Yaa Gyasi joined us on May 18th for the fifth and final event in our 2020-21 Portland Arts & Lectures series. At a virtual school visit with Portland-area high school students, and in an interview with Andrew Proctor, Gyasi shared some of her favorite books of all time as well as some recent loves. Her recommendations are below.
Go Tell It on the Mountain
by James Baldwin
From The Strategist: Gyasi’s protagonist in Transcendent Kingdom, Gifty, examines her relationship to church, faith, and Christianity throughout the novel — something that strongly echoes James Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain, a semi-autobiographical novel that follows a young boy growing up in Harlem’s relationship to church. “It’s a longtime favorite book of mine,” says Gyasi. “It’s the book I was thinking most deeply about as I wrote, wanting to kind of pay as close attention to questions of faith, questions of hypocrisy within faiths that you want to believe in. I just love the way he deals with Evangelicalism and Pentecostalism in particular. You can see him really grappling with his faith and the way that his love of his family informs his faith and also how his understanding of his family’s limitations informs his faith. It’s a beautiful, beautiful book.”
Song of Solomon
by Toni Morrison
From PRH: Milkman Dead was born shortly after a neighborhood eccentric hurled himself off a rooftop in a vain attempt at flight. For the rest of his life he, too, will be trying to fly. As Morrison follows Milkman from his rustbelt city to the place of his family’s origins, she introduces an entire cast of strivers and seeresses, liars and assassins, the inhabitants of a fully realized Black world.
by Marilynne Robinson
From Macmillan: In 1956, toward the end of Reverend John Ames’s life, he begins a letter to his young son, an account of himself and his forebears. Ames is the son of an Iowan preacher and the grandson of a minister who, as a young man in Maine, saw a vision of Christ bound in chains and came west to Kansas to fight for abolition: He “preached men into the Civil War,” then, at age fifty, became a chaplain in the Union Army, losing his right eye in battle. Reverend Ames writes to his son about the tension between his father–an ardent pacifist–and his grandfather, whose pistol and bloody shirts, concealed in an army blanket, may be relics from the fight between the abolitionists and those settlers who wanted to vote Kansas into the union as a slave state. And he tells a story of the sacred bonds between fathers and sons, which are tested in his tender and strained relationship with his namesake, John Ames Boughton, his best friend’s wayward son.
This is also the tale of another remarkable vision–not a corporeal vision of God but the vision of life as a wondrously strange creation. It tells how wisdom was forged in Ames’s soul during his solitary life, and how history lives through generations, pervasively present even when betrayed and forgotten.
Klara and the Sun
by Kazuo Ishiguro
From PRH: Klara and the Sun, the first novel by Kazuo Ishiguro since he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, tells the story of Klara, an Artificial Friend with outstanding observational qualities, who, from her place in the store, watches carefully the behavior of those who come in to browse, and of those who pass on the street outside. She remains hopeful that a customer will soon choose her.
Klara and the Sun is a thrilling book that offers a look at our changing world through the eyes of an unforgettable narrator, and one that explores the fundamental question: what does it mean to love?
by Jhumpa Lahiri
From PRH: Exuberance and dread, attachment and estrangement: in this novel, Jhumpa Lahiri stretches her themes to the limit. In the arc of one year, an unnamed narrator in an unnamed city, in the middle of her life’s journey, realizes that she’s lost her way. The city she calls home acts as a companion and interlocutor: traversing the streets around her house, and in parks, piazzas, museums, stores, and coffee bars, she feels less alone.
We follow her to the pool she frequents, and to the train station that leads to her mother, who is mired in her own solitude after her husband’s untimely death. Among those who appear on this woman’s path are colleagues with whom she feels ill at ease, casual acquaintances, and “him,” a shadow who both consoles and unsettles her. Until one day at the sea, both overwhelmed and replenished by the sun’s vital heat, her perspective will abruptly change.
by George Eliot
From PRH: A triumph of realist fiction, George Eliot’s beloved classic Middlemarch: A Study of Provincial Life explores a fictional nineteenth-century Midlands town in the midst of sweeping change. The proposed Reform Bill, the new railroads, and scientific advances are threatening upheaval on every front. Against this backdrop, the quiet drama of ordinary lives is played out by the novel’s complexly portrayed characters—until the arrival of two outsiders further disrupts the town’s equilibrium. Every bit as powerful and perceptive in our time as it was in the Victorian era, Middlemarch displays George Eliot’s clear-eyed yet humane understanding of characters caught up in the mysterious unfolding of self-knowledge.
Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments
by Saidiya Hartman
From PRH: Saidiya Hartman examines the revolution of black intimate life that unfolded in Philadelphia and New York at the beginning of the twentieth century. Free love, common-law and transient marriages, serial partners, cohabitation outside of wedlock, queer relations, and single motherhood were among the sweeping changes that altered the character of everyday life and challenged traditional Victorian beliefs about courtship, love, and marriage. Hartman narrates the story of this radical social transformation against the grain of the prevailing century-old argument about the crisis of the black family.
In wrestling with the question of what a free life is, many young black women created forms of intimacy and kinship that were indifferent to the dictates of respectability and outside the bounds of law. They cleaved to and cast off lovers, exchanged sex to subsist, and revised the meaning of marriage. Longing and desire fueled their experiments in how to live. They refused to labor like slaves or to accept degrading conditions of work.
“If you can’t imagine it, you can’t have it.”Toni Morrison, in this Portland Arts & Lectures event from 1992