Yaa Gyasi's "Homegoing" is this year's selection for Seattle Reads, a Seattle Public Library program celebrating its 20th anniversary this year. Gyasi will be in Seattle May 16-17 for several Seattle Reads community events.
What if the city of Seattle became, for a few days in spring, a giant book club? What if all of us, or maybe just a lot of us, read the same book and talked about it, with friends and strangers and maybe even the book’s author? And what if, in the process, we learned things about each other; things that enriched our reading experiences, and maybe our lives?
That’s basically the dream behind Seattle Reads, a Seattle Public Library (SPL) program celebrating its 20th anniversary this year. This year’s selection is “Homegoing,” Yaa Gyasi’s sprawling novel set over three centuries.
Multiple narrators tell the tale, beginning with a pair of half-sisters in 18th-century Ghana; they share a mother, but don’t know of each other. One marries the British governor of the Cape Coast Castle; the other, kidnapped by slave traders, is imprisoned in the very walls of that castle before being sent on a hellish journey to America. In alternating, hypnotic chapters and voices, we hear from subsequent generations of these two women, separate yet connected, each life casting a shadow over that which comes after it.
“Homegoing,” which won the 2017 PEN/ Hemingway Award, and the 2016 National Book Critics Circle John Leonard Award, is Gyasi’s debut novel. She’ll be in Seattle May 16-17 for several Seattle Reads community events, and I’m telling you about it a month early, so you have time to read the book before her visit.
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“Homegoing” is out in paperback, and also available in multiple copies at the library; most branches also have uncataloged copies, which can be borrowed without a library card.
Stesha Brandon, literature and humanities program manager for SPL, said that “Homegoing” was chosen from a list of about 20 books nominated by library staffers and community members. The criteria for selection, she said, is “pretty loose” — they’re looking for a book written by a living author available to visit Seattle, with both strong literary merit and the kind of content that inspires discussion.
Over the two decades of the program, most selections have been novels, but recent years have included a few memoirs (Marjane Satrapi’s “Persepolis” in 2006; Gregory Martin’s “Stories for Boys” in 2013; Richard Blanco’s “For All of Us, One Today: An Inaugural Poet’s Journey” in 2014).
Though the program now is essentially the same as it was in its 1998 beginnings — bringing people together through the shared process of reading a book — Seattle Reads has been re-examined and adjusted over the years, to best serve the library patrons.
“Every year, we look at what’s working and who’s coming, and look at ways we might be able to serve more people,” Brandon said. In recent years, the program has developed new partnerships in order to reach African-American readers — “We realized we weren’t really reaching those patrons.” This year’s decision was informed by input from representatives of the Northwest African American Museum, Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute , African-American Writers’ Alliance and Black Heritage Society of Washington.
After much discussion, “Homegoing” got this year’s nod as a selection that would speak to everyone. “This particular book impressed us because the narrative is pretty sweeping, but I think the themes still resonate with us today – colonization, the impact of slavery on institutional racism and how that impacts our country,” said Brandon. “And the writing is just stunning — it was just really such a beautiful, beautiful book.”
Gyasi, on the phone from her home in New York, spoke with me last week of the seven-year journey of writing “Homegoing.” A native of Ghana who moved to the U.S. with her family at the age of 2, she grew up in Huntsville, Alabama, and attended Stanford University. While an undergraduate, she returned to Ghana on a research fellowship, vaguely intending to write a book about a mother and a daughter. “My plan, “she remembered, “was to go to my own mother’s hometown in Ghana, and see if anything came up for me.”
While there, she visited the Cape Coast Castle, an imposing edifice whose underground dungeon was used for many years in the trans-Atlantic slave trade. “It’s really kind of a beautiful building, if you don’t know what it stood for,” she said. “It looks like a proper castle, very large and white and gleaming and imposing. It’s kind of shocking to think about, that juxtaposition. It occurred to me right then — I knew what I wanted to be writing about.”
Originally, Gyasi thought she might set much of the book in the present day, flashing back to the two sisters in the 18th century. “But the longer I worked on it, the more I realized that I was more interested in being able to look at the passage of time,” she said. “To do that I needed to be able to stop in as many generations as possible. The amount of characters, and the structure, changed as I went along.”
Looking forward to being part of SPL’s program, she spoke of her lifelong love of libraries. Her father, a professor, got her a library card at a very young age. “I cherished it — it felt like getting a little treasure,” Gyasi said. “I went at least once a week, or more, and always left with a huge stack of books.” Outside of her family home, she said, “libraries were the place I felt most at home.”
Gyasi will speak, in conversation with local poet and activist Lola Peters, at 7 p.m. May 16 at the Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute, 104 17th Ave. S., Seattle; and at 1 p.m. May 17 at the Ravenna-Eckstein Community Center, 6535 Ravenna Ave. N.E., Seattle. She’ll appear, in conversation with arts advocate Vivian Phillips, at 7 p.m. May 17 at Seattle Public Library’s Central Library, 1000 Fourth Ave., Seattle. All events are free; for more information: spl.org or 206-386-4636.