UI Writers’ Workshop grad Yaa Gyasi explores science and faith in ‘Transcendent …

January 23, 2021
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Yaa Gyasi, a 2014 graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, arrived on the literary scene two years later with the publication of “Homegoing,” her deservedly acclaimed debut novel. “Homegoing” brought to life an extensive family tree, following the triumphs, tragedies and simply everyday humanness of generations of a single family with branches in Ghana and the United States — the latter taking root due to the horrors of the slave trade.

Gyasi’s 2020 novel, “Transcendent Kingdom,” focuses tightly on a daughter and mother, replacing the sweep of familial history with the collision and intermingling of faith and science. The book is narrated by Gifty, a graduate student at Stanford who is nearing the completion of her Ph.D. work in neuroscience. Her mother — a woman of fierce Christian faith — comes to stay with her while in the grip of a deep depression.

“Transcendent Kingdom” calls to mind the humane and stirring science-soaked fiction of Richard Powers and the beautiful and rich faith-fueled fiction of Marilynne Robinson. Each of those authors has won the Pulitzer Prize, and it is not at all difficult to imagine Gyasi earning that honor herself, if not for “Transcendent Kingdom,” then for some future novel.

Though she didn’t know it at the time, Gyasi laid the groundwork for “Transcendent Kingdom” with a short story written shortly after finishing the initial draft of “Homegoing.”

“I had finished a first draft of ‘Homegoing’ around the time that I finished grad school in 2014, and I was setting it aside just to give myself some time and some space before I returned to it,” the author said in a phone interview. “While doing that, I wrote ‘Inscape,’ which came out very quickly and felt so different from what I had been doing with ‘Homegoing’ that it was really kind of refreshing to work on. After that, I was able to place it at Guernica and return to ‘Homegoing.’”

The success of “Homegoing” put the short story (which can be read at Guernica’s website) out of the author’s mind.

“‘Homegoing’ took off and I just sort of forgot about the short story for some time until I started working on what would become ‘Transcendent Kingdom.’ And at first I wasn’t really thinking about it as an expansion of that short story. I just knew that I wanted to write about a neuroscientist, and as I thought about ways to do that — to tell her story — I remembered that scenario from ‘Inscape’ which is about a woman, a very intellectual woman, whose mother comes to stay with her. I felt like I hadn’t completely finished that story in some ways. So it presented this opportunity to flesh it out, albeit with different situations but very similar characters.”

Gyasi had access to an excellent source who helped her to explore the deep mysteries of neuroscience.

“My best friend from childhood is herself a neuroscientist, and around the time that I was getting ready to publish ‘Homegoing’ she was in her final years of her neuroscience Ph.D. program,” she explained. “And a lot of the science facts I write about, a lot of specific experiments I write about in ‘Transcendent Kingdom’ are borrowed from her own doctoral work. But it kind of came about in a roundabout way. I just wanted to get to know her work a little better; I didn’t think I was going to write about it at that time. I asked her if I could go shadow her in her lab and she very kindly said yes. So I had the opportunity to see her at work and found that process so fascinating that I thought maybe there was a story there.”

She had explored issues of faith in her short story.

“I think pretty early on into the writing process, I knew I was going to bring in some of those elements from ‘Inscape.’ And religion was so central to that story that it felt like it would be equally central to this story. Though obviously bringing in the scientific elements started to complicate the narrative in ways that were different from ‘Inscape.’ But from the beginning I think I knew that religion would factor into it.”

The collision of science and faith seemed to Gyasi to be fertile storytelling ground.

“There’s this presumed tension really from the outset that the two things are necessarily incongruous. So to have a character for whom both things have been incredibly important and have shaped the way that she sees the world, I think offered a really nice tension to the story. And this provides lenses to the reader to think about how those two things might be either in opposition or in concert in their own lives.”

Gyasi’s writing life came into focus when she was accepted into the Writers’ Workshop.

“I think the reason that I went to Iowa was that I didn’t have time to write in my life before Iowa. I was working at a tech startup in San Francisco, and I hated it and hadn’t written at all — or very little — since I had graduated from college. And so, given that, I thought I should get away to grad school,” she said. “I think one of the best things about Iowa is that it really does fulfill its promise in giving you the time and space that you need in order to work. And so if you go there with a project in mind — and fortunately, I had already started thinking about ‘Homegoing’ — you can be as single-minded about your work as you’d like to be. That was number one for me.

“Number two was, of course, the classmates and the teachers that I met there — some of whom have continued to be a part of my life, who read ‘Transcendent Kingdom’ and offered feedback on that book and who will hopefully continue to be readers for me, as I am for them.”

During the first semester of her second year in the Workshop, Gyasi was in Marilynne Robinson’s class. Gyasi was already an admirer of Robinson’s work.

“Even before I had her I had already read ‘Gilead’ and ‘Housekeeping,’ both of which are extremely important to me. ‘Gilead’ I think is just a phenomenal book and one I thought about quite a bit while writing ‘Transcendent Kingdom’ for ways to make faith feel, for lack of a better way of putting it, serious and intimate and also as a vehicle for asking questions. I feel ‘Gilead’ is a book that treats faith in that way.”

Ghana, the country to which Gyasi can trace her own roots, is central to both of her novels, and will likely remain so in future projects.

“I do think that Ghana will continue to be part of my work in some way just as it is part of my life,” she said. “I can’t really imagine myself writing works that don’t center or at least think about the lives of people in the diaspora, be it Ghana specifically or the African diaspora generally. That’s important to me.”

Gyasi has a new project in mind, but it is too nascent for her to feel comfortable revealing anything about it. Still, she feels good about the possibilities that have opened up in front of her in light of the success of her first two novels.

“I do feel quite free. I’ve been really bowled over by the reception to both of these books, which are so vastly different from one another that it’s made me feel it’s going to be possible for me to go in whatever direction I’d like to. That’s the best thing for a writer, to feel that kind of freedom on the page.”

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