Ghanaian-American award-winning novelist Yaa Gyasi spoke to the UP community on Wednesday, March 10 at the Buckley Center Auditorium as Schoenfeldt’s Spring 2022 Writer Emeritus.
This year’s ReadUP book, “Transcendent Kingdom” is Gyasi’s second novel in 2010, which explores Ghanaian immigrants struggling with tensions between science and faith, family and kinship, depression and grief.
In a candid and heartwarming talk, Gyasi explored how her experience of becoming a writer was influenced by her culture and upbringing as she draws inspiration from Toni Morrison, Frederick Douglass, and Gabriel García Márquez.
Gyasi traveled to Ghana to do research for her novel, where she came across Cape Coast Castle. Uncovering its history – constructed by Sweden and later taken up by the Dutch and British – Gyasi was inspired by the stories told of death and crime covered within its walls.
On her travels to Ghana for her first novel
“When I first started thinking about ‘Homegoing’, my first novel, I was in my second year at university, desperate for mystery and magic. I applied and received a scholarship from the “Stanford University that would allow me to conduct research for a novel. I confess to all of you today that I had no idea what I got myself into. I was thinking, trying to find out, to put order in the meeting. From there, a world was flushed out before me.
“I saw the beginnings of what would become Homegoing, it was a seven-year journey from conception to publication, and it remains and always will be one of the most important research experiences of my life.”
“I knew that day at the castle that I wanted to write about this story. Over the seven years that I have worked, my project has grown and grown. I think partly because the more I wrote and studied the past, the more I cared about the present. The more I thought about the present, the more I began to see how tied it was to our past.
On his version of “Transcendent Kingdom” versus “Homegoing”
“My last novel, Transcendent Kingdom, was much more intimate. It’s a novel about the ghosts that haunt us and from which we inherit, those who haunt our paths. Our families. These novels are as different as two novels can be. [Homegoing] has 14 chapters about 14 different POV characters. It changes continents and centuries. By contrast, Transcendent Kingdom is a quieter, smaller book. For the most part a single continent.
The science behind “Transcendent Kingdom”
“Years before I started working on it, I had written a short story when I was in college. I liked this story. But after posting it, I moved on. I spent years working on a book that didn’t work. Every time I sat down to write, I felt no spark, no joy. Around the same time, my childhood friend was completing a doctorate. in neuroscience.
To better understand his work, I asked if I could go watch him. She very kindly said yes. And that experience of watching her turned the wheels for me. I wondered if there was a way to relate the styles to the situation of the short story written years before.
On the power of literature
“[Toni Morrison] lives in the gift of her novels but also, just as importantly, she lives in all of us whose lives she has touched.
“It’s still the power of literature. Reading. It seems so trivial to pass your eyes over letters. They go together to form words and groups are put together to form sentences which come together to form paragraphs and so on. You finish the book, we put it away or return it to your local library. You sell it or give it away. Or London to a friend, never to see him again. And that seems to be it. A lifetime of that. But instead, a small miracle, the book ends but the words endure. Switching pages ships to you. The site of your own memories.
Janea Melido is a reporter for The Beacon. She can be reached at [email protected].