When I call Yaa Gyasi to talk about her new novel, Transcendent Kingdom, we are both in New York—she in Brooklyn and I in Harlem. Because of the pandemic, even our relative proximity feels like distance. Our conversation often turns to the topic of distance, how it manifests in the novel and how it plays into the journey toward healing.
Transcendent Kingdom could be called a chronicle of an attempt to heal. The narrative follows Gifty, a graduate student at Stanford who is studying reward-seeking behavior in mice. Though Gifty is in denial about her own past trauma, her work is influenced by her family history: her brother’s addiction and eventual overdose, her mother’s depression. That repressed past emerges into the present when Gifty’s mother, in the middle of a depressive episode, moves to California to live with her. With her mother sleeping in her bed, Gifty is forced into a role reversal: caring for the woman who raised her, trying to will her back to health. Gifty is forced to reconcile her new self, the scientist, with the constant reminder of her old self, an Evangelical Ghanaian immigrant raised in Alabama.
I wanted to know how Gyasi came to write a novel that departs so much from her first novel, the critically acclaimed Homegoing, a multigenerational saga that spans centuries. I was surprised to hear her say that sticking to a single character in Transcendent Kingdom felt more freeing. The story feels like an excavation, like pulling from the depths a self. When I heard Gyasi speak years ago at Scripps College, she described Homegoing as “a series of love stories.” And certainly each of those vignettes felt like a tribute, small offerings of a character that left the reader mourning the final page of each chapter. With Transcendent Kingdom, Gyasi proves that she can sustain our love for a character over the course of an entire novel. My heart broke for Gifty, my eyes rolled at Gifty, and my chest tightened each time I felt her finally reaching, tentatively and reticently, for intimacy, community, an acceptance of the past and all the feelings that had gone so long hidden. “Where are you, Gifty?” the reader asks. “Come out, come out, come out.”
This novel is a departure from your last one. In a lot of ways, Homegoing asks questions about American history and mythology. The idea of Americanness. Transcendent Kingdom feels like a personal mythology, a more intimate idea. What is the role of myth, both personal and cultural?
With Homegoing I was thinking about the oracular, larger-than-life nature of storytelling—not necessarily myth, but I was thinking a lot about fables and folklore. I was trying to encompass so much time, and that voice of folklore felt like it could lend itself to holding together such a large swath of story. But for Transcendent Kingdom, I think there’s a more intimate nature to the myth. The family has to start anew and create something of their own in a place where they are othered, not just because of their status as immigrants but also because of the reticent nature of the matriarch, who is often very slow to engage with community. It’s this creation of a family myth that allows them to get through without community.
Homegoing holds together so much story in a series of vignettes, but Transcendent Kingdom is the whole history of Gifty’s life, as told by Gifty. How did that feel different, both in the writing and in the aims of the story?
I wasn’t setting out to write something completely different from Homegoing when I started. But it became clear to me pretty early on that the story was Gifty’s story alone and that I wanted it to be in first person—and I had never written anything of sustained length in first person before. I found it really challenging and stretching in nice ways. It made me have to think about this character, to try to find ways to see around what she was seeing, and I found that really exciting. There’s a kind of intimacy in this book. I really enjoyed the process of staying with a single character and trying to see into all of the nooks and crannies of her consciousness.
Elsewhere, you’ve said that sticking to Gifty’s life, Gifty’s voice, was more freeing. How so?
With Homegoing, I knew that I wanted to write a book that covered many centuries and many different countries and cultures and people, so I took almost a mathematical approach to it. How many years between eighteenth-century Ghana and present-day America? How many generations is that? How many pages do I need to write in order to fulfill that? It was much more constrained than Transcendent Kingdom by design. I wanted Homegoing to move very quickly and so I gave myself a twenty- to thirty-page limit for every chapter. Things like that. Those kinds of restraints I did not have with Transcendent Kingdom. It was just really loose. It could be as long as I wanted, and I didn’t have to move around at all. So there was this freedom to explore and to think about structure in an entirely new way, which was really pleasurable. It was like stretching a muscle that I hadn’t gotten to use the last time.
You talk about how the scientific aspect of Gifty’s experiments in the novel come from a friend of yours at Stanford. What was it like to integrate your friend’s life and work into this character?
She’s a friend from high school, from Alabama, who, at the time that I started writing this, was getting her Ph.D. in neuroscience at Stanford. I didn’t really intend to write a novel about her work at first. Around the time that Homegoing came out, she was publishing a big paper that she was really proud of and I was also very proud of her but I couldn’t get through it. I just could not understand what I was reading, which was kind of a strange experience. And so I asked if I could shadow her in her lab one day and she said yes. That day she did the surgery that I describe in the early pages of Transcendent Kingdom, where she’s injecting the virus into the mouse brain. I just found it so interesting and so different from anything that I spent my day-to-day doing. And also just having this intimate relationship with a friend whom you know in one context, and then you see them in their work life and it’s like, Oh, I actually don’t know you very well at all in this other context. I found that really interesting. And so after thinking about that for several weeks I decided that I wanted to write about the work in some form or fashion. It almost felt like a writing prompt—write a novel about a woman who studies addiction and depression. In that way, the research was really central to figuring out what the narrative was going to look like. And the research was nice in that it was so narrowly focused—I just wanted to know as much as I could about this one topic and I had this great primary source who could answer all my very simple questions and send me things that she thought might be useful or interesting.
There’s a lifelong desire, it seems, not to turn into our parents, but Gifty is forced into an imitative role, through caring for her mother. How were you thinking about that need to distinguish oneself within this context?
Well, I think Gifty’s particular need to distinguish herself comes from witnessing her mother’s depression in the aftermath of her brother’s death. There’s a moment where Gifty says something like, “I wanted to slay any mental weakness from my body.” And what does that mean? What does she see in her mother or her brother that feels mentally weak? I think Gifty’s a character who’s become so hardened against any display of emotion, any display of what she would call weakness. That desire not to become her mother has a lot to do with that.
So much of that underscores conversations about mental health and Blackness—that focus on being strong and slaying mental weakness.
Yeah, absolutely. I was certainly thinking about mental health among the Black community, but also I think specifically Ghanaians, and also specifically religious people and people who grow up dealing with their emotional well-being by taking it to church or giving it to God. How do you reconcile that with more scientific-based or Western methods of dealing with mental health crises? Is there a place for both of those things to coexist, and what might that look like in the lives of these characters?
I think there is an almost tropic way that the immigrant experience has come to be talked about and Gifty identifies with that stereotypical version—she’s a doctor, which she says is an immigrant cliché. Except she never had overbearing parents, and her mother never pushed her into anything. You present a story with more nuance. You broaden the conversation.
Well, I agree with you that so often the immigrant narrative we get is the one that’s the kind of tiger mom–esque thing, where you work really hard and then you become a doctor or a lawyer and your parents push you into these careers. And obviously that’s not true for every person and that doesn’t encompass the fullness of the immigrant experience. It also feeds into really toxic notions about the American dream and Black respectability, to have this idea that if you just work really hard, eventually everything will come true for you. A character that I found really interesting was Gifty’s father, the Chin Chin Man, who represents this alternative narrative where when you come here everything is awful and people are horrible to you and you really miss your family and you miss the food that you’re used to eating and it’s really hard to work this much for such little pay. Why don’t we ever talk about that aspect of things? Or why don’t we talk about that aspect of things as often as we talk about the work hard and succeed side of things? I did want to show a multiplicity of experiences around immigration.
How did your own upbringing in Alabama shape your understanding of the world and what you want to read and see?
Well, I was a voracious reader even at a very young age. I loved books but I wasn’t really encountering a lot of literature that spoke to my particular experiences. I started writing at a young age, too. As I grew older, I think I started to really firmly believe in that Toni Morrison quote, “If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” And I think I’ve taken that to heart. I hope that I’m always writing for the parallel version of myself who’s not a writer but is still searching for moments of recognition, moments of intensity, moments of pleasure and representation and all those things, and that she can find it in my work and feel seen.
Gifty has a hard time connecting with Ghana, but also feels alienated from her home in Alabama. Her character is defined by her constant pulling away. In delving into this character, how did you think about how trauma affects personal relationships?
Well that was kind of everything for Gifty. All her entire adult life I think—even though she’s a character who’s always protesting, she’ll tell you that her research has nothing to do with her childhood and her brother’s death. But it’s really clear if you spend any amount of time with her that of course it does. She’s an incredibly curious character and I think that that’s on full display—her intellect and her curiosity. But any time she’s asked to examine herself or talk about her own emotional and personal life, she refuses. She throws up these walls. She cuts the people out of her life. And all of that I think is a response to the trauma of her childhood. So any adult representation of Gifty that I was trying to write or tease out I think had to come from this place of understanding—the walls that she had put up in her childhood and how carefully she attempts to maintain those walls, even while saying that she doesn’t have them.
Some of Gifty’s guardedness is brought about by the pressure to achieve what you call “blazing brilliance”—the idea that there is always something to prove. Both Gifty and her brother learn to overachieve as a means of surviving the hypervisibility of being Black in Alabama. You so aptly describe the way they come to that realization about the space between the self and the perceived self, that self-imposed pressure.
Gifty says she can’t shake that idea that only blazing brilliance will be enough to prove her competence. But she got that from somewhere—even if it’s not from the home. I think it had a lot to do with the church that she grew up in, one that seemed to prize goodness and perfection, striving toward this ideal that really only Jesus was able to accomplish. But then there’s also the outside world, the white world that she’s living in in Alabama. And it’s never quite enough. I think there’s a way in which the messages always come through, even if you are trying to shield your children from a particular message, they do end up getting it elsewhere or figuring it out for themselves.
So is this messaging inescapable, then?
Until the culture changes, I think that it’s really hard to protect your kids from that Black respectability. And Gifty has so much internalized racism to deal with. I think so much of that has to do with those early childhood moments where she finds herself and her family needing to prove themselves, without the tools to do that.
There’s so much mediation on rebirth in this novel—from a religious and a personal perspective. How feasible is a fresh start? Can we package up our past?
I don’t think it’s feasible in the way that Gifty wants it to be feasible, the way that razes to the ground all the traumas that she experienced in her childhood. I think if there is a way of repackaging yourself or being reborn, it has to include everything that came before you, everything that came up to that point of rebirth. Gifty writes in a journal about wanting to be a new Gifty, the new self that she brings to college—but then she notices that she has brought all of her Giftys with her. I think that that’s to be expected. We do take everything with us, and if we change, if we grow, if we start new pages they’re pages that—while fresh—still don’t begin on page one. They begin on page one hundred, or whatever it is.
One way Gifty tries to heal is through writing, it seems. Only in writing is she able to ask for the things that she wants directly—in her diary at first, and even in later life, as she continues to journal. Why does the act of writing break her barriers? Are there certain things that can only be expressed through writing?
For me I think it’s a resounding yes. I often feel like I don’t know what I think until I write it down—or the things that I say aren’t really necessarily the truth of the matter, not as searching or probing as the things that I write. So I often feel like the self that I construct in writing feels truer to how I think of myself than the self I’m constructing in any other way. But it’s so hard for me to know if that could be true for anyone else, because writing has been such a huge part of my life for the majority of my life. I’m not sure what that feeling is for somebody who doesn’t really read very much and doesn’t enjoy writing, if they feel a kind of clarity of vision when they’re writing that they can’t get anywhere else. I imagine it’s probably not true for plenty of people. Maybe plenty of people feel kind of constricted by the act of writing, like they’re not getting to the truth of themselves.
When you sit down to write, what audience are you writing for? One who is familiar with the experiences you’re describing, to bring them some sort of comfort? Or an audience more distant?
I try as best as I can not to think about audience. But I suppose if I am thinking about audience, I’m thinking just about myself and the kind of book I would want to read, the kind of thing that I want to see. In that way, the audience has to be someone who’s familiar or understands the world in a similar way. I don’t want to spend time explaining things or parsing things out. I want to believe that the reader is meeting me where I am.
Are there any books you look back at now as formative or inspiring to you in that way?
I loved David Copperfield when I was a child and read that over and over again. I love Jane Eyre—I loved a lot of Victorian literature when I was young. And then I read Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon for the first time when I was seventeen, and that felt like a particular shift in my conception of literature. Suddenly I felt like I saw this new path open up, one that included people who look like me, and that felt really exciting and permissive. It was a book that made me feel like it was possible to be a writer. In my college years, I read Edward P. Jones for the first time. I read Lost in the City. There are these really amazing, beautiful, masterful short stories all set in and around D.C., and I think that was another kind of tipping point in my thinking about writing where suddenly I felt like, Oh this is possible, too? I didn’t know.
Recently, part of the attempt to reckon with racism has been anchored in anti-racist reading lists. How have you been thinking about the role fiction can play in portraying the interior life of Black people?
I have a complicated relationship to fiction being used on anti-racist reading lists or talked about as a self-help project, like if I just read more Black writers suddenly I will—I don’t know—what is the end goal of that? I’m not really sure that’s the point of fiction. There was a really great essay by Lauren Michele Jackson in Vulture, titled “What Is an Anti-Racist Reading List For?,” and she’s talking specifically about seeing The Bluest Eye on so many of those lists and finding it baffling. One thing she said that really stuck with me is that in these books, racism is just in the environment—it’s weather, it’s happening, it’s not there necessarily to teach you anything or change you in any way. It’s a fact of life. And that’s why it’s important to read Black fiction writers, because you’re getting to see the environment, and that’s really as much as it can offer you.
Langa Chinyoka is a writer living in New York City. She is an intern at The Paris Review.
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