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Newsmaker: Yaa Gyasi

When it was published in 2016, Yaa Gyasi’s first novel Homegoing was lauded for its broad historical, geographical, and generational sweep, tracing a sprawling family tree back to two half-sisters in 18th-century Ghana. Transcendent Kingdom (Knopf, September) also explores the Ghanaian-American immigrant experience, this time through the eyes of a neuroscientist named Gifty, who turns to a discipline called optogenetics to make sense of family tragedies and an upbringing immersed in the racism and evangelism of the American South.

One of the central themes of Transcendent Kingdom is the tension between science and faith. How did you approach the science aspect?

It was really fun for me to do something so outside of my comfort zone. Talking to scientists, many of them conceptualized their work as a series of questions, as trying to get closer to something that’s ineffable. That mapped onto the ways that I think about other things I’m interested in, such as religion. Even the act of fiction writing is similar to that idea—of trying to get closer to something through questioning. Once I was able to see those connections, the science opened up in a way that surprised me. It was one of the most interesting research experiences I’ve had.

What was your research process like for this book?

Like so many other people, I had been closely following the news around the opioid crisis. Opioid use has been a problem in this country for a very long time, but the narrative around it seems to have been slowly but surely changing to look at drug use as a health care crisis rather than just a criminal issue.

The science in the book is based on the research of my close friend who’s a neuroscientist, so I started with her. Whenever I would talk to her about her work, before I started writing this book, she would colloquially explain her research as being about reward-seeking behavior, and she then would say she studies addiction and depression. That was her way of giving me the layman’s version of what this research entails: looking at diseases wherein someone is doing a lot of reward-seeking even at great cost—the addiction side of it—versus not doing very much reward-seeking even when there would be great benefit, and that was the depression side of it.

From there I started looking into this very particular facet of neuroscience called optogenetics, researching that, and that was how I chose to frame the story. The story was built around that question of how to write a novel that looked at addiction and depression, and the characters were born out of that. It differed from Homegoing in that I was looking at one very narrow thing, versus Homegoing where there were many, many things to research over a long period. This [book] allowed me to look at one thing and build out from there.

What role did libraries play in your research process? Do you have a favorite library?

I wrote a lot of this book on a fellowship at the American Academy in Berlin, and the librarian there was open to getting us anything we needed through the German library system. I definitely took advantage of that for this book. A favorite library for me, in particular, is the Bailey Cove branch of the Huntsville–Madison County (Ala.) Public Library, where I spent probably at least 60% of my childhood.

How did you wind up setting the novel in Alabama?

I was born in Ghana and lived there until I was two. We came to America as my dad was getting his PhD, and then we moved around a lot as he searched for a tenure-track position. My family moved to Alabama when I was nine and has been there ever since.

I’m always interested in writing about place; it’s one of the things I’m really fascinated by, in part because I moved around so much growing up and recognized at a pretty young age that place accounted for a great deal of one’s political ideologies, one’s cultural interests. To me, it’s always one of the things I think about most, how place informs character and how place informs beliefs. For this book, which has such a specific look at the evangelical community, I don’t think I could have set it anywhere else than in the South.

What role do you see fiction playing in the national discourse happening now around racism and policing?

I’ve certainly been seeing a lot of people picking up nonfiction books on race, these kinds of what the writer Lauren Michele Jackson has called the “race readers.” I think it’s clearer what role those kinds of books have to play in this, especially for white readers who perhaps haven’t been accustomed to thinking about race and antiracism. The role of fiction is less clear but just as important. I don’t know if you should or can go into reading a novel thinking “I’m reading this to be antiracist.” That feels like an inorganic and troublesome way to approach reading a book.

I hate when people say things about how fiction “humanizes people” or “teaches empathy.” You should already see Black people and characters as humans. At the same time, one of the unique things fiction provides us is the opportunity to step into the consciousness of other people, albeit invented people. That’s valuable right now. The more fiction that we read, the more opportunities we have to think about people fully, differently, to recognize beauty, the better off we always will be.

What have you been reading during quarantine? What’s next?

I’ve been reading a lot during quarantine, not so much the past couple weeks. Some standouts from the last few months, I really loved All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews, Heads of the Colored People by Nafissa Thompson-Spires, and Lot by Bryan Washington. I reread Go Tell It on the Mountain, which is one of my favorite books by James Baldwin. Up next, I have Night at the Fiestas by Kirstin Valdez Quade.

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