Everything goes into the first book: ambition, expectations, discomfort, and dread. Or at least that’s what it was like for Yaa Gyasi, 26, and Hua Hsu, 38, two authors whose debuts come out this summer. In her novel, Homegoing, Gyasi follows the descendants of two Ghanaian sisters, paralleling the histories of Africans and African-Americans from slavery through to the present day. For his nonfiction study, A Floating Chinaman, Hsu examines early Chinese scholarship in America and the white writers who once dominated it.
From their homes in Berkeley and Brooklyn, Gyasi and Hsu talked about the bumps and breakthroughs of writing a book, and using history to make sense of today’s world. Both American with roots in other places, they also puzzled through misconceptions of foreignness, including their own.
HUA HSU: My book was originally my dissertation for grad school and it took me, like, 10 years to make it more interesting than what I submitted for my degree. One of the people I write about extensively is Pearl Buck, who wrote The Good Earth [a novel set in a Chinese village pre-World War I] in the 1930s. My advisor Luke Menand, who is one of my favorite writers, was like, “Yeah, I’m totally happy to advise you, but I find Buck incredibly boring.” Making him think that she wasn’t boring was sort of the fear that kept me going.
YAA GYASI: [Laughs] I totally get that feeling of terror. I worked on my book for seven years, and for most of those years I wasn’t even sure it was going to see the light of day, which is kind of a comforting, comfortable place to be, especially if you’re writing something difficult. You know, I think I read The Good Earth like a million years ago?
HSU: In high school our teacher made us do this incredibly problematic thing: everyone in the class paired up boy-girl, the girl walked 10 feet behind the boy, and the teacher was like, “That’s what it’s like in China.” Then she handed out The Good Earth. The crazy part is, I don’t think that actually happens in the book. It literally had nothing to do with what we were supposed to be learning.
GYASI: I had a teacher in high school who pretended to be a slave owner and we were all supposed to be abolitionists or slaves trying to convince him that slavery was wrong. It turned out to be an excuse for him to say the n-word in class.
“We have the tendency today to look at our ancestors with this idea that we are somehow smarter or more moral people.”—Yaa Gyasi
HSU: Did you go to Ghana for your book?
GYASI: I was born in Ghana but we left when I was almost 3. We lived in Ohio, Illinois, Tennessee, and Alabama. I went back to Ghana when I was 11, and then again at 20 while I was at Stanford getting my bachelor’s. I got a grant and went with the intention of researching a novel, but when I got there my idea wasn’t panning out. A friend was coming to visit and we decided to go to the Cape Coast Castle on a whim. As soon as I stepped into the castle I knew it was what my book was going to be about.
HSU: I never thought I would care much about the 1930s, which is when a lot of what I write about in the book happens. But some of it is stuff I’m interested in about the present, like who gets to speak for the other, the politics of publishing, and how authority works and is accrued. So even though my book is set in the past, I feel like it’s way more relevant to my interests in the present.
GYASI: Every moment springs from a moment in the past. Part of the point of my book is being able to look at the legacy of slavery both in Ghana and America and what it has left us, so we can know that the moments we are living in the present, and the racial tension we have today, don’t come out of nowhere. It is all rooted in these things that happened not just hundreds of years ago, but also 20 years ago, and 10 years ago.
HSU: Do you write everything in the order of how it ends up on the page?
GYASI: Yeah. I wrote the whole book chronologically. I started with two characters who both live in 18th century Ghana. I’d found a book called The Door of No Return by William Sinclair, and it’s about the Cape Coast Castle and the goings-on of people — the women, soldiers, children. I made a family tree and put that on my wall.
HSU: My book started as a history of white authors and journalists writing about China, and the counterpoint is this oddball Chinese guy named H.T. Tsiang who hated all of them. Doing research on him was one of the best experiences of my life. He had these delusions of grandeur that he could stand against Pearl Buck and these powerful publishers. It was really moving to read his personal papers about how focused he was on telling a different story.
I was doing research in Los Angeles at the Oscars library because he eventually became a Hollywood actor, which is kind of weird. Then I found a researcher who had his FBI files. Apparently he’d been under surveillance for being a communist. It was so powerful because he was a really obscure author and seeing that the FBI had bothered to surveil him gave me this pride. Like, “Hey, man, someone took you seriously after all!” I’m curious — has visual arts or music or anything else helped you understand your own craft?
GYASI: Everything I’ve written has been just a series of conversations with myself. I sang for a long time, and there’s a lot of music in this book. I grew up singing in the church and in school choirs, and there’s a character in here who sings for her church. I read my work aloud, and I think part of the reason is to find the musicality of a sentence. I really like the idea that something can be beautifully spoken in a way that resonates musically.
“To go to a time before [Asian-American] identity even existed and encounter this guy whose imagination far exceeded what I could imagine today, it made me think about the way we fit ourselves into a narrative where the past is on one end and we’re on the other.”—Hua Hsu
HSU: Music has fed my social imagination. I listen to and write a lot about hip-hop, and I’ve always thought one of the engines of creativity in hip-hop was, like, rivalry and beefs. It seemed so unanimous, the acclaim around Pearl Buck and these other people writing about China, so I figured there must be someone who hated her! It was probably a weird way to go about researching, but I felt like I needed to find the defending voice — people who were trying to come up by firing shots at her. It didn’t really work out for Tsiang, but I think that constant rejection and his inability to enter into that literary conversation pushed his art into a radically weird direction. He started writing himself into his novels as a character trying to sell his books to other characters, which is a pretty weird thing for the ’30s, but it speaks to his desperation.
GYASI: I think we have the tendency today to look at our ancestors with this idea that we are somehow smarter or more moral people. If I lived in that time period, I never would have owned slaves, that kind of thing, which is a really romantic way of looking at yourself and an unfair way of looking at people in the past. One of the things I hope Homegoing will do is show the roundness of individuals who were alive back then. They were doing things they thought were good — even if that thing was awful — with the hope that, now, we’d be kinder to each other.
HSU: I feel like I had a similar experience. As the child of immigrants, I was used to thinking that I was — not more enlightened, but more acculturated than my ancestors. The idea of the Asian-American is only, like, 50 or 60 years old. To go to a time before that identity even existed and encounter this guy whose imagination far exceeded what I could imagine today, it was really humbling. It made me think about the way we fit ourselves into a narrative where the past is on one end and we’re on the other.
GYASI: My family didn’t really have friends outside of other West African immigrants, so I had a kind of fully Ghanaian identity at home. At the same time, we were living in a white area and I went to a predominantly white school, and so my sense of myself was really fraught. I think a lot of African immigrants come here and they’re not used to thinking of themselves as black? And then you get to America where you’re constantly told, “Oh, you’re black.” For years I couldn’t really understand myself. Now I’m comfortable saying I am fully Ghanaian, fully American, fully black. My last two characters — one is an African immigrant and the other is African-American — are connected in ways they don’t even understand and probably never will. Part of the reason that I wanted to get to those characters was to understand myself.