Written by Piper Daleiden, Hope College English and Psychology Major, Student Managing Editor for the English Department
Two chairs sat in the middle of the stage in the Jack Miller concert hall. In between them was a small table, upon which rested a simple lamp and a novel: Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi. This setup, although dwarfed by the concert hall, was the focus of every member of the audience as Gyasi and Dr. Ernest Cole, the chair of the English department, took their seats for the Big Read author conversation.
Homegoing, published in 2016, was Gyasi’s debut novel and is the Big Read Lakeshore 2023 book. It follows the descendants of two half-sisters from Ghana who were torn apart. One sister was married to an Englishman, while the other was imprisoned and shipped into slavery in America. As the novel tracks many generations of these sisters’ descendants, readers are confronted by the serious implications of slavery and generational trauma.
To open the event, Dr. Cole asked Gyasi about the inspiration behind her novel. Gyasi answered that the book’s origins are tied to her personal history. Born in Ghana, Gyasi and her family moved to America when she was very young, and they lived in many different states while she was growing up. This frequent relocation left her with a sense of multiple identities, as well as a feeling of rootlessness. Having only been raised with her immediate family, she questioned what it would mean to be part of a bigger family. Her curiosity regarding displacement and a desire to construct a family with deep roots were some of the driving forces behind Homegoing.
Dr. Cole then brought up the significance of the title, explaining that “homegoing” is often used in the context of funerals for enslaved people. Gyasi confirmed that this meaning was the source of her title and added that “homegoing” specifically refers to the idea that the spirits of enslaved people can return to Africa after their death, regardless of where they spent their lives. “No matter where you go, there’s a place for your spirit to return,” Gyasi articulated. She chose this title because her characters, although they follow different paths in life, share their roots and a place where their souls can return. They remain connected, despite being separated for many generations.
Gyasi also spoke on the theme of generational trauma in Homegoing. When beginning to write the novel, she was interested in the connection between slavery and colonialism. Even though the sisters are not enslaved in the same way, both paths have lingering costs for the family. Gyasi wanted to look at how the descendants might continue to make a life, despite facing the trauma of many past generations. To convey this, Gyasi wanted everything in the novel to build on itself at a fast pace. She focused on this as she revised, cutting sections of her work that did not push the tension forward. As a result, her characters carry “invisible inheritances that even they can’t articulate,” and readers watch as this generational trauma evolves with time.
To end the conversation, Gyasi offered practical advice to students studying creative writing. “You can never read enough,” she urged the audience, sharing that she found encouragement for her own writing from other books. For example, One Hundred Years of Solitude motivated her to write an intricate and expansive novel. Gyasi added: “Try as hard as you can to get to the end of the thing you’re working on.” Writing a complete piece can feel overwhelming, and Gyasi explained that many of her peers struggle to reach the end of their projects. However, the draft just needs to be finished, not perfect. Once you can see what the piece actually is, the real revision can begin.
As the event concluded, I was struck by the power of stories. Where else can you fully immerse yourself in another’s perspective and see the world as they do, even just for a brief amount of time? This is why engaging with stories such as Homegoing is truly a gift. Reading about others’ lived experiences can certainly be challenging and sometimes uncomfortable, but deep engagement with other perspectives can be a step towards empathy. To read is to open your eyes to the world around you, so as Gyasi said, “You can never read enough.”