Yaa Gyasi harnesses her literary power — and wonders why the world wasn't always listening this hard
Yaa Gyasi, 31, is set to unveil her sophomore novel, Transcendent Kingdom, in a world that needs her work more than ever.
Yaa Gyasi is a poster child for literary kismet. The author wrote her (award-winning, best-selling) first novel, Homegoing — an epic generational tale about the systemic effects of slavery — over seven relatively hopeful years of Barack Obama’s administration, only to release it into the vicious 2016 election cycle and a culture that both heightened awareness of the novel and transformed the surrounding conversation into something much more racially charged. Now, her follow-up, Transcendent Kingdom, is arriving at a moment of upheaval caused by the very election that defined her previous book, a boomerang effect that feels fitting. “I found it really disorienting to promote Homegoing,” Gyasi says over the phone from her Brooklyn apartment. “But it prepared me for the idea that you can’t control the elements into which your book will emerge.”
Homegoing was a sprawling narrative, each of the 14 chapters following a different character across generations. Kingdom is more singular in its storytelling — it follows one narrator in the first-person — but is deeply layered: It’s about addiction, religion, neuroscience. The narrator, Gifty, is the daughter of Ghanaians whose immigration to America would lead to the rupture of their marriage. She dedicates her life to a career studying the brain with focused desperation, fueled by her brother’s deadly heroin overdose.
Gyasi started a short story based on a childhood friend who works in the same field as Gifty as a break between drafts of Homegoing. She returned to it years later, weaving in elements from her own past: the Alabama upbringing, the childhood devotion to a predominantly white Pentecostal church. The book is at times wrenching — from Gifty’s memories of watching her brother succumb to his addiction to her ongoing attempts to pull her depressed mother back from the brink — and deeply introspective, as Gifty struggles to reckon her childhood faith with the seeming godlessness of her scientific work.
Despite some biographical similarities, readers should take care not to conflate the author with her protagonist — and certainly not her opinions. Chief among them: a moment when Gifty is asked to join a group for women in STEM and immediately rebukes the label. “That perspective, of feeling limited by your womanhood and your Blackness, is not one I am in line with,” Gyasi says. “It’s something like the source of my power to be a woman and to be Black, and it makes me sad that she couldn’t see it that way.”
Gyasi’s publishing career has been imbued with its own power, the kind of rise that inspires authors coming up behind her. She developed Homegoing during an MFA program at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, sold it for seven figures when she was 25, and won the PEN/Hemingway Award at 27. While a debut of that magnitude can be stifling, Gyasi insists she is more at ease now than ever, feeling empowered within the publishing-industrial complex. “I think a lot of debut authors feel an immense gratitude that they’re being published in the first place,” she says. “And particularly for women and marginalized people, that can silence the voice that allows you to say no to things you don’t want to do. This time, I’m aware of my voice in the process.”
As Kingdom awaits its Sept. 1 release, the New York Times bestseller list has been flooded with Black authors and antiracist reading material. In late June, Homegoing found its way onto the paperback best-seller list for the very first time — a milestone that Gyasi describes as complicated. “You’re wondering, where were [all of ] you when these books came out? Why weren’t you taking the Black people who wrote these books seriously when they first told you what they were experiencing, when they first shared their art with you?” A favorite (ironic) tweet of Gyasi’s likens this phenomenon of literary discovery to cramming for a final exam — one that is urgent, overdue, and entirely in the reader’s hands.