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Interview with Yaa Gyasi

In my first year of college I auditioned for our school’s spoken word poetry collective. There was this tradition that when new people were accepted in the group, they’d ‘roll’ them out of bed by banging on their door in the middle of the night for an induction ceremony. It was both ridiculous and magical. There I stood – all but 18 years old – in front of some of the coolest people I’d ever met in my life. Yaa Gyasi was one of them. 

 

On Sundays we’d have our weekly meetings. They’d begin with each one of us doing a ‘check-in’. For better or worse, there were no rules or time constraints. At first I was taciturn, sheepish even. I was spending my time studying my new friends: how they spoke, how they wrote, how they lived. Then, we’d share drafts of our poems. I’d sit there full of wonder every time Yaa read. When she spoke it was if time itself was in her audience, waiting to figure out its next move based on what she said. Yaa told stories: about family, and home, and pain, and beauty. Over the years I’ve watched her continue to tell these stories through her novels. When I read her work now I still see her sitting there, in our circle, sharing poetry. The method has shifted, but the meaning remains steadfast.

 

HOMEGOING (2016), Gyasi’s first novel, is an epic that bends time. It spans over 150 years, and moves us through the intimate lives of the descendants of two Ghanaian half-sisters. In each chapter we meet a new character. This is Gyasi’s handling of history with a sharp hand, showing us how it’s a continuous drift, how the past is carried forward in every present. She spins through decades of warfare in Ghana and the casualties of British Empire, to the plantations of the South and the coal mines of Alabama. All the way up to moment that resembles the present. 

 

Her second novel, TRANSCENDENT KINGDOM, came out in 2020, as the world was forced to reckon with the brutal police murder of George Floyd, and protests were stirring across the US, and beyond. In it, we are introduced to the tender but difficult relationship between Grifty, a young neuroscientist studying the neural circuits of additive tendencies through mice, and her mother. It is a novel about generational trauma, told through the close study of one family. Grifty grapples with her own family’s history of addiction: a brother who overdosed, her depressed parent who rarely leaves her bed. 

 

In this conversation Yaa and I talk about the role of literature in an unjust world, how time does (and does not) unfurl, and what it means to create fiction when so many restrict you to your own embodiment. 

 

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

— I first got to know you as a poet when we were in college together. You used to say ‘I’m actually a novelist’, and that was interesting because you are also a phenomenal poet. Did performing poetry make you think about the way your prose sounds?

A

YAA GYASI

— When I was auditioning for our poetry collective, I think I auditioned with a short story that I had whittled down into something that could feel like a poem. Many of the poems that I was writing at the time were little narrative poems. I was using the tools of fiction to create something that could be performed. And I do think about how my prose sounds. I’m aware of the fact that at some point, I’m going to have to read my writing out at an event. Not every part of the book has to have that kind of feel to it, but there are sections where I’m aware of sound in a particular way. And that probably comes from my time in our poetry collective.

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

— One of the things I love about poetry is its anarchy of form. If you call it a poem, then it is a poem. I think in HOMEGOING you were ambivalent about form: you experimented with duration and vignette in a way that poetry gives us permission to, and invented your own narrative structure. How do you approach constructing narrative?

A

YAA GYASI

— One of my obsessions is thinking beyond linearity. Thinking beyond the standard ‘rising action – falling action – conclusion’ structure that we’re taught in school for fiction writing. Some of the most interesting fiction that I read doesn’t have that that standard form. When I’m approaching a new book one of the first things I think about is: what shape does this need to take? What kind of vessel will hold the story? For HOMEGOING, the structure came first. I was most adamant about covering a large period of time. I was trying to think of books that span across hundreds of years and there aren’t that many. I wanted time to be a character itself. I also knew that I wanted to have a steady march ahead, never returning to another character, never repeating.

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

— I love that time is its own character. Can you speak more toward that?

A

YAA GYASI

— I started HOMEGOING my sophomore year in college. I got a fellowship which took me to Ghana to do research for the novel. At the time I thought that I was going to write something set in the present that would have a flashback to eighteenth-century Ghana and the beginnings of the transatlantic slave trade. As I worked on it, I realised that I wanted people to see the ways that slavery and colonialism impacted societies over a large period of time. Just having the novel in the present felt like letting the reader off the hook: that this horrible thing happened in the distant past but now, everything is fine. I wanted to show continuity. I felt like unless you could feel the sweep of time as you read the novel, you would miss how things persist. We aren’t past history at all. Everything has bearing on the present. And if you couldn’t feel time in that way – in how interconnected we all are – in the book, then you wouldn’t get that sense.

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

— Your work is an argument for how notions of past/present/future are colonial frameworks. Who gets to say we’ve moved on? Who gets to move through time, and who doesn’t? In an essay for THE GUARDIAN, ‘White People, Black Authors Are Not Your Medicine’, you write, ‘At some point it would be useful to ask how long a reckoning need take. When, if ever, will we have reckoned?’ I see this at work in your second novel TRANSCENDENT KINGDOM, where you are concerned with what it means to heal from grief. Can you speak to your approach to woundedness and trauma, and how you see both of your novels grappling with the non-linearity of healing?

A

YAA GYASI

— I wanted to get away from the idea that something happens and then it ends and then we’re over it. In HOMEGOING one of the characters says something like, ‘You cannot stick a knife in a goat and pull it out and expect there to be no blood.’ There is always the lingering aftereffect of a wound.

 

For TRANSCENDENT KINGDOM I was working with a smaller canvas, with a smaller set of characters. And yet, it felt like the point of the novel was still very much to think about generational trauma. Of course, there’s the acute trauma of what happens within the family that you read about in the book, but then there’s so much more that we don’t know about what the mother’s going through, what she has inherited. You get to see the way that Gifty, the main character, and Nana, her brother, are dealing with their mother’s trauma. It is a trauma that’s invisible to both of them, but also made invisible to the reader. So much of what we carry is not our own.

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

— Perhaps things aren’t just invisible, they’re rendered unseen. What I observe in your work is a reckoning with experiences we don’t have vocabulary for yet. But just because we don’t have the language for something doesn’t mean it’s not real. It’s an invitation to create the language and inaugurate the image. I see you as articulating impossible feelings. What is the role of writing in expressing what hasn’t been expressed before?

A

YAA GYASI

— I hope that’s what the writer is always trying to do, to make language out of things that feel inarticulable. That’s what I want when I’m reading: to get to a paragraph and think, that’s exactly it. I’ve never known how to contain that feeling before. That’s how I feel about loneliness, about pain, about love. Anytime a writer can get to that little snippet that makes you feel a shift within yourself, that’s the best feeling you can get as a reader. And as a writer, you have moments of surprise where you read a scene you wrote and you’re like – this is what I experience loneliness to be. This is new to me, too. You get those moments when you reread something you wrote and ask, how did I know that? It never feels intentional. When I’m writing it’s like I’m hovering, like my conscious self is hovering somewhere away from me, and at the computer.

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

— What is inarticulable is also not rational. The rational brain must be surrendered to access that creativity, you have to reach it from a different place. How do you maintain a relationship with your creative unconscious in a world that asks us to continually be all-knowing?

A

YAA GYASI

— I’ve always wanted to be a writer, I’ve always known that I was going to do this, it’s never felt impossible, even when people would tell me that it was a really hard path to choose. It never felt impossible to me. I think this is because I’ve always needed it, the creative side, to make sense of the world. I don’t know who I would be without it. Sometimes I’m like, I don’t know how other people get through the world. Because without the writing, I would find it unbearable. The writing saves me.

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

— I notice that critics often assume that everything you do must be autobiographical. Authors like you or I are always reduced to our embodiment. Which is frustrating, I think, because so many of us turn to writing as a location where we don’t have to be a body for a while. Maybe all writing is autobiographical to a certain extent, but I notice how that idea sticks to authors of colour in a way that it doesn’t for white male authors. How do you negotiate this gaze on your writing when people ask: is this her life, or a character?

A

YAA GYASI

— Fiction is an opportunity to be outside of myself, and to think about how other people think. I moved around a lot when I was child and I was really shy. I had a hard time in social situations. Creating character felt like an opportunity to get to know people in ways that I couldn’t get to know them in real life. Suddenly, through writing, I have a better understanding of other people’s thoughts and feelings, because I’m creating them. And they have to be separate from me in order for that process to work. They have to be characters that are not me.

 

Even with HOMEGOING a lot of people asked me if it’s autobiographical. This baffled me. I’d have to be a really great researcher to write a story that was based on my real life that covered that much time and that many characters. I understand the question more in relation to TRANSCENDENT KINGDOM because it’s closer to me. But I always think about it like this: even if you’re writing autobiographically, what you get is a funhouse mirror. It’s never actually even you, even if you’re writing memoir. You’re changing ‘you’ as you write, you’re giving order to something that didn’t have that same kind of order in the first place.

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

— Yes there’s this idea that when you take a photograph of something it is that thing. We forget that it’s a representation, one that assumes a whole new life. There’s this way in which your work, and the work of so many Black authors, is read through an anthropological gaze, which seeks evidence to mine for empathy. TRANSCENDENT KINGDOM came out during a global anti-racist uprising in 2020, sparked by the murder of George Floyd, and your books began to enter anti-racist syllabi as teaching tools. 

A

YAA GYASI

— That gaze feels even beyond the anthropological, it feels like we are being made into self-improvement projects for people to read, like that’s going to solve something without people needing to put in any other substantive work. It’s becoming: ‘I’m just going to buy this book. And suddenly I will feel better about my role in the world.’ HOMEGOING saw a re-emergence while the Black Lives Matter protests were going on. I think about how so many of the books by Black writers that get a lot of attention are the ones that are set in a distant past. When the Pulitzer is awarded to Black writers it’s often a book that’s set during slavery, or Jim Crow. Our society doesn’t want to talk about the present and the ways that Black people continue to suffer. I feel that because TRANSCENDENT KINGDOM was set in the present, it didn’t get the same kind of attention. I wouldn’t hear about it as being ‘timely’ in the same way people discussed HOMEGOING. More than half of HOMEGOING is set 150 years ago… it should be embarrassing for people to consider it timely.

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

— That raises the question of the role of literature in an unequal world. If self-improvement, and perhaps even empathy, aren’t the goal, then what is? How does literature fit into a larger political vision?

A

YAA GYASI

— Representation isn’t enough. It’s not enough to see people as representatives, and not actually engage with what they’re trying to say. I guess I’ve been feeling dispirited about the way that my work gets read, as it allows people to pat themselves on the back and feel like they’ve done something. Is literature enough? That’s frankly the question I’ve been asking this past year. I used to be the kind of person who would say this is making us more empathetic. But I’m not sure anymore if that’s what’s happening. Are you reading, or are you reading? 

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

— There’s a conservative narrative that literature – and the arts more broadly – ‘do nothing’ and therefore shouldn’t be funded, unlike the ‘real’ work of tech and engineering. How do we say yes, maybe literature isn’t going to save the world but it is still vital and necessary. It shouldn’t have to be revolutionary to matter.

A

YAA GYASI

— Yeah you can’t write like that, it’s ruinous to the work. If you sit down and ask yourself to make change, then the writing might not actually to do the thing you’re trying to do. When I’m sitting down to write I’m not really thinking about the impact. I’m thinking about myself – how much I need this book. To make it through the day, through my own life.

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

— Oh yes, the spectre that is the audience. How did you negotiate the weight of expectation in publishing your second novel? Did the widespread critical acclaim for HOMEGOING make TRANSCENDENT KINGDOM more difficult to write?

A

YAA GYASI

— It took a long time to figure out how to return to the quiet I needed to write. It was the first time in my life I was so very aware of other people, and the fact that someone was going to pick up a book that I wrote. Writers get asked all the time, who are you writing for? But the truth is – I’m writing for myself. Can that still be true after you’ve sold millions of copies of a book? Probably not. I want my work to be propulsive. I want you to get to the end of the novel, not put it down. But at the same time, I don’t want to lose myself in the work.

 

After HOMEGOING came out I had a difficult time trying to figure out how not to think about the fact that people would be reading my work. I insisted on not having a social media presence, so I didn’t have to think about other people’s reaction to my work. I went on a writing retreat for the first time. I went to a cabin in Wyoming and that was really helpful to me because I was away from other people and got to be alone with the page.

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

— What has it been like for you to have people come up and tell you what the work means to them?

A

YAA GYASI

— It’s been incredibly moving. In response to HOMEGOING I had many Black people tell me that they had done ancestry tests and were planning trips to various African countries. To see that the book had created this, this tangible response, was very moving to me. I love this part of the work.

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

— I wanted to return to our conversation on generational trauma and healing. You end HOMEGOING on a note of reconciliation. What is your relationship to hope?

A

YAA GYASI

HOMEGOING never had a different ending for me. I wanted to show that emotional reconciliation was possible, even though it often still feels impossible to have in the real world. I recognise that the ending is far-fetched: that the odds that particular thing could happen are slim. But what fiction affords us is the space to imagine the ending you would like to see, imagine a world you wish was possible. I needed to see the family tree getting put back together somehow. Even though I know that the trauma will continue, I needed to see that hope.

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

— People often approach healing as the end of pain. But that’s an impossibility for so many. What if healing were about the proliferation of possibility, or the recognition of miracles amidst despair, or even the capacity for things to be transformed? What does healing mean to you?

A

YAA GYASI

— It’s about recognising that something else is possible. The thing that is hurting me isn’t going to stop being painful, but what I can offer myself is the knowledge that something better is possible. It’s an exercise of the imagination: the idea that another world is possible can be a source of comfort and healing. It’s the impoverished imagination that says that we can’t move past this moment and that we’ve already moved past it. Those are the opposite sides of the same bad logic. 

 

I loved Jesmyn Ward’s essay ‘Witness and Respair’, which she wrote during the pandemic after the passing of her husband. She says, ‘Even in the pandemic, even in grief, I found myself commanded to amplify the voices of the dead that sing to me, from their boat to my boat, on the sea of time.’ I had never heard grief phrased like that before. In the midst of this horrible pandemic, all of this loss, and violence, there are little pockets of joy. That generosity of thinking, that bountiful love for people that you feel in her work. That’s amazing to me. I think that’s what we should work towards. That’s the reframe we need. What else is left?

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

— To close on this note of reconciliation, you say you always knew the ending of HOMEGOING, but did you for TRANSCENDENT KINGDOM, too? How did you imagine ending that tumultuous relationship between Gifty and her mother?
A

YAA GYASI

— I didn’t have the same clarity about the ending of TRANSCENDENT KINGDOM. I wasn’t sure where to leave these two people who had a really hard time with each other through the novel. An interviewer said to me that they felt like the two characters didn’t love each other. And that’s not it. They clearly love each other and are doing what they can to take care of each other. But their relationship doesn’t get easier, even as the novel moves from beginning to end. It’s always hard. Ultimately what I wanted was for Gifty to come to a place where the challenge of it didn’t define her or diminish her other experiences. That she didn’t allow the hardship to hamper the rest of her worldview. That she recognises that she’s not going to have a better relationship with her mother, not really, but it’s still not going to be a defining feature her life. You don’t know where the two end up because there’s a jump forward in time at the end. But my sense is that they learn to live with each other and become less obsessed with needing to make everything better.
 

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ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR

YAA GYASI was born in Mampong, Ghana, and raised in Huntsville, Alabama. Her first novel, Homegoing, was a Sunday Times bestseller, won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Best First Novel and was shortlisted for the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Fiction. In 2017 Yaa Gyasi was selected as one of Granta’s Best of Young American Novelists and in 2019 the BBC selected her debut as one of the 100 Novels that Shaped Our World. Her second book, Transcendent Kingdom, was shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction and is a New York Times bestseller.

ALOK VAID-MENON is the author of Beyond the Gender Binary (Penguin Workshop, 2020), Femme in Public (2017) and Your Wound / My Garden (2021). Their poetic challenge to the gender binary is internationally renowned.

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