Yaa Gyasi writes about a "literal upstairs and downstairs."
That’s how the author of "Homegoing," a work of historical fiction, put it during an Oct. 12 lecture at Niagara University.
The success of "Homegoing" has already established Gyasi, who is 28, as a powerful and influential author. But as she presented to almost 200 people at Niagara, it was clear she possesses those same qualities as a speaker.
In "Homegoing," which is set in Ghana in the mid-1700s, Gyasi writes about two half-sisters. One is a loving wife to her husband. The other is a slave in Cape Castle.
While the one sister is living upstairs leading a normal life, the other sister is living downstairs in a dungeon within the castle. The story goes back and forth between the two sisters from chapter to chapter, showing how each of their lives are different. It is a heart-breaking yet incredible journey through the past.
Like the one sister in the book, Gyasi didn’t have an easy life growing up. Her parents never had much extra money – none for toys or even cable television.
At Niagara, Gyasi described her childhood years as "playing a game of catch-up" with all of the bills her parents had to pay. Even though both of them worked all the time, they always seemed to have another financial burden looming over them.
Due to the lack of money, Gyasi didn’t really have much to do while she was growing up. She felt bored and lonely much of the time.
But she turned to books, and one place she knew she could go was the library. It was free to borrow any book that she wanted, which always made her feel good. When she opened up a new book, she knew she would be immersed into another world through someone else’s eyes. This helped her, because most of her childhood she felt unnoticed.
"Fiction can work like a kind of magic," Gyasi said. "It can inform your life, and change your life."
Reading when she was younger helped prepare Gyasi for her future as an author. It expanded her vocabulary and also inspired her to start writing.
"For young writers," Gyasi said, "I have one piece of advice: Read."
Gyasi began writing "Homegoing" in 2009. It took her many years of research and many revisions to get the "right fit" for her historical fiction piece. The research wasn’t always easy: One thing would lead to another and then another, which proved to be time consuming.
"I have to limit myself to three to four hours of research a day," Gyasi said.
That research wasn’t always easy, though. Some of her ancestors had to go through the horrors of slavery.
When Gyasi took a tour of Cape Castle as part of her research, she couldn’t help but think of all the poor souls who resided there many years ago. While going through the tour she was deeply saddened yet enraged.
"The dungeons had death and grime still lingering in them," Gyasi said.
Seeing the castle was very hard for Gyasi. She went during her early 20s to Ghana,where it’s located. Overall, she was happy she went. It gave her a good sense of how to depict the castle through her words of being able to experience it firsthand.
"If there ever was a place to believe was haunted, this was it," Gyasi wrote in her book.
Although most of the research was difficult, Gyasi found the writing to be less of a struggle.
"Reading about something is always harder to me," Gyasi said, "than writing it."
Michaela Glynn is a senior at Mount St. Mary Academy.