Yaa Gyasi has become used to talking about her book on Zoom. The Ghanian-American novelist released Transcendent Kingdom in the US in September, and we’re speaking some six months later. Still, she says, “it feels really good, a lot of my anxieties have gone away this time around.”
In 2016, Gyasi’s debut Homegoing was released to the kind of fanfare many authors can only dream about: it was acclaimed by Orpah Winfrey and became Editor’s Choice in The New York Times Book Review. A novel that demonstrated the generational trauma of slavery through a sprawling family tree that spanned centuries and continents, Homegoing was wildly ambitious and deeply, poignantly gripping. It was also, she says, nerve-wracking to bring out.
If readers were dazzled by Homegoing’s scope, what may be surprising about Transcendent Kingdom is what an infinitely quieter story it is. Gyasi deals with similar themes of grief, inheritance, trauma, race and identity but through just the one shrinking family, placed between modern-day California and Alabama of the Noughties. Crucially, she has shifted from an omniscient third-person narration to a voice so cleverly drawn that Transcendent Kingdom often reads like a memoir. In Gifty, the neuroscientist who guides us through her tussle over whether to trust in the Pentecostal Christianity she was raised with or the science she is pursuing, Gyasi creates an intimacy that is beautifully beguiling.
Gifty is working for a PhD at Stanford when her mother, a figure who lightly terrorised her childhood to the extent we know her only as “Black Mamba”, comes to stay. She is in a depression so deep that she barely leaves her bed, barely speaks to her daughter. Their relationship is one of the uneasy, inextricable complications at the heart of Transcendent Kingdom: Gifty’s father returned to Ghana when she was barely out of infancy, driven away by America’s racism. Her brother, a basketball star, died of an opioid addiction in his teens. “For a long time, most of my life, in fact, it had been just me and her,” Gifty tells us of her mother, “but this pairing was unnatural. She knew it and I knew it, and we both tried to ignore what we knew to be true – there used to be four of us, then three, two. When my mother goes, whether by choice or not, there will only be one.”
“Gifty’s story is one of layered isolation,” Gyasi explains. “She’s experienced so much loss in her life. But even beyond that, there's the deep isolation of being an immigrant [Gifty was born shortly after her mother moved to Alabama] and ending up in this predominantly white community, and this predominantly white church, and I think you are meant to wonder what her life might have been like if those absences had been filled.”
Gyasi started to think about Transcendent Kingdom in late 2016, and wrote it a few months later. Much of it, she says, was written in Berlin on a residency at the American Academy. “It was right on the lake, and you went down from this beautiful estate into these very modern, glass offices. It was pretty idyllic for writing, and not re-creatable in any way for my daily life,” she laughs.
I find the image at odds with the world she has created: one of the stark precision of the labs, where Gifty tests the impact of Ensure, a diet shake, on the brain chemistry of mice to better understand drug dependency and depression in humans. A loner, we see her push away friends and colleagues who try to help her; watch her become attached to a “hopelessly addicted” mouse who limps from the shocks he receives from the test lever.
Through flashbacks and Gifty’s childhood journal entries, Gyasi presents the “quiet racism” of Huntsville, Alabama – where she also grew up after being born in Ghana – alongside the occasional glimpse back to Ghana and the people with whom her mother speaks a “girlish and gossipy” Fante to on the phone.
Gyasi has made no secret of the autobiographical similarities her character shares: they both studied at Stanford, they both grew up in the Church. “It was a really big part of my life,” she says. “I was very devout and left under different circumstances but also around the same age as Gifty. It’s shaped me in ways I can’t fully see.” Religion is one of the few tethers that remains between Gifty and her mother, even though it is at odds with the narrator’s commitment to science.
It was interest in a friend’s scientific paper that provided the spark for Transcendent Kingdom in the first place. “I asked if I could go shadow her in her lab, mostly to just understand what she did a little better,” says Gyasi. “That day, walking through her lab with her, I started to see these connections that could be made between the work she does and the things I was already thinking about.”
Those connections were multi-layered. Gyasi also brings in the opioid crisis that dominated US headlines in 2017 and 2018. Unlike the heroin and crack epidemics that have disproportionately affected Black Americans in recent decades, "this was a crisis that was largely affecting white people in rural and suburban areas. I wanted to trouble that narrative a little bit and centre a Black family in that crisis,” she says.
We talk about the books that informed Transcendent Kingdom, and Gyasi’s work more broadly. She jokes that “the most ambitious reading years of my life were in middle school”, when she became “really, really obsessed with David Copperfield and George Eliot – Middlemarch was huge for me”.
Having been born in Ghana, Gyasi’s family moved around America a lot during her childhood and she came to associate registering with the local library as a marker of her new home. She has said that Toni Morrison’s adage, “if there’s a book you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it,” remains a major motivation in her life.
“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,” Gyasi told The Paris Review last year.
While thinking about Transcendent Kingdom, Gyasi read a lot of medical memoirs and science non-fiction, as well as My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout: “I think it has a really well-done mother-daughter relationship that has some challenges to it.”
But it was John Ames, the Congregationalist pastor created by Marilynne Robinson in her Pulitzer Prize-winning Gilead, who Gyasi looked to when working on Gifty; a character whose actions and thoughts are often at odds with one another.
"I found the [narrative voice] really hard to get right with Gifty,” says Gyasi. "While I think she is a likeable character, I don’t think she’s a particularly reliable narrator. But her unreliability stems from the fact there are so many areas that she’s put electrical fences around in her own life. She is not willing to be vulnerable about certain occasions of her childhood and certainly not with anyone who’s trying to draw that vulnerability out of her intentionally.”
Once readers have overcome the sheer difference between Homegoing and Transcendent Kingdom – the pacing, the language, the emotional heft of Gyasi’s writing leaves her fingerprints all over both, but they are two deeply distinct novels – they may well realise that this is another remarkable book about contemporary America and the lives that make it.
Transcendent Kingdom and Unsettled Ground among the six books shortlisted for one of literature's most prestigious awards.
Avni Doshi, Dawn French, Ali Smith, Yaa Gyasi, Claire Fuller and Kathleen MacMahon share their reactions to being nominated for one of literature's most prestigious awards.