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.