And things are
looking up for them, until some other rival
ethnic group comes to kind of pay retribution. And in this, a
bunch of her people are captured and then
marched down to the coast. And she ends up being
sold into slavery. And so the novel never tells
you whether they intersected at the exact same period,
but you get the sense that Effia is living above
her sister at one point. And so then you
follow down the line, descendant after descendant,
into the present day. KANIKA: Are you guys
getting a feel for the book? It’s amazing. And that was just like the
first maybe two chapters, maybe? YAA GYASI: Yeah, the
first two chapters. KANIKA: And there are 15
chapters, I think, altogether. And this book has everything
that you can get elsewhere, like all the drama
that you’re seeing. I mean, it addresses
homosexuality, let’s see, polygamy, people
cheating on their husbands, and being a single
parent, just so much. And for me, as a woman,
there were a lot of things that I felt impacted
women in particular. And so I was just
curious, for you, what emotions that
this bring out in you in writing this
book, particularly as it relates to the
women in the book and what they experienced? YAA GYASI: I always
knew that I wanted women to be very central to the book. I mean, women are kind
of central to my life. I’ve heard a writer
say people ask her, why are there so many
strong women in your novels? And she said, well, I
don’t know any weak women. And that’s kind of how I
feel about that subject. This book, because I knew it was
going to be multi-generational, I knew that I wanted to start
with women, in particular, because my people, the
Akans, are matrilineal. And so it felt like
an appropriate way of kind of setting
up a family, to start with this matriarch, the
mother of these two sisters, and then just kind of
move down in that way. But it is equal in that
half of the chapters are narrated by men, and half
of them are narrated by women. But I do think that, I guess,
my interests lay with the idea that women were oftentimes the
backbones to these families and kind of exploring what
that meant as we moved down the line. KANIKA: I feel
like I’m bogarting. Do you have a question
you want to ask? SEGUN BASH: Yeah. KANIKA: OK, go for it. Thanks, Kanika. KANIKA: You’re welcome. SEGUN BASH: I think, for
me, that was a very powerful visual, to go through the
first portion you were talking about around these
women in these very different parts of the castle. I feel like if I ever
visit the Cape Coast Castle, without giving
away any spoilers, I might be looking
for something. But so much of the book
felt amazingly real. How did you bring that to life? I was Wikipediaing and
Googling as I was doing this. Like wait, is that real? Is it like really there? And these were facts that
you built stories around. How did you manage to do that
without being overwhelming, as you went through it? YAA GYASI: Well, I was
overwhelmed every day, so I don’t know if I
actually managed to do it without being overwhelmed. I knew, kind of going
in, that it was going to take a lot of research. But the way that I
approached it was I made a family tree at the
very beginning of the process. And it looks a lot like the
one at the front of the book now, except mine also had the
dates that each chapter would take place in and then something
that was happening politically, historically in the background
during each time period. So for Kojo’s chapter, it
was the Fugitive Slave Act. For Quey’s chapter, it
was the Asentewaa War. And that kind of just helped
me figure out a starting point for the research. And then I would spend
a little bit of time researching whatever that thing
was, and then the time period, and just enough to make me feel
as though I had kind of entered the world of the character. Because I think, sometimes, when
you read historical fiction, you start to feel like the book
is just stiff with research. And it stops feeling as
though it’s about the story. And I wanted to always kind
of privilege the story. And so I say if I ever
came to this crossroad where I had to decide between
something that was true and something that was
good for the story, I would choose
the thing that was good for the story, which
not every writer would make that choice. But I did want it to be
kind of a pleasure to read, for lack of a better
way of putting it. So just, I wrote
it chronologically, just kind of using that
family tree as a guide and trying to remember to
focus on character first. SEGUN BASH: And that
comes through powerfully in the structure of the book. While Kanika and I were
preparing for this, I cheated a little bit. I had the audio book, as
well as the physical book. And I was listening to
it, and I was saying, oh, you got to check out
Chapter 14 or whatever. And she’s like, dude, there
are no chapters in this book, it’s just people’s names. That was a very ambitious
structural choice. Had you seen that before? What’s the story behind that? YAA GYASI: Yeah. So the structure came about,
probably, about three years into the writing process. When I first started
the book in 2009, I had a much more traditional
structure in mind. I thought that I wanted
to write something that would be set
in the present, and then just flashback
to 18th century Ghana. And so if you’ve read the
book, kind of the first two characters and the
last two characters were the ones that I
wanted to focus on. But then the longer
I worked on it, the more that started
to feel just kind of not significant enough. I wanted to be able to kind
of watch this throughline, be able to watch
things like slavery and colonialism shift
really gradually over this very long
period of time. And so I realized that that
aspect, the aspect of time, was the most
important thing to me. And in order to
capture that, I felt like I needed to be able to
stop in as many generations as possible, so that it was clear
to me and to the reader how these things came from
those things, which came from those things,
which came from those things. And so you kind of see this
domino effect of history as you move. And I didn’t think I
could do that if I just had a book that was set in
the present and flashed back. And I’ve seen a lot of other
multi-generational novels before– a lot of which I love– but I knew that the particular
challenge of “Homegoing” was that I was never
going back in time. So I was never returning
to a character. Each chapter moves
forward in time. And you’ll hear bits and
pieces about a character through their
descendants, but you never have a chapter that
returns to the descendant. So that aspect of it was
probably the hardest thing to figure out how to do. SEGUN BASH: Awesome. KANIKA: Do you want to
get to why we’re here? SEGUN BASH: Yeah, I don’t know
if I’m ready for it, though. It gets a little intense. KANIKA: Yeah. SEGUN BASH: One of the things
that this book spurred for me and as we got together and I
started planning this event to bring you to ask
you to join us here was the juxtaposition of
what the impact has been. So Effia and Esi, if they met
at a village party, whatever it would be, would have had a
particular set of interactions. But as you go through,
you see their descendants, and those interactions
are not there. So we’re hoping that, to get
us started with this section, you’d read a little
bit from the book. YAA GYASI: Sure. SEGUN BASH: And there
are no spoilers here, guys, so don’t worry. And just the highlighted
portion from the bottom to here. YAA GYASI: Cool. “The next day, Marjorie
sat by herself reading ‘Lord of the Flies’
for English class. She held the book in one
hand and a fork in the other. She was so engrossed
in the book that she didn’t realize that the chicken
she had pierced with her fork hadn’t made it into her
mouth until she tasted air. She finally looked up to see
Tisha and the other black girls staring at her. ‘Why you reading that book?’ Tisha asked. Marjorie stammered, ‘I
have to read it for class.’ ‘I have to read it for
class,’ Tisha mimicked. ‘You sound like a white girl,
white girl, white girl.’ They kept chanting,
and it was all Marjorie could do to keep from crying. In Ghana, whenever a
white person appeared, there was always a child
there to point him out. A small group of
children, dark and shiny in the equatorial sun, would
extend their little fingers toward the person whose skin
was different from theirs and shout, obroni, obroni. They would giggle,
delighted by the difference. When Marjorie had first
seen children do this, she’d watched as the white man
whose skin color had been told to him grew shocked, offended. ‘Why do they keep saying that?’
he’d asked the friend who was showing him around. Marjorie’s father pulled
her aside that night and asked her if she knew
the answer to the white man’s question, and she had shrugged. Her father had told
her that the word had come to mean something
entirely different from what it used to mean, that the
young of Ghana, itself an infant country, had been
born to a place emptied of its colonizers. Because they didn’t see
white men every day, the way people of his mother’s
generation and older had, the word could take on
new meaning for them. They lived in a
Ghana where they were the majority, where theirs was
the only skin color for miles around. To them, to call someone
obroni was an innocent act, an interpretation of
race as skin color.” SEGUN BASH: Awesome. You wrote a really
powerful article for “The New York Times.” And the headline was,
“I’m Ghanaian-American. Am I Black?”. As you go through that
piece about the character, how much of that was a personal
experience you had growing up? And how have you
interpreted your identity as both Effia and Esi,
since you were born in Ghana and you moved over to Alabama? YAA GYASI: Yeah. I mean, I think that little
interaction where Marjorie gets made fun of for reading was
something that had actually happened to me, not exactly
like that, but similar to that. And it was really confusing. And I think most of my
trying to figure out identity, specifically racial
identity in America when I was young, was about
being confused, I think, in part, because my parents
didn’t really connect to it in the way that I did. I always say, if you
come from a country where everybody looks
like you and you aren’t kind of used to thinking
of yourself as black, it can be a challenge
to come to America and have to start to kind
of learn the racial rules. And so if somebody said
something offensive or used an epithet to me, and
I came home and told my parents about it, they’d be like, well,
they’re not talking about you. But of course, they were. And I think they didn’t really
realize how that worked. They obviously had different
kinds of divisions. Like my mother’s a Fante
and my father’s an Ashante. And that was a division. But the division
of white and black was one that they didn’t
really understand. And so in a lot of
ways, I felt like me and my brothers had to kind of
figure things out on our own, which was a challenge. KANIKA: What percentage of
Marjorie would you say was you? That seemed to be the
closest character. YAA GYASI: Yeah. I think Marjorie and Marcus,
the last two characters, are the most similar to me. They’re obviously the
closest in time period to me, so it’s kind of easier
to relate to them. Marjorie, I think,
shares the most kind of biographical information. She’s born in Ghana, but
she was raised in Alabama. But I think where she
starts to veer off is that she has a much more
intimate, deeper relationship with Ghana than I did. She goes back every summer
to visit her grandmother. I only went back twice. So her connection
to her homeland is a lot stronger than mine was. KANIKA: So it’s
interesting that you talk about your experiences,
or even Margaret’s experiences in growing up, and
particularly your parents not necessarily identifying
with black Americans or African-Americans. There was one particular
passage in your book. It was in the Marjorie
chapter, and it was her teacher, Miss Pinkston. And she said, “Here
in this country, it doesn’t matter where you came
from first to the white people running things. You’re here now. And here, black, is
black, is black.” And that resonated with me. Because growing up in the
States, being born here and growing up here, I’ve
never seen myself any different from any other black
person, whether you’re from Africa or the Caribbean. So it always
baffles me when I am in spaces where people
who I consider to be black separate themselves
and consider themselves to be different than. So Bash and I talked about this
and had some very interesting conversation. I think he had a different
perspective, obviously, growing up outside of
the States and coming in. But do you want to share
some of your [INAUDIBLE]?? SEGUN BASH: Yeah. I think that’s one of
the things that we wanted to understand and unpack
for everyone in the room, is externally, as you come
into work, whether at Google or wherever, you walk into
the room and you’re black. And all the assumptions that
go with that blackness, that’s what’s expected, right? YAA GYASI: Right. SEGUN BASH: So as [INAUDIBLE],,
as [INAUDIBLE] Nigerian, and I come in, if my accent
gets stronger in the meeting, it’s a little bit of
a surprise for folks. And one of the things that
we’ve been trying to understand is that, when you put these– Kanika and myself– where
you put these different types of black in the same space,
the connection isn’t as tight as we might expect. And what do you think
is the cause for that? And how do we begin to
unpack and bring that closer? YAA GYASI: Yeah. I mean, I think,
partially, the cause is– so in “Homegoing,”
you’re looking at this family that doesn’t
recognize that it’s a family and can never recognize
that it’s a family. There have been these ruptures,
these divisions, to the point where members, particularly
on the African-American side of things, can’t
even recognize which country from the continent
they’ve been ripped from. And that, to me, is
kind of devastating, that these ruptures exist. And so I think part of
it, speaking mostly just for the African side, is
just recognizing that fact, that there is this
connection that exists. Even if you have to
go back a long time to get to the source
of that connection, it does exist, and
to kind of stop thinking about
yourselves as necessarily separate from black Americans. Because I think that’s where a
lot of the troubles navigating race begin for
African immigrants, is this idea that we are
necessarily different, set apart. But in terms of how to go
about that, I don’t know. I don’t know if I have
a good answer for that. It’s a really
difficult question. SEGUN BASH: That is
the ongoing question. And we’re going to switch
into live questions soon, and live comments. So I encourage folks that
have an opinion about that, that’s the conversation we’re
trying to get started today. And that’s why the ancestry
portion of the event has been introduced, right? So we get a chance to
actually go back as far as we can to the
beginning of our story and start to connect
these two communities. Just as a quick show of hands,
how many people in the room knew there was any
sort of gulf between the black American community
and the African community? OK. So we have 20%, 25% or so. So for the rest of
you all, surprise! [LAUGHTER] These are conversations
that we’re having, that we’re
trying to bring to this, using Yaa’s platform for
us to start discussing. When it comes to
the healing, we know that’s a very, very hard
thing, like you said. The answers to that
question is something that the community needs to
come together to talk about. But there’s a portion
in your book, I think– we weren’t sure we were
going to have time for this, so Kanika’s going
to be very excited– that speaks about regret
and how to deal with regret. Do you recall what
I’m speaking to? YAA GYASI: I don’t know if
I know exactly what you’re talking about. SEGUN BASH: OK. KANIKA: A father
and a daughter– the crops did not manifest. YAA GYASI: Right. [INAUDIBLE] KANIKA: And the girl was crying,
and the father was saying, you don’t need to regret. And I don’t know the exact– well, there we go. SEGUN BASH: So here we go, since
we have a little bit of time. YAA GYASI: Sure. [LAUGHTER] So for us, we’ve
like, studied this. This is like the
Bible, at this point. YAA GYASI: It was a long time
ago that I wrote this book. “‘The plants have all died,
and I could have helped them,” she said between sobs. ‘Abena,’ he said, ‘what would
you have done differently if you knew the
plants would die?’ She thought about
this for a moment, wiped her nose with the back
of her hand, and answered, ‘I would have
brought more water.’ Her father nodded. ‘Then next time,
bring more water, but don’t cry for this time. There should be no room
in your life for regret. If in the moment of
doing you felt clarity, you felt certainty, then
why feel regret later?'” SEGUN BASH: That moved us,
as we thought about where these two communities are now. And in a way, we felt like,
in present day, the Marcus and Marjorie, the Kanika and
the Bash, we’re the new crop. So our choice is how to deal
with the regret of what’s happened to us. YAA GYASI: Right. KANIKA: And with that
said, folks, we’ll open it to live
questions, if people can start lining up by the mics,
for folks who have questions. And I will also get
the [? dory ?] ready. AUDIENCE: Hi. Thank you so much for coming. So just for [INAUDIBLE],, I’m
Haitian, so I’m Caribbean. And I feel kind of like on
the sidelines, like watching this happen, right? Because it’s one of
those things where I grew up knowing I’m Haitian,
born here in America, but then also like that kind of
divide that you talk about, but then also knowing
that even further back, there’s this ancestry
from Western Africa, most likely, right? YAA GYASI: Right. AUDIENCE: But what I also
realize is, growing up, especially, kind of
just after this weekend and after the tragic
shooting of Jordan in Dallas, a young boy who was killed
over the weekend, it’s for me, personally, I just
wonder, there’s so much harm in not seeing the
fact that, at any one point, those stories don’t appear as
our skin color does, right? And so those stories
kind of get erased under the guise
of this blackness and whatever, stereotypes
people might have of you, law enforcement
will have of you. But my question is,
what do you think is the benefits of these
communities coming together, right? What powers do you think we
might have in the collective by understanding the very
real situation that there is in this country, of walking
in America as a black woman, as a black man? And so I’d just love to
hear your dreams for what that connection might be. YAA GYASI: Yeah. I mean, I think, aside from
healing, which I shouldn’t set that aside, because that’s
a really important factor, the ability to kind
of heal, but it’s an opportunity to kind of
protect one another as well. What you were saying
really resonated with me. In that essay that I wrote
for “The New York Times,” I talked about the situation
that my little brother had gotten into where he was riding
his bike in our neighborhood when we lived in a predominantly
white neighborhood in Alabama, and our new neighbors
called the police on him. And the police came and
kind of sent him home. And you’re thinking,
this situation could have gone so differently. And my little brother can’t tell
these police officers that he’s Ghanaian, he’s not black. So that kind of position
doesn’t work outside when you leave your house. It doesn’t work. And so the part of the reason
why this community does need to come together is, I think,
for protection, for healing, for kind of being able to
stick up for one another and kind of put a better
face forward for all of us. SEGUN BASH: Awesome. AUDIENCE: This is going to be
a bit of a loaded question. But you alluded
to earlier people reaching back into
the past and seeing where they’re from and all
that, the experience of getting to know oneself
through that avenue. But the past itself is
both very fragmented, because there’s this idea of
romanticizing pre-colonial past as if it was some ideal
situation where everyone got along, when there was
clearly a lot of infighting and migration. And that’s complicated more so
by the fact that there was very few remnants of that time
in place in the world after colonialism, because
most people’s experience of their culture,
especially where it’s– I know, in southern
Africa, for example– come from a lot of the
’60s, ’70s, and ’80s, especially into the African
culture, for example. So to you, what’s the
experience of culture? And what is the utility of that
culture in self-identification, from your perspective? YAA GYASI: I think one
of the big challenges for writing “Homegoing,”
particularly for those earlier chapters, was just
how little research I could get my hands on from the
perspective of the people who had been going
through these things. All of the accounts
that I was reading– there was a really helpful book
called “The Door of No Return” by William Sinclair
that took that took you through the Cape Coast Castle. And it had a chapter
on the women. It had a chapter
on the children. But what was noticeably
absent was any kind of chapter on slavery
and what was happening in the bottom of this dungeon. And so I think one thing
that we are offered now is the opportunity to kind
of develop these voices through fiction, for me. I can only speak, I
guess, for my own medium. But it kind of gave me the
opportunity to lend a voice and kind of create a
presence in a place that had once been absent. And I think that, even
though it’s fictional, I think that does kind of help
to re-establish a culture that has been lost and a culture
that has been erased and give an opportunity to see
one way to restore something. SEGUN BASH: I think
one of the things that brings up for me
and for Kanika and I as we went through this
experience together– like I was saying, the book was
a little bit of group therapy from the two different angles,
but African slave traders is something you don’t
hear a ton about. And Kanika, if you
don’t mind me sharing, she was saying that, as she read
that, there was a lot of anger. And she asked me quite candidly,
representing the African side, do you feel shame? And one of the
questions, I think, that bubbles up for me is,
what level of responsibility do you feel– and one the
characters speaks to this, but I’m just curious– what
level of responsibility do you feel like the African
community should inherit, and discuss, and take for
how these stories have played through? YAA GYASI: I guess, first of
all, just the acknowledgement that this happened
is very important. It’s something that
I’d heard about, but people kind of mostly talk
about it in whispers, you know? It wasn’t something
that I had heard people talk about really
explicitly, until I went to the Cape Coast Castle. And the tour guide wasn’t trying
to keep it a secret, you know? It wasn’t like he was
hiding this information. If you take the tour,
they’ll talk to you about the different roles that
the different ethnic groups had played in this. And yet, I feel like there’s
this kind of tendency to really bristle if you mention
it among people that I’ve met. And I think that reaction
is the wrong one. How can you take responsibility,
if you won’t even acknowledge that it happened at all? And so I think that’s kind
of the first thing that needs to happen. SEGUN BASH: Awesome. Thank you. AUDIENCE: First of
all, Yaa, I just want to thank you for
even writing this book. I think it sounds
really exciting, and I’m looking
forward to reading it. And thank you for
being here today. And for the organizers, thank
you for putting this together. As a man of African descent
who doesn’t know what part of the continent
I’m from, I’m really excited to learn a little
bit more about that. And I have to pay at least
$100 for that opportunity. [LAUGHTER] My question is, do you have
any ideas or inspiration for what your next project
or your next book might be? YAA GYASI: Yeah, I’m kind of at
the beginning of a new novel. I’m really superstitious about
talking about what I’m working on, so I won’t get too into it. But I think it’ll be
set in the present, mostly because I don’t want
to do as much research. [LAUGHTER] And yeah, I’ve heard
other writers talk about how you only really have
three things that you ever really write about
in your career, and you just kind of
circle those things. So I think a lot of the themes
that I’m fascinated with and a lot of my obsessions
will continue to appear in my work from now on. KANIKA: When can we expect it? [LAUGHTER] No pressure. YAA GYASI: Good question. That’s a really great question. KANIKA: We’ll all be eagerly
anticipating the arrival of it. YAA GYASI: Thank you. KANIKA: Absolutely. AUDIENCE: My mother and I
read this book together, and we absolutely loved it. I was struck by your
imagery of the dominoes of the black experience, the
African experience in America. And there were so many dominoes,
the passing, the unionization. I mean, there’s just so much. Is there anything that
you wanted to include, but you just couldn’t, you
couldn’t pack it into the book? Is there anything or any
additional characters, or instances, or
moments in black history that you just couldn’t fit
in, that didn’t make it, got cut out? YAA GYASI: It
didn’t get cut out, but the most noticeable absence
and the thing that people often talk to me about is that I
don’t write about the Civil War at all. So the Civil War kind of acts
as the division between parts one and parts two of the novel. And that was mostly
because I felt like it was a good kind of halfway mark. And I felt like we all
kind of know about it. And I also just didn’t feel
like I had a good Civil War story in me to contribute. So that’s probably
the biggest thing that got left out of the book. AUDIENCE: Thank you. I grew up in Ghana. I lived there for 13 years. And I went to the
castle when I was 12. It didn’t really have
much of an impact on me. I grew up as a refugee in
Ghana, for that matter. But there were
claws on the walls, I think the room that you
mentioned, with the circle. I still have vivid
memories of that. And they said the slaves
were fighting each other, eating feces, and scratching the
walls just for air and light. So that really kind
of struck me just now. But at the same time, I moved
to the US when I was 15. And unlike most African
stories that I’ve heard, I was excited to meet
other black people here, because I didn’t have any clue. I just saw the music
videos, and I thought they were just cool as hell. [LAUGHTER] But my first day of
school, I wore a kente, like my kente, my
most prized outfit. And I wore sandals. And I went to school and
got clowned on, right? I was the darkest
kid in the school. I didn’t look like anybody. I wasn’t cool enough. And so growing up,
unconsciously, I fought the assimilation, right? I sound different
from my family. All my family sound
African, I sound like this. Some people recognize
that I’m African later. And so it’s like, what
advice do you have for, I guess, the black
community, when there are people like myself
looking to learn about them, but yet we face this
hostile, negative, and almost life-changing experience that
is still affecting me today? SEGUN BASH: I think that’s
for Kanika, and Yaa, and folks that want to speak to it. It just got a real, y’all. [LAUGHTER] SEGUN BASH: [INAUDIBLE] KANIKA: I’m going to
let our guest go first. SEGUN BASH: Yeah. YAA GYASI: That’s
a great question. I mean, I think
part of the reason that I wanted to
write “Homegoing” in the first place was
because I had kind of always felt this sense of not
being, at least for me, not being Ghanaian
enough for Ghanaians and not being black enough
for black Americans. And where did I stand? If I couldn’t be either of those
things, what did that make me? And I think that was something
that I grappled with a lot when I was younger. And those questions
about identity, both racial identity
and ethnic identity, were the ones that
were kind of propelling me to think about not the
divisions, but the connections. And so this book was an
opportunity for me to do that. But I don’t know
if that was just a personal kind of
therapeutic thing that I did. And I don’t know how to extend
that out for other people. I don’t know. KANIKA: I think this is going
to sound very prescriptive, but I think it’s about
education and exposure. And clearly, the people who came
across you when you came here, they had very limited
exposure and had certain preconceived notions
in their heads as to what you were wearing,
what you looked like, and what that represented,
and what that meant. And so I think we, everyone in
this room and beyond this room, we need to start
taking opportunities wherever we can to
educate those around us, to educate those
who come after us, those who have
come before us who have these preconceived
notions in their heads, and expose them. And so part of it is what
we’re doing right now. As I look around the room,
I see many different races and cultures. And for me, it’s about learning. And I would presume
that, for many of you, it’s about learning and creating
more understanding as well. YAA GYASI: I think that
goes both ways too, because I had
certainly heard things from West Africans in my
life that were totally inappropriate and
unacceptable that they had said about black Americans. And I think it’s kind
of beginning to call out those things when you see it
so that, especially when it’s happening to
impressionable children, that they don’t start to
internalize that and believe those things about
themselves, not just about themselves, but
about their classmates, about their friends. And so that’s one
thing you can do when you see it in your own
life, is just to call it out. SEGUN BASH: Yeah. I think, pretty much, everyone
has to read “Homegoing.” So [INAUDIBLE] starts
this conversation for a lot of folks. And like Yaa just said, I
think it goes both ways. Augustine just shared
his experience, but I’m sure there might be one
or so people in this room that could share an experience
from the black American point of view and experiences that
they’ve had with Africans. And one of the key
reasons we’re doing this is to celebrate Africa Day. Africa Day, little known day,
our holiday, so to speak, that we’re trying
to start to mark. And what it marks is the
creation of the African union. So when you look at
history, you actually realize the emancipation
of black people, regardless of what
continent they were on, all kind of dominoed
at the same time. And as I did
research for this, I realized that MLK was
actually in Africa in ’57, meeting with one of the
leaders of the African union. And I can just imagine what
that connection was like. Back then, they saw each
other as brethren fighting for a single goal, right? What happened in
the last 50 years? And I think that’s the
challenge for us in the room, in this community,
to say, this is Google, what we do here
spreads out into the world. And if we can take this
challenge on and take us back to whatever, I’m
OK with thinking that as I sat down in the
room with the founders of the African union, it
could be something truly special and truly powerful. With that said, we
have about a minute, so we’ll take one
last live question. And then we’ll get instructions
on the next portion of the event. AUDIENCE: Thank you. Two quick comments
and a question. First comment, thank
you for the organizers who put this incredible event
together to introduce me, as an African, as a
native born Ethiopian, who didn’t know about
your book or your work, so will be diving in. Second comment, I’m incredibly
privileged to actually experience this day today
with my dad, who happens to be visiting and in town. And I’ve got a quick
question for you with regard to the
appropriateness of handing this book
and being able to have my 10 and my 12-year-old son
and daughter be able to read it, because you have many times
told my story of coming to this country with
a foreign background and an accent that drives people
crazy because you can’t place it anywhere. And it takes the shape of
its surrounding very quickly. I just wanted to kind
of get your feedback on, how would you pass this on
to a young preteen who I really want to expose some of this work
to and bring the awareness to? YAA GYASI: I think
it would be age appropriate for a
middle school child. Maybe not younger than that. But middle school and up, I
think could definitely read it. I mean, I’ve said this before– I feel very much like
this is the book that I wanted to read
when I was that age and did have all of these
questions about identity, and race, and ethnicity. And so I think, yeah, if I
had had a book like this when I was younger, it
might have helped to make some things
easier as I moved through. So I hope that you do share
it with your children. And thank you, for that comment. SEGUN BASH: Awesome. Can we just celebrate
Yaa for a second, please? [APPLAUSE] All right, folks, so part two. For folks that are interested
in the ancestry test, you’re going to have
to exit this way, because we have another
diversity event happening behind us that you should
join once you’re done. But you’re going
to exit this way. And right opposite Slice
Cafe, the wonderful volunteers are already there waiting
for you to get started in that portion of the event. For people interested
in the book– and people are booking it– for people interested
in the book, the book vendor is going
to be outside as well. Thank you, again,
everyone, for joining us. Appreciate it. [APPLAUSE]

4 Replies to “Yaa Gyasi: “Homegoing: A Novel” | Talks at Google

  1. A white guy from France doesn't feel any special kinship with a white guy from the Ukraine. Why are Africans expected to feel kinship if one is from Kenya and the other is from Algeria? I imagine if I was an African I would find the endless lamentations of black Americans a real drain on my enthusiasm for them.

  2. I know that this has nothing about the video but are you going to finish the app ivy? (the app that can calculate really big numbers) because it says that it's a work in progress.

  3. Nice conversation. Truthfully speaking, us Africans here in America are just like any other group that is marginalized – we try to set ourselves apart from other groups on the periphery. Survival of the fittest comes to mind. We look like African-Americans, who have a tortured history in this country, so we separate ourselves and our aspirations. In addition, though, our motivations ARE often different. Most of us who have grown up in Africa have not had to contend with institutionalized racism to the same extent, so we don't have the same fire in the belly, which can cause conflict with African-Americans who sometimes feel we don't empathize with their struggle. Problem is – racists don't care about your origins. We are all just black to them.

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