Readers

Get to Know Portland Arts & Lectures Author Yaa Gyasi

Single Tickets for Yaa Gyasi’s event on May 18th are now available! Click Here for more information.

On May 18, Literary Arts will host Yaa Gyasi as the fifth and final event of our 2020-21 season of Portland Arts & Lectures.

Gyasi is the author of Homegoing, which won numerous awards, including the PEN/Hemingway Award and the National Book Critics Circle’s John Leonard Award for best first book, and Transcendent Kingdom, which became an instant New York Times best seller when released in fall 2020, and is a finalist for the 2021 Women’s Prize for Fiction.


For Yaa Gyasi, writing helps her get to the truth of herself and her feelings. In this interview with Langa Chinyoka for The Paris Review, Gyasi talks about the truths she explores in Transcendent Kingdom, including her thoughts on writing about the immigrant experience.

“I hope that I’m always writing for the parallel version of myself who’s not a writer but is still searching for moments of recognition, moments of intensity, moments of pleasure and representation and all those things, and that she can find it in my work and feel seen.”


WATCH: Meet the author! Gyasi tells us a bit about herself, her writing practice, and what inspires her most.

Like many of us, Gyasi turned to books for wisdom and comfort during this tumultuous year of social justice uprisings and public health crisis. In this interview with Samantha Edwards at Hazlitt, Gyasi lists some of her favorite reads from 2020 and dives deeper into the importance of reading Black stories… and then taking further action.

“I think books are really important, but I also know that it is possible to read a book and then do absolutely nothing to change your real life. Books are not substitutes for real life, certainly novels are not substitutes for real life, and the characters in novels are not substitutes for real people.”


WATCH: Gyasi talks about Transcendent Kingdom on Late Night with Seth Meyers.

What’s on Yaa Gyasi’s bookshelf? In this interview for the New York Times, Gyasi shares some of her favorite books and authors of all time, and opens up about how, for her, reading, writing, and faith are all interconnected.

“I actually haven’t read a lot on the tensions between science and faith, which is one reason I wrote [Transcendent Kingdom]. I grew up Pentecostal and left the church when I was a teenager. … Leaving was such a profoundly lonely and confusing experience that I longed for literature that could help me grasp it, literature that took faith seriously.”


Interested in more? Below is a bio of Yaa Gyasi’s life and writing career thus far.

Yaa Gyasi was born in Ghana and raised in Huntsville, Alabama. Gyasi’s father was a university professor, her mother a nurse. Her parents had hopes that she would follow her mother into a career in medicine, but Gyasi was drawn to books. She’s stated, “I was a voracious reader even at a very young age. I loved books, but I wasn’t really encountering a lot of literature that spoke to my particular experiences. I started writing at a young age, too.”

Gyasi received a BA in English from Stanford University. While a student at Stanford, she explored the works of influential Black authors, including Toni Morrison and James Baldwin. When a teacher assigned Baldwin’s story, “Sonny’s Blues” as reading, Gyasi was moved. “Reading him always reminds me that writing can (and I think should) be about the difficult work of justice, of dismantling and unlearning and rejoicing and healing, while still being lovely and moving. I knew, after reading Baldwin, that I never wanted to be the kind of writer who wrote about pretty flowers in a meadow, that there was more at stake here than beauty.”

Gyasi went on to earn an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where she first workshopped three chapters of what would become her debut novel, Homegoing. Published in 2016, when Gyasi was 26 years old, Homegoing was one of the most celebrated debuts of the year. It won the National Book Critics Circle’s John Leonard Award for best first book, the PEN/Hemingway Award for a first book of fiction, the National Book Foundation’s “5 under 35” honor for 2016, and the American Book Award.

Homegoing is a story of race, history, ancestry, and love that traces the descendants of two sisters torn apart in eighteenth-century Africa across three hundred years in Ghana and America. The inspiration for Homegoing came to Gyasi amidst a research trip to Ghana, where a visit to the historic Cape Coast Castle—one of many large forts on the Gold Coast built by European enslavers—prompted Gyasi to reconceptualize her understanding of the transatlantic slave trade. National Book Award winner Ta-Nehisi Coates praises Homegoing as “an inspiration” and “what happens when you pair a gifted literary mind to an epic task.”

In 2020, Gyasi won a Vilcek Prize for Creative Promise in Literature, which is awarded to foreign-born individuals who have demonstrated outstanding achievement during the early stages of their careers. She also released her second novel, Transcendent Kingdom. It was an instant New York Times bestseller and has been longlisted for the 2021 Women’s Prize for Fiction. Drawing on some details from Gyasi’s own life, Transcendent Kingdom focuses on a Ghanaian family in Alabama. The narrative follows Gifty, a graduate student at Stanford who is studying reward-seeking behavior in mice, a career choice influenced by her family’s troubled history. The writer Ann Patchett states, “I would say that Transcendent Kingdom is a novel for our time (and it is) but it is so much more than that. It is a novel for all times. The splendor and heart and insight and brilliance contained in the pages hold up a light the rest of us can follow.” 

In both Homegoing and Transcendent Kingdom, Gyasi shares stories of underrepresented voices and perspectives, which is important to her as a writer. She has said, “I hope that I’m always writing for the parallel version of myself who’s not a writer but is still searching for moments of recognition, moments of intensity, moments of pleasure and representation and all those things, and that she can find it in my work and feel seen.”


Single Tickets for Yaa Gyasi’s event on May 18th are now available! Click Here for more information.


To learn more about Yaa Gyasi, please visit prhspeakers.com.

Related Posts