Ghanaian-American award-winning novelist Yaa Gyasi spoke in front of the UP community on Wednesday, March 10, in the Buckley Center Auditorium as the spring 2022 Schoenfeldt Distinguished Writer.
This year’s ReadUP book, “Transcendent Kingdom” is Gyasi’s 2010 second novel, which explores Ghanaian immigrants struggling through tensions of science and faith, family and kinship, depression and grief.
In a candid and heartwarming lecture, Gyasi explored how her experience of becoming a writer has been influenced by her culture and upbringing while she draws inspiration from Toni Morrison, Frederick Douglass and Gabriel García Márquez.
Gyasi traveled to Ghana for research for her novel, where she came across the Cape Coast Castle. Upon learning about its history – being built by Sweden then being taken over by the Dutch and British – Gyasi drew inspiration from the stories told about the death and crime covered in its walls.
On her Ghana travels for her first novel
“When I started thinking about ‘Homegoing,’ my first novel, I was a sophomore in college, I was desperately seeking mystery and magic. I applied and received a scholarship from Stanford University that would allow me to conduct research for a novel. I admit to you all today that I had no clue of what I got myself into. I was thinking, trying to discover, to create order in 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 will always be one of the most significant research experiences of my life.”
“I knew that day in the castle that I wanted to write about this history. Over the course of the seven years that I worked, my project grew and grew. In part I think because the more I wrote about and studied the past, the more concerned I became with the present. The more I thought about the present, the more I started to see how linked it is to our past.”
On her take of “Transcendent Kingdom” versus “Homegoing”
“My latest novel, Transcendent Kingdom, was far more intimate. It is a novel about the ghosts that haunt us and it goes that we inherit, the ones who haunt our paths. Our families. These novels are as different as two novels can be. [Homegoing] has 14 chapters on 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 a scholar. I liked that story. But after I published it, I moved on. I spent years working on a book that wasn't working. Each time I sat down to write, I found myself feeling no spark, no joy. Around the same time, my childhood friend was finishing up a Ph.D. in neuroscience.
To better understand her work, I asked if I could go shadow her. She very kindly said yes. And that experience of watching her started the wheels turning for me. I wondered if there is a way to pair styles with the situation of the short story written years before.”
On the power of literature
“[Toni Morrison] lives on in the gift of her novels but also just as importantly, she lives on in all of us whose lives she touched.”
“This is again the power of literature. On the reading. It seems like such a small thing, to pass your eyes over letters. They go together to form words and groups are gathered to form sentences that group together to form paragraphs and so on and so on. You finish the book, we shelf it or return to your local library. You sell it or donate it. Or London to a friend, never to see again. And it seems like that's it. An entire life of that. But instead, some small miracle, the book ends but the words live on. Switching vessels from pages to you. The site of your own memories.”
Janea Melido is a reporter for The Beacon. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.