Students and community members were invited to a private reception in the Cummings Art Center this past Wednesday for refreshments and a chance to meet Yaa Gyasi, the author of the award winning debut novel, Homegoing. For those who have not read Homegoing, it follows eight generations beginning with two separated sisters, Effia and Esi, from Ghana to the United States. In relation to the two sister’s descendents traveling from Africa to America, Cummings is currently displaying the exhibit, “Intersections: A Benefit for Exhibition for the Immigration Advocacy and Support Center,” which presents the work of several artists who were all born outside the United States. They have generously put their work on the market and half of the proceeds will go to the Immigration Advocacy and Support Center (IASC). Chris Barnard, an Assistant Professor of Art at Conn, explained that this is not only “a fundraiser for IASC,” but the space is also “a teaching tool” for the students and community. Having an understanding of the importance of the setting for this reception made the evening’s experience that much more powerful. I, along with other Conn students, swarmed Gyasi with praise, questions, and the earnest request that she sign our book. As a group, we slowly traveled over to Palmer Auditorium and found seats, excited for the discussion panel between Gyasi and Professor Etoke, Associate Professor of French and African Studies at Conn.
Side-by-side on stage were the new “Connections” poster for the College and the “One Book One Region” poster which stated: “connecting communities page by page since 2002.” Dean of the College Jefferson Singer opened the panel, followed by Betty Anne Reiter, director of the One Book One Region program, who gave a short speech about the importance of “One Book One Region” and how reading Homegoing, in particular, allowed us to “remember and confront our difficult histories.” After an introduction by College President Katherine Bergeron, Etoke and Gyasi began their discussion. Etoke asked Gyasi several questions regarding her book and inspiration, and had Gyasi read a passage from a chapter, in which a character named Yaw addresses the types of storytelling in history to his students. Etoke asked how silencing and forgetting the past shapes the identity of the characters in the novel, as well as humans in general, to which Gyasi replied, “things we forget allow us to create a new path.” This comment relates to a response she gave when I asked her during the reception why Homegoing is an important read for first year and college students. Gyasi said that “one thing I hope that this book does is help people start to think about where they fit in history and that’s something certainly first-year college students are trying to figure out.” After the panel between Gyasi and Etoke, they opened up the discussion to all members of the audience, which included Conn students, families, and local community members and erupted into conversations involving slavery, the heroin epidemic of the Harlem Renaissance, advice for aspiring writers, and the meaning of character’s names. After this dialogue, everyone left the auditorium, many eager to have Gyasi sign their book.
I was surprised to see how interconnected this reception turned out to be; a book that seemed so central to only first-year students, as we all read the novel for summer reading, reached out beyond the campus to all who enjoyed Gyasi’s literary talent. The themes in Homegoing: identity, racism, storytelling, Africans place in America (to name a few) are present within the Intersections exhibit in Cummings, as well as the Center for the Comparative Study of Race and Ethnicity, which is one of the five interdisciplinary academic centers at Conn. These themes are in the forefront of today’s political climate given the threats to DACA and the racism and white supremacy seen in the tragic events in Charlottesville. As Gyasi pointed out, there are “scars that affect society,” but hopefully through novels, publically open forums like this one at Conn, and educational resources for students and the world at large, can make an impact on our world for the better.