‘Homegoing’ Author Returns with a Novel of Science and Faith

Posted by Cybil on September 1, 2020
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It’s rare that a debut novel gets the kind of love and attention that Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing, which spanned centuries and continents, received. With raves from the likes of Zadie Smith and Ta-Nehisi Coates, the book catapulted Gyasi into instant literary stardom.

Her much-anticipated second novel, Transcendent Kingdom, is more modest in its historical and geographic reach, but just as ambitious and expansive with its themes of family, religion, shame, love, and trauma.
Like Gyasi herself, Transcendent Kingdom’s main character, Gifty, is a Ghanaian American raised in Huntsville, Alabama. The novel hops back and forth between Gifty’s young life as a deeply religious child obsessed with being “good,” and her adult life as a brilliant neuroscientist working in a Stanford lab.
As the book expands, so too does our understanding of how the loss and trauma of Gifty’s childhood has informed her adult life. At the center of both is her mother, an immigrant and single parent with a profound Pentecostal devotion. Her struggles with debilitating depression demand that Gifty, in childhood and adulthood, become the caretaker of her mother, a job she feels wholly unequipped to succeed at.
The story is simultaneously a deeply intimate portrait of a young woman struggling to define herself outside of the framework she’s been given, and a profound exploration of the opioid epidemic, the frictions between religion and science, and our attitudes about addiction, race, and mental illness.
Gyasi spoke to Goodreads contributor Samantha Schoech from her home in Brooklyn, where she is “reading a lot more” during shelter-in-place. Their conversation has been edited.

Goodreads: In this book you explore the ways in which religion and science are related and the ways in which they are incompatible. Was exploring these themes your intention when starting the novel?

Yaa Gyasi: Yes, I always knew that I wanted to write about science and religion and the tensions that may or may not be inherent there. I am lucky enough to have a friend who does research in the field of neuroscience and optogenetics. She was a great resource. I knew I wanted to juxtapose that kind of science with the background of my character, which was evangelical or Pentecostal.

GR: Do you have a background in science?

YG: The science was not familiar at all but thankfully I have a primary source who helped me answer what were, to her, a lot of very basic questions. She was extremely patient.

GR: What other kinds of research did you have to do?

YG: Unlike in Homegoing, where I had to know a little about so many things, especially historical things, and where I was perhaps a little sloppier than I would be now, the research for this book was really just the neuroscience. I grew up in a Pentecostal church, so that world was one I knew well.
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GR: Do you enjoy research in general?

YG: I do. I really enjoy it. In some ways it can be so fun because it takes you away from the writing.

GR: Were there books you read while writing this book, either for research or just for inspiration?

YG: I read a lot of what I call “science-y” creative nonfiction. On Immunity by Eula Biss. I read the The Emperor of All Maladies by Siddhartha Mukherjee and Being Mortal by Atul Gawande, which is great in thinking about the needs of elderly people. I think those are the books that are somehow in the soil of this novel.

GR: What was the seed for Transcendent Kingdom? Did you have a character or a scene in mind? Did you know the whole plot?

YG: My inspiration was really my friend’s research. But Gifty came from a character in a short story I wrote a long time ago (“Inscape,” originally published in Guernica) about a woman who was a Gerard Manley Hopkins scholar and deeply intellectual and focused on her career and academic life at a time when she was also having to mother her own mother. l really liked that story.
When I started this novel, I wanted to write about what the life events of her childhood left on her character as an adult—mostly about the effects of trauma and how it played into her reticence and ambition.

GR: And what brought you to the opioid crisis?

YG: The opioid epidemic is fascinating to me for a number of reasons. Like everyone else, I’ve been reading about it, and it struck me that the way it was being talked about and written about was so much more sensitive and nuanced than the way previous drug epidemics had been talked about—I’m thinking of crack and the previous heroin epidemic—and how that was because this one was effecting primarily white people. I wanted to subvert that narrative of who gets to have their addiction humanized and who doesn’t. And, of course, my friend’s research on addiction and reward-seeking behavior felt almost like a writing prompt.

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GR: Writing about addiction dovetails with the familial and religious shame that are pervasive in this novel.

YG: Again, I think I wanted to address Gifty’s childhood trauma and how she addresses or doesn’t address it. She contradicts herself when she talks about why she studies the neuroscience of addiction. She’ll say it has nothing to do with her brother, but she also talks about the shame she feels that comes directly out of the misunderstanding and deliberate vilifying of people who struggle with addiction disorders.

And, of course, she comes from a religion that has a very specific idea about how to be good and pious, which can be a real source of shame.

GR: Like you, Gifty is the child of immigrants from Ghana. Can you talk about her experience, and maybe your own, of being an American but still feeling very much a part of another culture and country?

YG: Gifty is unique. Unlike the rest of her family, she wasn’t born in Ghana. And she’s growing up in a state where there aren’t that many Ghanaians or West Africans. As she says at one point, she’s as “Ghanaian as apple pie.” Hers is a kind of isolation within an isolation. It’s very different from my experience.

I didn’t feel that isolation. I was born in Ghana and my family was very committed to staying connected to the culture. I was always surrounded by that community. I always felt those roots.

GR: Speaking of Ghana, what contemporary Ghanaian or Ghanaian American authors should we be reading?

YG: There’s a recent release I just read by Ghanaian American writer Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah called Friday Black. It’s so funny and dark. I told a friend it’s like watching Black Mirror, but without the pit in your stomach.

GR: What about the books you return to again and again?

YG: I’ve read Go Tell It on the Mountain by James Baldwin so many times it’s almost part of my DNA. It was the first book I read that talked about Pentecostal and evangelical people with respect and care and didn’t just dismiss or ridicule them.

I also reread Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward a lot. It was an early favorite. I recently reread My Name Is Lucy Barton, which is so great about mothers and daughters. And, my all-time touchstone is Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison.

GR: Is there a book, aside from the ones you’ve mentioned as favorites, that you wish you could put into everyone’s hands?

YG: Lost in the City by Edward P. Jones. I recommend this one especially if someone wants to be a writer. I go to it when I want to imagine what’s possible in fiction. He uses time in such interesting ways and his stories have all the fullness and richness of novels.

GR: How has quarantine, or shelter-in-place, affected you?

YG: I was kind of well-positioned for it because I already worked from home and spent a lot of time alone. Nothing has changed in that regard except I can’t go write in cafés, which is something I like to do.

GR: And, not to put any pressure on you, because I know this novel is just now coming out, but are you working on anything new?

YG: [Laughs.] I’m not actively working on anything specific right now.


Yaa Gyasi’s Transcendent Kingdom will be published in the U.S. on September 1. Be sure to add it to your Want to Read shelf!

Comments Showing 1-13 of 13 (13 new)

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message 1: by Louise (new)

Louise A. I am a retired DC English teacher and a big fan of Edward P. Jones' "Lost in the City."
Enjoyed reading this interview very much and am looking forward to the publication of "Trancendent Kingdom".

message 2: by Riffat (new)

Riffat Suhail I'm writing a thesis on Tamas it is a novel on partition of India and Pakistan ,I like the book

message 3: by Brooke (new)

Brooke The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer by Siddhartha Mukherjee Is one of the best non-fiction books I have ever read.

message 4: by Megan (new)

Megan Homegoing was one of my favorite books and I was lucky enough to read it right before visiting Ghana for a work trip. I can't wait to read Transcendent Kingdom!

message 5: by Ileneg (new)

Ileneg Thank you for the interview. I am a white Jewish woman who has listened to iTunes interviews of Yaa and loved Homegoing. I read it several times. Thank you for including me in the interview. Yaa Gyasi is my favorite author.😀

message 6: by Leeann (new)

Leeann Warnaka I just finished Homegoing two weeks ago and it was the first book that I ever wanted to start over right from the beginning again. So happy "Trancendent Kingdom" is out!

message 7: by JoAnne (new)

JoAnne I enjoyed the interview and look forward to reading Trancendent Kingdom. I had chosen Homegoing as the read for my book club since we take turns choosing books that make you think and elicit discussions.

message 8: by Byron (new)

Byron Thompson Great interview. I really appreciated the thoughtful responses. I have already purchased Transcendent Kingdom, and I will be reading it next month!

message 9: by Lucille (new)

Lucille I listened to Homegoing while recovering from eye surgery shortly after its release and loved it. I just picked up my signed (yay!) copy of Transcendent Kingdom yesterday from an independent bookseller. Good timing for this nice interview.

message 10: by Katrina (new)

Katrina I loved Homegoing and will be rereading it with my book club next month (it was my selection!). I am very excited to share it with my friends and hear their feedback. When I heard that Transcendent Kingdom was coming, I was elated! Looking forward to reading it soon! Loved the interview!

message 11: by Roz (new)

Roz Looking forward to reading this! Great interview.

message 12: by Martin (new)

Martin Peel Yes loved Homegoing There is much to intrigue the reader in this interview. It is good to hear about the books that inspired her. I am looking forward to reading Transcedent Kingdom very much.

message 13: by ROCHELLE (new)

ROCHELLE  Stamper Great interview. I loved Home going and can't wait to read Transcendent Kingdom.

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