Novelist Yaa Gyasi visited with students and educators from Parkrose HS and McDaniel HS this week. There were 33 virtual attendees at the event, with additional students joining from their classrooms. Gyasi spoke to students about her lifelong path to writing novels, being a new puppy owner, and how time can be a character in fiction.
Jacob, the student who introduced Gyasi, asked, “How do you weave in your own experiences into your writing without it feeling too autobiographical?”
Gyasi said that the personal is weaved in when she’s writing about places that are important to her, including Alabama and Ghana. “Place often shows up in my work. It allows for the autobiographical to seep in.”
When Gyasi was asked what inspired her to become a writer, she said that she always wanted to be a writer. “I grew up around books, and loved reading from a very young age. I was obsessed with Reading Rainbow.” In fact, Reading Rainbow inspired her first writing prize, when she won honorable mention in their writing contest at the age of seven.
“It was called “Just Me and My Dog,” Gyasi said, “and it was about a little girl who wanted a dog. LeVar Burton signed my certificate and I have it to to this day.”
When Gyasi was seventeen, she read Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison, and said that was when she started telling people she wanted to be a writer.
One student, Kyla, said, “Thank you so much for being here! I read both of your books earlier this year and so enjoyed them. I love the way you wrote Homegoing through the generations and going back and forth between both story lines. This felt very unique and I was curious how you came up with this plan for the book?”
“That’s a great question,” Gyasi said. “When I started Homegoing, I had a different structure in mind. I thought it would be set in the present, but as I started to write, I was much more interested in seeing the passage of time, and seeing how time affected these people, these families, over a long period. I wanted time itself to feel like a character.”
Gyasi also spoke about the road to publication. One student, Alejandro, asked, “What are some challenges to writing that folks don’t expect? And how do you overcome them?”
Gyasi likened sitting down to write every day to digging for well water. “You never know what the writing day will look like, if the well will reach water, but you go and dig anyway,” Gyasi said. She said the other thing that helped her overcome challenges was reading. “If I feel stuck, chances are another writer has figured out a way to do what I’m trying to do, which helps me.”
Thank you so much to our educator partners at Parkrose HS and McDaniel HS who made this visit possible: Nancy Sullivan and Stuart Levy. Thank you to Principal Skyles and Principal Ouche. Special thanks to Olivia Jones-Hall for her work coordinating this visit.
Buy Yaa Gyasi’s latest novel, Transcendent Kingdom, here.