The english copies of her novel had sold out at the bookstand in the Nordic House in Reykjavík before her talk started. The audience applauded when the moderator announced this was the writer’s first time in Iceland. She had fans and eager listeners sitting on the edge of their seat.

Yaa Gyasi was only twenty-six when she published her award winning novel, Homegoing, a tale of two half-sisters with fates both different and intertwined–and the effects events and decisions have for generations.

Cape Coast Castle in Ghana

“I originally wanted to write a novel about a mother and a daughter,” Yaa told the Antje Deistler, the moderator. “I thought it would be interesting to return to my mother’s home town and country and come up with a story. Then I visited the Cape Coast Castle, the beautiful whitewashed castle on the Gold Coast used by British Soldiers for the slave trade. One of the guides there told me that the British soldiers used to marry the local women. I found that so interesting. There could be Ghanaian women down in the dungeon, waiting to be sold off to America. Meanwhile, there were Ghanaian women above married to British men walking in between the cannons along the battlements.”

Yaa didn’t do her own genealogy to write the novel. She doesn’t know her family’s history in that detail. Instead she just wanted to express the juxtaposition of two half-sisters, one above and one below. It’s like the Ghanaian version of Upstairs Downstairs, Downton Abbey with slavery. The heavy subject matter doesn’t take away from the pleasure of reading the book. It’s as the moderator said, “a page turner.”

“There’s a reason the civil rights movement happened a hundred years after slavery was abolished. There’s a reason it still matters today.”


“I wanted it to be enjoyable to read,” said Yaa. “I cover something like two-hundred-and-fifty years. I didn’t want this to be some big two-thousand-page stone of a book that no one would ever read. I wanted it to be something people would read. I also wanted to show why things take time and that history is not discrete. There’s a reason the civil rights movement happened a hundred years after slavery was abolished. There’s a reason it still matters today.”

The Reykjavík International Literary Festival takes place from September 6 – 9, 2017 and you can live stream the events here.