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Mother Tongue: Yaa Gyasi Introduces Her Novel Homegoing

Posted on 6th October 2017 by Martha Greengrass

Described by Zadie Smith as “a novel I wish I could have read when I was a young woman” our Fiction Book of the Month for October, Homegoing, is a stirring, unforgettable story that spans generations and continents, exploring very different lives shaped by the legacy of slavery. Here, in an exclusive introduction, author Yaa Gyasi discusses how coming to terms with her own heritage helped her to finally find her voice.

The curator took one look at me and said, “We don’t give tours in English.”  I was in Kumasi, Ghana on a research grant I’d received from Stanford.  I had just turned twenty, and while I was incredibly thankful for the grant for allowing me to return to Ghana for the first time in almost ten years in order to research my novel, I felt more than a little lost.  My family kept saying that I was there “to write our history,” but already the words “our history” felt wrong.  It seemed that every single person in Ghana could tell that I had grown up elsewhere.

That day, my uncle had taken me to the Asante King’s palace and the Cultural Centre and was trying to persuade the curator, who was clearly off duty and not inclined to deal with an American, to give me a private tour.  “She understands Twi,” he said. “She just doesn’t speak it.”  

I wasn't speaking much of any language in those days. Shy my whole life, my anxiety that summer—about traveling alone, meeting some of my family members for the first time, fitting in—had made me nearly mute. 

The curator looked at me skeptically before agreeing to give the tour.  I was horribly embarrassed.  As she led me around, she would pause periodically to ask me if I was following along okay.  I said I was, both because I wanted to put her at ease and because I thought that I did understand.  I didn’t.  Not really.  I understood the gist of everything, but as it turns out, many of the words you need to describe things that happened to Asante kings hundreds of years ago are not ones my parents regularly use around the house.  

At one point, we stopped beside a long wooden stick and the curator began to tell a story.  “In the olden days,” she said, “the king used to give a stick to the woman that he found prettiest.  She had to carry it around to show that she was spoken for.”

“Do they still do that?” I said in English.

She looked at me sharply then.  “I said ‘in the olden days.’ Why, you don’t understand what I’m saying?” she answered in Twi.

The funny thing was that, that time, I had understood everything.  I’d even caught the phrase, tete hↄ no, in the olden days, but I’d been desperate to say something, anything, to prove to this woman that I was paying attention, that I wasn’t some prodigal Ghanaian.  It backfired.

“Why do you answer in English when I say something in Twi?” she asked.

In my halting Twi, I gave her my usual spiel. “I understand, but I don’t speak it well.”  

She kept her intense gaze on me, and I felt my whole body flush with shame even before she said what I knew was coming.  “You have to answer back in Twi.  Even if it’s hard.  It’s not good for you to understand but not speak.  How will you learn?”

Her words stung.  I had spent my whole life feeling like a Ghanaian imposter. I had made the solo pilgrimage to Ghana to reconnect with my roots, to trace the line from Ghanaians to African Americans, to learn. For the rest of the trip, I heard that woman’s voice in my ear as I moved about Ghana, trying to pick up the bits and pieces I needed in order to cull together a novel.  I had been writing stories since childhood, but I had never set anything in my birth country before.  I was nervous about whether or not Ghana was truly even mine to write about.  Like my language, Ghana was a place that I understood—through the stories of my family, the food, the music—but couldn’t speak fluently.  And the same fear of feeling like a fraud that kept me silent whenever someone spoke to me in Twi, stilled my pen whenever I tried to write about the people and the place that I came from.  

When I came back to the States, I set my novel aside for three more years while I tried to find my tongue.  I wrote stories about soldiers and artists and sex workers, stories set in France or America or England.  I see now that with these stories I was clearing my throat, over and over, louder and louder, until I finally understood what that curator was saying, until I finally felt ready to try to put language to my country, to answer back, even if it was hard.  

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