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Author Yaa Gyasi Says Writing Can Be 'An Act Of Love And Justice'

Race and belonging are the central themes of Yaa Gyasi's work. Her 2016 debut novel, Homegoing, about slavery, won a National Book critic's circle award, and the National Book Foundation's 5 under 35 honor.
Gyasi's new novel, Transcendent Kingdom, draws on Gyasi's life as the daughter of immigrants from Ghana.


Other segments from the episode on September 9, 2020

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, September 9, 2020: Interview with Yaa Gyasi; Review of memoir 'Our Lady of Perpetual Hunger.'



This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross. Today we're going to listen to an interview Terry recorded with Yaa Gyasi, author of one of the most anticipated novels of the fall season. I'll let Terry introduce it.

TERRY GROSS, BYLINE: Yaa Gyasi's first novel, "Homegoing," published in 2016, was about the legacy of slavery in several generations of the families of two half-sisters born in Ghana in the 1700s. The novel had the reception first writers dream of. It won a National Book Critics Circle Award, a PEN/Hemingway Award and the National Book Foundation's 5 Under 35 honors. Gyasi's new novel, her second, is called "Transcendent Kingdom." The novel draws on Gyasi's life as the daughter of immigrants from Ghana. Gyasi was born in Ghana and came to the U.S. with her parents in 1991, when she was 2.

In the novel, the main character, Gifty, is a scientist studying the neurocircuitry of reward-seeking behavior in mice. Maybe it will help her understand how her brother got addicted to OxyContin, then heroin and died of an overdose. Gifty, like Gyasi, was raised in Alabama, and for reasons we'll get into soon, her family attended a white Pentecostal church gift. Gifty was a believer as a child, stopped going to church after her brother's death but still has a thirst for redemption and the transcendent. Neither religion, nor science are satisfying her need to make things clear, to make meaning. After Gifty's brother died, she says she went quiet, and her mother went insane, spending most of her time in bed. Gifty's mother refuses any form of therapy because she doesn't believe in depression or mental illness.

Throughout Gifty's life, she tries to understand how she is perceived by white people and Black people in America as the daughter of Guinean parents. In The Washington Post's review of "Transcendent Kingdom," Ron Charles describes it as, quote, "a novel of profound scientific and spiritual reflection. Indeed, Gyasi's ability to interrogate medical and religious issues in the context of America's fraught racial environment makes her one of the most enlightening novelists writing today," unquote.

Yaa Gyasi, welcome to FRESH AIR.

YAA GYASI: Thank you so much for having me.

GROSS: And congratulations on the book. It's really wonderful. So this feels like a very personal book, dealing with a lot of pain and confusion. Your first novel had a lot of pain, but that was very historical. And this one feels very personal. Is it?

GYASI: It is in some ways. I was writing about the places that I knew best, particularly Huntsville, Ala., the place that I grew up in. And I was also writing about religion which was a big part of my life and my childhood. Like the character Gifty in this novel, I grew up Pentecostal and left the church, though under very different circumstances than she leaves it. And so it was an opportunity for me to revisit that time in my life.

GROSS: So you mentioned the church. I want you to read a passage from the novel about the family becoming part of the white Pentecostal church in Alabama. And this section happens when Gifty is trying to understand her brother's addiction, her mother's depression and her own guilt and self-hatred. When she was a child, she says she never heard the expression institutional racism - wasn't discussed in school. She didn't grow up with a language for a way to explain her self-loathing. And everything around her seemed to confirm the idea that she was irreparably wrong. But she was a child who liked to be right. So let's get to this reading which follows those thoughts.

GYASI: (Reading) We weren't the only Black people at the first Assemblies of God church. My mother didn't know any better. She thought the god of America must be the same as the god of Ghana, that the Jehovah of the white church could not possibly be different from the one of the Black church. That day, when she saw the marquee outside asking, do you feel lost? That day, when she first walked into the sanctuary, she began to lose her children, who would learn well before she did that not all churches in America are created equal - not in practice and not in politics. And for me, the damage of going to a church where people whispered disparaging words about my kind was itself a spiritual wound, so deep and so hidden that it has taken me years to find and address it. I didn't know what to make of the world that I was in back then. I didn't know how to reconcile it. When my mother and I made prayer requests for Nana, did the congregation really pray? Did they really care? When I heard the gossip of those two women, I saw the veil lift, and the shadow world of my religion came into view. Where was God in all of this? Where was God if he was not in the hushed quiet of a Sunday School room? Where was God if he was not in me? If my Blackness was a kind of indictment, if Nana would never be healed and if my congregation could never truly believe in the possibility of his healing, then where was God?

GROSS: And I should mention that Nana is Gifty's brother, the one who becomes addicted to OxyContin after a basketball injury, and then that leads to a heroin addiction. So how did your family end up joining a white Pentecostal church?

GYASI: I think it was mostly really a matter of convenience because my family lived on the southeast side of Huntsville, which is the predominantly white side. And we had always grown up going to Pentecostal churches. And so they picked one that was nearby. And I don't think there is really much consideration into the fact that religious practices are different across racial lines here in America. I think they were so accustomed to churches and cities, for that matter, that were more mixed that they didn't really think about it, though we ended up at a predominantly white Pentecostal church.

GROSS: Have you often thought about how your life and your mother's life might have been different had it been a predominately Black Pentecostal church?

GYASI: I do think about that a lot. And I think that's part of the reason why I wanted to explore these themes in the book. Just then, when I read the sentence about how churches in America are not created equal in practice or in politics, I think that's something that I had to come to learn on my own when I was a little older. Now, I guess I'm thinking about the fact that sometimes we talk about the religious right, which to me was very much the kind of church that I grew up in - conservative, politically conservative but also kind of micro-aggressively racist. And I think, had I gone to a church where people looked like me, that aspect of things would have fallen away and maybe my belief would have lasted.

GROSS: Was it hard to tell what - whether levering the church had to do with the racism that you faced in the church or whether it was really a falling away of your belief in God?

GYASI: When I was younger, I think that they were both so wrapped up in each other that it was hard for me to disentangle. So I think, at the time - and I stopped going actively when I was 15. And at the time, I think I felt that it had more to do with the politics of the church. But I felt like, if these were the politics of the church and if it was being taught to us as doctrine, then the doctrine itself was flawed. I couldn't reconcile the two.

GROSS: If your parents were politically progressive, how did they manage to stay in a church that was both racist and very conservative right wing?

GYASI: Yeah. I mean, I think that's the million-dollar question, but I think for them having the grounding of a religious practice that began in Ghana made them able to kind of compartmentalize some of the things that they were hearing in church. I think because their faith was so rooted in their home country and in the way that their home country had practiced it, they just kind of took what they needed and left the rest. But it was harder for me to do that because I didn't have that early education that they did.

GROSS: In the novel in one scene, Gifty and her brother are at the youth services at the white Pentecostal church. And her brother asked the question, well, what if there is an African village which no missionary has ever come to, that they're unaware of Christianity and therefore, like, they're not Christians, are they going to hell? And the youth minister says, yep, they're going to hell (laughter) - definitely going to hell. Was there something comparable that your youth pastor said?

GYASI: Unfortunately, yes. There was a similar moment in my childhood where I heard him say that very quickly and, to my mind, kind of thoughtlessly without giving the question any real significant consideration. And it felt particularly callous to me, I think, in great part because I had come from a place I think the youth pastor would have viewed as lesser than, full of people who needed to be saved or sanctified. And it seemed to me even then as a child that the reason that these people were being consigned to hell so flippantly was because they were Black, because they were African. And it didn't sit right with me. And I think Gifty in the book talks about that moment as being one of the kind of pivotal moments that lead to her non-believing. And I think that that was the case for me as well.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is writer Yaa Gyasi. Her first novel, "Homegoing," won a National Book Critics Circle Award. Her new novel, "Transcendent Kingdom," has just been published. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is writer Yaa Gyasi. Her first novel, "Homegoing," won a National Book Critics Circle Award. Her new novel is called "Transcendent Kingdom," and it is one of the most anticipated novels of the fall season.

Your family moved to Alabama when your father got a tenure track position at the University of Alabama in Huntsville. Do I have that right?

GYASI: Yes, that's correct.

GROSS: How old were you when you moved to Alabama? Because you'd lived in Tennessee and I think Ohio before that.

GYASI: Yeah. We had lived in Ohio, Illinois and Tennessee before we got to Alabama. We moved to Alabama when I was 9.

GROSS: So what was it like to be in a state that had such a history of racism and segregation?

GYASI: It was jarring for a lot of reasons. I don't know if the first reason that it was jarring was because of the legacy of racism and segregation. I don't think I was old enough really to really grapple with that when we first moved there. I think at that point, I was mostly just very tired of moving and wanted to stay in one place, even if that place was Alabama. When we got there, it was the first place where we lived in a predominantly white neighborhood. And my parents chose that area because of the schools because they had read and talked to other people about how the schools were better on the south side of Huntsville. So that was a change. And then I think the other major change is that in every other place that we had lived, there was a decent sized West African immigrant community. In Ohio, there were many Ghanaians, and in other places, there were Ghanaians and Nigerians, and my family was able to kind of keep community at the forefront. But when we got to Huntsville, there was, like, one other family in Meridianville that was Ghanaian, and that was it. So that I think was the other major difference. It was a place where I think we were experiencing a kind of isolation within isolation.

GROSS: And how did that isolation register on you?

GYASI: Well, I think I became a little more shy than I would have been otherwise. You know, it's always hard to be the new kid at school, and I had been doing it for so long. There were so many years where I was the new kid at school. But then to be not just the new kid but also one of the only Black kids added this added layer of confusion and complexity. And I think it drew me inward in a way that I hadn't been drawn inward before.

GROSS: I'm thinking about how difficult it must be for parents like your parents to weigh which is better, you know, for their children growing up in a neighborhood that has a lot of Black people in it or going to the neighborhood where the schools are going to be better because education is still so unequal in America. Have you reflected on that often about whether you think your parents made the right choice?

GYASI: Yes. I think about this question a lot. And obviously, there are pros and cons to both options, you know? I was very fortunate to have the education that I had. And when I was there, my high school was one of the best high schools in the country, and you could tell. My graduating class sent students to Harvard and Yale and Stanford and Brown.

And to see all of these young people from Alabama doing this was really encouraging, but to know that just eight miles down the road, there was a all-Black school that was graduating its students at an abysmal rate really showed me the fact that not all schools in this country are equal, not by a long shot. And what you miss out on by not being surrounded by people who look like you is a quality that's harder to qualify, harder to talk about. But there is still a loss there. And, yeah, it's harder to explain what that loss is, but it's one that I carry.

GROSS: I think it was in your op-ed piece a few years ago, Yaa, that you wrote, (reading) at home, we weren't Black; at home, we were Ghanaian. What did that mean in your family?

GYASI: Well, in my family, that meant that we continued to practice the kind of cultural touchstones of being Ghanaian. My family ate Ghanaian food. We attended - in Ohio at least, we attended the African Christian Church, which was half-Ghanaian, half-Nigerian. We did as much as we could to kind of keep the spirit of our home country alive. In fact, every place that we moved to, the first thing that my parents would do would be to grab the phone book, back when there were phone books, and look up Ghanaian last names in order to call the families and tell them that we had arrived. And I think they did that because it was really important to them to maintain community.

GROSS: But they couldn't do that in Alabama?

GYASI: In Alabama, they could to some extent. There was - we had been connected with another Ghanaian family, and as I grew older, there are more and more Ghanaians. But there were far fewer in Alabama than there were in any of the other places that we lived in.

GROSS: So was seeing themselves as Ghanaian and not as Black also a way of trying to remove themselves from racism in America? 'Cause the racism was, you know, directed at Black people, but they were Ghanaian.

GYASI: I don't know if it was a conscious decision on their part. I think that they couldn't really think of themselves in any other way. I think having come from a country where everyone was the same race as them, race just wasn't a factor that they really valued or that they thought about too frequently. And I think, in some ways, it was their children who had to kind of lead the charge in helping them to understand how important race is here in America.

GROSS: And how do you feel about Ghana? Do you feel very connected to it?

GYASI: I feel connected to it, but it's this - it's a connection that doesn't feel as intimate as it would if I had grown up, you know, going there every summer or if I had, like, deep intimate relationships with my family there. It's a connection that comes from the Ghanaian American community that I was surrounded with as a child, but it's not one that feels as deeply entrenched as, obviously, my parents' relationship to Ghana. I think they - what they call me is the 1.5 generation, a person who emigrated so young that there is no kind of deep connection or deep understanding of the place that is their home country.

GROSS: So let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Yaa Gyasi. Her first novel, "Homegoing," published in 2016, was about the legacy of slavery. That won a National Book Critics Circle Award. Her new novel, "Transcendent Kingdom," has just been published. We'll talk more after we take a short break. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. If you're just joining us, my guest is Yaa Gyasi. She's the author of the novel "Homegoing." It was her first novel. It was published in 2016. It was about the legacy of slavery and several generations of the families of two half-sisters born in Ghana in the 1700s. That book won a National Book Critics Circle Award. Her new novel, one of the most anticipated novels of the fall season, is called "Transcendent Kingdom."

I want to quote something that you wrote in an op-ed a few years ago, you know, and this was about having been born in Ghana, having Ghanaian parents and growing up in America. You wrote, (Reading) to claim Ghana over America felt false, but to claim an America that seemed hell-bent on rejecting me felt ludicrous. The only role I knew how to play was to be the good Black, the not-Black-but-not-white-either Black.

Can you expand on that?

GYASI: Yeah. I think what I was trying to get at was this fact that I had always felt as though I was kind of straddling these lines, where I wasn't Ghanaian enough for Ghanaians, and I didn't feel like I could fully claim Ghanaian identity because I had only been back once. And then on the other hand, because I was growing up around white people and not really learning very much about the history of Black people in America, I felt this kind of disconnect from that community as well.

And so the only thing that I knew to do was to just kind of try to play this role as the good Black person, not realizing how incredibly problematic and wrong that assumption was. But I think it was a time in my life where I had a great deal of internalized racism to try to overcome, you know? The messaging around what it meant to be Black wasn't lost on me, and I wanted to distance myself from that, though it took me more years to realize that I couldn't, that there's no amount of goodness, there's no amount of Black respectability politics that will take you out of this context.

GROSS: When you were trying to be a, quote, "good Black person," what did that mean?

GYASI: Well, I think it meant that I was going to do as well in school as I possibly could. That was the way it was really manifesting for me - was I was just going to be academically excellent. I was going to get into a great college and lead a life that was one that felt just as respectable as possible. And so for most of my childhood, I was really academically focused. I wanted desperately to be seen as smart and to be seen as good.

GROSS: Well, I mean - and you did get into a good college, and you have become a fabulous writer. So those things are actually really good.

GYASI: Yeah, it's true. I think, in many ways, I accomplished the goals that I set out to accomplish when I was a child, though along the way, I started to question the reasons that I had those goals and kind of messaging around Black respectability that I had been fed - you know, the idea that you had to be twice as good to get half as far, rather than kind of taking that at face value. I started to understand that there is something worrisome about that message. And so I think even though I have accomplished a lot, I am now better at recognizing that these accomplishments do not save me.

GROSS: Your first novel, "Homegoing," is about the family trees of two sisters, two half-sisters from Ghana who were born in the 1700s. And you went to Ghana on a research scholarship when you were in college, and it was your first time back there since your family left Ghana, when you were 2. Did you feel connected to Ghana? Did it feel like going home to you in any way?

GYASI: Well, I should say my family did go back, all together, when I was 11. So it was my second time back in Ghana. And I think that because I was going that summer when I was a rising junior in college, I was going really for the purposes of researching a novel. I was able to kind of think about the place differently. I was kind of researching and searching. I think that allowed me to have my own connection to the country that stood kind of outside of my family.

GROSS: Did writing "Homegoing" deepen the connection you felt to Ghana, since you did research there and you wrote about it?

GYASI: Yes, absolutely, and that was really one of the aims in writing "Homegoing." I was so desperately searching for a way to think about this place that I was from but didn't know. And, obviously, I was approaching it through fiction, and I was approaching it through research, so it's not as fully embodied as if I, you know, packed up and moved and tried to learn about it that way. But it was an exercise in discovery and an exercise in trying to build a sense of connection to Ghana.

GROSS: One of the things you did in Ghana was visit a slave castle, where people who were captured to be slaves were held and then shipped to, you know, Britain or the U.S. Would you describe the experience of being in that castle? 'Cause it figures prominently into your first novel, "Homegoing."

GYASI: Yes. It was an incredibly formative experience. I went on the tour that they give to anyone who goes to visit the castle. And from the outside, the building is so beautiful, and then as you take the tour, you're seeing just the upper levels with these cannons that face out to the sea, this gorgeous view of the sea. You see the church. And then from there, they take you down to see the dungeons. Standing in the dungeons was one of the most harrowing experiences that I've ever had. Even after all of these years, that space still smells. It still has grime on the walls.

I'm not a particularly superstitious person, but it is the only time in my life where I've felt like I was standing in a haunted place. You could feel the history that still lived in that place. And I knew immediately that I wanted to write about it in some capacity, particularly because the tour guide had just told us that there were free Gold Coast women walking up above. And I thought, how could you stand above this area, this dungeon, either not knowing or not fighting to free the people below? So it was the only time I think in my writing life that I felt anything akin to a stroke of inspiration. I just felt so haunted by that place that I wanted to write about it.

GROSS: Well, let's take another break here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Yaa Gyasi, and her new novel is called "Transcendent Kingdom." Her first novel, "Homegoing," won a National Book Critics Circle Award. We'll be right back after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Yaa Gyasi. Her new novel is called "Transcendent Kingdom." Her first novel was "Homegoing."

"Homegoing," your first novel, required you immersing yourself in the history of slavery and the history of the consequences, the still reverberating consequences, of slavery. And I'm wondering what that experience was like for you because, you know, you had to do a lot of research, but it was a very emotional form of research, including, you know, being in the dungeon of one of the slave-holding castles in Ghana. And, you know, you had to describe the experiences of people who were held in the dungeons, of people who became slaves. And you had to decide how graphic and how much suffering and torment and pain and physical brutality you had to write in these stories. So can you talk a little bit about what it was like to immerse yourself in the pain of this history and to figure out how to describe the actual suffering?

GYASI: Sure. Well, I always say that researching the novel was so much more difficult than writing the novel because at least as I was writing, I had the knowledge that the characters that I was creating weren't real. And yet when I read these research texts, I couldn't hide in that. For me, the fact of the matter is that for every painful thing that happens in "Homegoing," there is an equally painful or far worse thing that happened to a real person. And so I wanted to honor that by writing the book in a way that didn't hide from the painful moments, that didn't try to kind of elide the painful moments but also one that didn't kind of relish in the graphicness of some of these situations. And it was a fine balance to keep. But I think as long as I approached it as an opportunity, again, to kind of resurrect the lives of characters who might have gone through these situations and honor those lives in so doing, the writing felt in some ways as an act of love and justice.

GROSS: So I want to get to another part of the story in "Transcendent Kingdom," your new novel. The main character, Gifty, her mother suffers with really bad depression after Gifty's brother overdoses. And Gifty's mother rarely gets out of bed after that. She's not responsive. She often doesn't want to eat. So there's a lot of reflection in the novel about depression and how people deal with it. And one of the lines that you write at the beginning of the book - and this is when main character Gifty is in Ghana 'cause her mother sends her there while the mother tries to heal from her son's death. And her aunt in Ghana says to Gifty when they're at the market, you know, look over there, there's a crazy man. And Gifty later thinks that crazy man seemed at peace even as he gesticulated wildly, even as he mumbled. But my mother in her bed, she's infinitely still, but she was wild inside. I think that's such an interesting perception and so well-written. You've cited a study of people with schizophrenia in three countries - India, Ghana and the U.S., San Mateo, Calif. Why don't you describe what the study found?

GYASI: Sure. The study by Luhrmann found that schizophrenics in India and Ghana had far better relationships to the voices that they heard. They perceived the voices to be ones of family members or the voice of God and that the things that they heard were often more benevolent messaging than those of schizophrenics in America who were hearing violent voices, felt as though they were being bombarded, described the voices and the things that the voices were saying as harsh. And so there were these cultural differences depending on the place where the studies were occurring.

GROSS: How do you interpret that?

GYASI: Well, I think I interpret it as another way of understanding the fact that mental health and culture is really linked. So there's a point in this novel where Gifty's mother talks about how she doesn't believe in mental illness, and she thinks that it's an invention of the West. And yet she's going through this depression that though she won't name it depression, she's still aware of it. She still says to Gifty that she needs prayer. She's still trying to combat it. And I think that really it's just kind of a cultural difference in understanding her illness. Because she's a person who is so accustomed to giving her problems to God, she thinks this is just another thing to give to God. But she doesn't name it depression.

GROSS: You know, the title of your first novel is "Homegoing." And I know a lot of African Americans use that expression to describe what happens after somebody dies - that it's a homegoing. Does that have its origin in African cultures?

GYASI: No. The term, I think, began in America among the enslaved people who believed that once someone died, his or her spirit could return to the country from which they had been stolen. And so that's where the phrase homegoing came from. So it is an African American term. But I liked it for the title of this book - of "Homegoing" - because there was this kind of idea that no matter how far these characters ended up from those origin points, they could always return home.

GROSS: In your novel, the main character, Gifty, thinks, I would always have something - because of racism, she thinks, I would always have something to prove, and nothing but blazing brilliance would be enough to prove it. I feel like through your novels, like, you've proved your brilliance. And I'm wondering if that's, like, still a motivating factor for you - you know, proving yourself to overcome racism and to disprove the thinking behind racism.

GYASI: No, I don't think that that's a motivation for me because I don't think that racism is something that I need to overcome, that I can overcome. I think of racism as a problem that white people need to overcome, that they need to figure out what to do about it, how to approach their lives in a way that is better.

So for me, I don't think that I'm thinking about combating racism when I write. I think what Gifty is saying there is a kind of reasserting of that idea that you have to be twice as good to get half as far. And I think that that often reveals itself to be a lie. There is no amount of goodness. There is no amount of blazing brilliance that will exempt you from racism. And therefore, it is not on you to act in a way that will try to exempt yourself from racism because racism is not about Black people.

GROSS: I think that's a really interesting answer.

What books have had the biggest influence on you as a reader and as a writer?

GYASI: The first book that comes to mind is "Song Of Solomon" by Toni Morrison, which I read when I was a senior in high school. And it was the first book that I was assigned in school by a Black woman. And it totally just changed my life. It was - it is so beautiful and lyrical and intelligent. And it made me so much more aware of what is possible in fiction. And before that, I knew that I wanted to be a writer, but I had never kind of articulated it to myself. I had not realized that it was a profession that you could have. And after I read that book, I thought, OK, this is definitely what I want to do. And if I can write anything even half as good as this book, then it will have been worth the trials.

GROSS: Well, Yaa Gyasi, thank you so much for talking with us. Thank you for your new novel. And I wish you good health and good luck with the book.

GYASI: Thank you for having me.

DAVIES: Yaa Gyasi speaking with Terry Gross about her novel "Transcendent Kingdom."

Coming up, Maureen Corrigan reviews the new memoir by celebrated pastry chef and writer Lisa Donovan. This is FRESH AIR.

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