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.