“I always say, writing a first novel, you feel like you’re writing in the dark, unsure of whether or not your book will ever see the light of day,” says author Yaa Gyasi, who has written not one but two bestsellers since 2016, when her debut novel Homegoing was published by Penguin Random House. An epic multigenerational saga that parallels Alex Haley’s Roots or Isabel Wilkerson’s historical chronicles (The Warmth of Other Suns, Caste) in its scope, Homegoing took seven years to write, during which Gyasi conducted extensive research of her family’s native Ghana as well as Alabama, where her immigrant parents settled upon moving to the United States.
“I always say that I wouldn’t have written a book like Homegoing if I hadn’t come from a country that had this role in the slave trade and then wound up in a state where the effects of this trade are still so strongly felt,” Gyasi tells us on this week’s episode of The Root Presents: It’s Lit! “It felt almost like this kind of irony that I wanted to tease out.”
Gyasi’s journey began with a trip to Ghana’s Cape Castle, one of many such castles built on the Gold Coast to facilitate the slave trade to the Americas, marking the beginning of the Middle Passage for millions of enslaved Africans. “I remember when I got home the night of the Castle visit, I wrote, ‘I’m scared of how much research this novel is going to take,’ Gyasi recalls. “And I was right to be scared of it. I mean, it was a project...But I think there is something so nice about just diving headfirst into something that is going to require you to kind of grow toward it.”
After Homegoing’s immense success, Gyasi admits she was “intimidated” to begin work on her second novel, 2020's Transcendent Kingdom. In it, she detoured into a different type of research as she constructed the inner life of a young neuroscientist, again the child of Ghanaian immigrants, who is seeking to deconstruct the inner workings of mental illness as she navigates the difficult dynamics of her own family history.
“You work your whole life to get to a first novel and then afterwards, you’re like, ‘OK, what now?’ And so it took me a while to get started,” Gyasi shares. “But once I dug my feet in, I felt like Transcendent Kingdom was a book that was just asking so many new things of me—asking new questions, stretching new muscles. And I am so grateful that people have been willing and excited to go with me in this new direction.”
Critics and readers alike responded eagerly, giving Gyasi a well-deserved second bestseller—and effectively expanding the old adage “write what you know” to include “write what you thoroughly research.”
“The research opens this pathway, and suddenly you see the story more clearly,” Gyasi explains of her craft and process. “So I think there’s there’s this push and pull between the research and the story. That’s really gratifying.”
Join The Root and the inquisitive Yaa Gyasi on Episode 16 of The Root Presents: It’s Lit!: The Transcendent Work of Yaa Gyasi, now available on Apple, Spotify, Stitcher, iHeart Radio, Google Podcasts, Amazon, NPR One, TuneIn, and Radio Public. Also available is a transcript of this week’s episode.