Interviews

Yaa Gyasi on Her Stunning New Novel

The author of Transcendent Kingdom shares her inspiration and research behind her novel

Yaa Gyasi Interview
By Kathryn Monaco
Sep 15 2020

Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi is a deeply moving portrait of a Ghanaian family ravaged by depression and addiction and grief–a novel about faith, science, religion, and love. 

Kathryn Monaco: Thank you for writing this book! What was your inspiration for centering this novel on addiction and loss, specifically a shameful loss for Gifty and her mother?

Yaa Gyasi: This novel was inspired by the work of my dear friend, a neuroscientist who studies the neural circuitry of reward seeking behavior.  Much of the research that Gifty does in this novel is based on my friend’s doctoral work. I wanted to see if I could build a narrative around this research that sought to address things like addiction and depression and other psychiatric illnesses that are often stigmatized, to address shame without endorsing it.

KM: The relationship and tension between religion and science is so much a part of Gifty’s identity. With this intersection, what did you wish to convey about her character?

YG: Gifty grows up in a Pentecostal church in Alabama. She’s a true believer, a pious child who wants desperately to follow the teachings of her Bible. When her brother succumbs to his addiction she finds that she cannot reconcile his suffering with the workings of a loving God and she moves away from her faith, seeking answers elsewhere. As an adult, she turns to neuroscience as a way of processing, locating, her brother’s addiction. She is a character who is very controlled, and very interested in controlling what she can, mostly because her childhood was filled with so much chaos. As she says, religion and science were ways of seeing.  

Gifty is a character for whom the past is always present. Her brother is always present.

KM: Gifty gives her family members different names in her journal entries. What is the importance of these names in how she views her family and processes events?

YG: I think the codenames have the effect of allowing Gifty to feel free to talk about her family in ways that she might not otherwise, to name what is happening to her, name her pain and her family’s part in her pain, without worrying about exposure or shame. It’s artifice but it’s also kind of comfort.

KM: Her brother feels like a present part of her life after his passing, in part due to the structure of the book. How did you decide on the timeline of events in this novel?

YG: I knew that it was a book that was going to be filled with absence and loss and to counteract that I wanted to make those losses feel like a kind of presence. The timeline helps me achieve this. As Gifty goes about her research, studying mice who are addicted to Ensure, she cannot help but think about her brother and so it felt natural that the novel wouldn’t be linear. Gifty is a character for whom the past is always present. Her brother is always present.

KM: This book contains many specific details about her lab, mice, and experiments. How did you go about this research?

YG: It started with a trip to my friend’s lab at Stanford where I shadowed her while she performed her research. I also read many scientific papers, profiles of neuroscientists, Youtube videos of experiments and lectures. I was fortunate to have my friend to bounce ideas off of and ask questions.   

KM: What is a book that you’ve read during the pandemic that has given you hope?

YG: While not necessarily a hopeful book, Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. Butler left me feeling better equipped to deal with the times that we are living in and the times ahead.

Yaa Gyasi is the author of Transcendent Kingdom and Homegoing. Discover her books below!

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Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi
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Transcendent Kingdom
By Yaa Gyasi
Hardcover $27.95
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Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi
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Homegoing
By Yaa Gyasi
Paperback $16.95
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