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Novelist Yaa Gyasi on following her sensational debut and not being on social media

As her second novel, Transcendent Kingdom, is released, YAA GYASI talks to KATIE BERRINGTON about the things that lift her spirits, needing to know it was possible to write another book following the global success of Homegoing, and how she keeps her personal and public lives separate

“Returning to the same book every day, even as the world around you changes, just doing what the book requires – I find that really steadying,” says novelist Yaa Gyasi

Yaa Gyasi is calling from New York and, after the year that’s been, she is sounding optimistic about how things feel there – in particular, “a general sense of care for one another that has been really moving”. For her part, therapy and reading more than usual have been the ways she has been taking care of herself in this time. And, as an exhilarating focus, she has had the release of her second novel to think about.

The Ghanaian-American author’s first book, Homegoing, came out in 2016 to widespread critical acclaim and multiple awards and accolades. Following such a debut could carry certain pressure and expectation, but Gyasi’s team was nothing but supportive when it came to writing her second novel. “In fact, I think my agent said, ‘If it takes you 10 years, it takes you 10 years,’” she smiles.

“For me, the feeling, less than pressure, was more the sense of whether I could write again,” shares Gyasi of how it felt to sit down and start writing. “People say you spend your whole life writing your first novel – and that felt so true for me. I started thinking about Homegoing when I was 19, started writing it when I was 20, so to have it come out and be finished with, it was kind of like, ‘What do I do with myself if I’m not writing this book?’ I felt like I needed to write something else, just to know it was possible again.”

Transcendent Kingdom delves into the life of Gifty, a neuroscience PhD candidate at the Stanford University School of Medicine (studying reward-seeking behavior in mice), and her family, who left Ghana for Alabama before she was born. Gifty grapples with her family’s pain amid the harsh realities of their immigrant life in the Deep South. We learn that her older brother, Nana, died of a heroin overdose as a teenager after a basketball injury left him dependent on opioids. Her father left the family to return to Ghana. Her mother is suffering from suicidal depression in Gifty’s bed. As she turns to science for answers that might explain their losses, she also wrestles with the evangelicalism and faith of her childhood and its promise of redemption.

The process of writing felt quite different this time around, says Gyasi. Where Homegoing was far-reaching, Transcendent Kingdom is deep-diving. The former, spanning three centuries of generations, more than a dozen main characters and different continents, required an intense period of research – “to learn as much as I could about a wide swathe of things”. The latter, Transcendent Kingdom, is set in the present and on a more intimate timescale – so, instead, needed an in-depth exploration of specific characters and themes.

“I love the immersion,” says Gyasi, who shadowed a friend working in a lab as part of the research process. “There’s something pleasurable about learning something new again – and to go down these rabbit holes of information and emerge with a new path for where your book could go. I love that process.”

It wasn’t easy, though, to leave the third-person narrative of Homegoing (“which really afforded me the opportunity to know and say as much as I wanted about the world with these characters”) to deliver Transcendent Kingdom in the first person, via Gifty, “a character who is so avoidant and reticent in many ways that I found getting into that voice and getting into her head was a challenge.

“It required ways to see around what Gifty herself was willing to say or know about her own circumstances.” Gyasi reread a lot of first-person narrations; Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day proved particularly helpful – “the main character is unreliable, but he’s unreliable because he doesn’t know himself. I love that dynamic of what you’re given versus what the protagonist herself knows,” says Gyasi.

It’s been incredibly helpful not to have a social-media presence. Any thought I have that I could just put out in the world in 20 seconds, without the careful consideration that long-form pieces offer me, is a thought I’m not sure I’d be able to stand behind, even 20 minutes later

The tension between science and religion is central to Gifty’s life and the book, with Gyasi drawing on her own Pentecostal upbringing in Alabama for the portrait of evangelicalism in the American South. Mental illness is another focal point of exploration; it was important to Gyasi to take care “not to give in to the stigma and the judgements around these illnesses, and particularly for these communities that I’m writing about – Black communities, evangelical communities, Ghanaian communities – where it’s not as commonly or as openly discussed as it is elsewhere. I wanted there to still be space for the grace and tenderness around these discussions to take place.”

Last year, amid the reckoning of racism, white privilege and supremacy that happened in the wake of George Floyd’s death, books by Black authors – Gyasi included – were given new attention and climbed bestseller lists. It was a long-overdue and difficult moment. “If the occasion for the renewed interest and success of your book is quite literally because of the deaths of your people, I don’t think it can be anything other than a sorrowful feeling,” Gyasi says. “It’s a strange time and a strange way to make a career. As a Black writer, you’re always having to make these concessions – that white writers don’t have to make – but this one, in particular, is upsetting.”

As often happens with the most captivating storytellers, audience interest extends beyond the characters and into the authors themselves. Gyasi has found ways to manage the unexpected attention that her work has brought – choosing not to be on social media and, as far as possible, keeping the personal and public separate.

“When I first started dreaming about being a writer, I certainly wasn’t imagining these other aspects of the career – being a public figure, having people care quite deeply what I had to say. That kind of attention can distort your perception of what’s real,” she considers. “For me, it’s been incredibly helpful not to have a social-media presence. Any thought I have that I could just put out in the world in 20 seconds, without the careful consideration that long-form pieces offer me, is a thought I’m not sure I’d be able to stand behind, even 20 minutes later. I’ve just found being offline is helpful for keeping my thinking intact – but it’s also protective for other reasons, too. The kind of slippage that can happen between the personal and the public in these careers can feel worrying for me. I would rather be able to keep what’s close, close.”

Gyasi’s two novels have both been released into periods of social upheaval and political change, bookending Donald Trump’s presidency. While her work offers searing portraits of contemporary society and culture, she doesn’t think too much about the climate it will be released into while she is writing.

“For me, one of the pleasures of writing long-form fiction is that it takes you so long that anything true about the world when you start the book will likely not be true by the time you finish it,” she reflects. “The things that were in the news in 2009, when I first went to Ghana to research Homegoing, were not at all what was in the news in 2017, when it came out.

“Returning to the same book every day, even as the world around you changes, just doing what the book requires – I find that really steadying,” she continues. “There is something freeing about understanding that you can’t control the conditions into which your book will be released. You can only control what you’re putting on the page.”

Transcendent Kingdom goes on sale from March 4 in the UK and is available in the US now

Gyasi explores themes of science, religion and mental health in her new book, Transcendent Kingdom

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