Drawn to novels that ‘interrogate womanhood’

Yaa Gyasi is a Ghanaian-American novelist whose debut novel was "Homegoing."
Yaa Gyasi is a Ghanaian-American novelist whose debut novel was "Homegoing."Peter Hurley

The Ghanaian-American novelist Yaa Gyasi made a huge critical splash with her first novel, “Homegoing,” in 2016 when she was 26. She followed up that impressive debut this fall with her second novel, the bestselling “Transcendent Kingdom,” in which science and religion converge in a young woman’s attempts to understand and help her immigrant Ghanaian family. Gyasi, who grew up mostly in Alabama, now lives in Brooklyn.

BOOKS: What was your last best read?

GYASI: That was Natasha Trethewey’s memoir “Memorial Drive.” That was beautifully written. It made me cry, and I don’t cry very much when I’m reading.


BOOKS: Do you read memoirs often?

GYASI: I wouldn’t say so. When I read nonfiction it’s more often creative nonfiction but I have read several memoirs that I really liked, such as “The Argonauts,” by Maggie Nelson, and “When Death Takes Something From You Give It Back,” by the Danish poet Naja Marie Aidt, which is about of the passing of her son.

BOOKS: Do you make a point of reading foreign authors?

GYASI: There is such an abysmally small number of foreign authors published in the U.S. every year you have to seek those books out in stores. I make a point of reading at least two books in translation a year. That’s how I discovered the Aidt memoir and French author Marie NDiaye. I really liked “The Door,” by the Hungarian writer Magda Szabo.

BOOKS: What are your tastes in fiction?

GYASI: They are pretty broad but I love something that feels propulsive, whether because of the plot or the questions the book asks. I love books that interrogate womanhood.

BOOKS: What are some examples of that?

GYASI: I loved Raven Leilani’s “Luster.” “NW,” by Zadie Smith, has some of that in it as well. I loved “Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments,” by Saidiya Hartman, which is a hybrid of fiction and non-fiction. I also love “All My Puny Sorrows,” by the Canadian writer Miriam Toews. It’s about a woman at her sister’s hospital bed after her sister has attempted suicide. It’s about surviving religious childhoods. It’s very funny, which is surprising given how sad the book is.


BOOKS: Did growing up in an evangelical church yourself influence you as a reader?

GYASI: Not really. The only book I’ve read that touches on it directly is James Baldwin’s “Go Tell It on the Mountain,” which thinks about evangelicalism very beautifully. But I haven’t sought out books that explore evangelicalism. I have read books that are thinking about religion, such as Marilynne Robinson books.

BOOKS: What books have been in your to-read pile the longest?

GYASI: The longest is “A Tale for the Time Being,” by Ruth Ozeki. Kali Fajardo-Anstine’s story collection “Sabrina and Corina” is also still there. I also have Jesmyn Ward’s first novel, “Where the Line Bleeds.” I’ve read all of her books except that. I will eventually get to everything in the pile, but there’s always that enticement of a new book from a bookstore to distract me.

BOOKS: Do you read poetry?

GYASI: I have a poetry rule too, which is to read at least two collections a year. This year I read “Homie” by Danez Smith, which I thought was so, so good, and reread Tracy K. Smith’s “Life on Mars.”


BOOKS: Do you make a point of reading African writers?

GYASI: When I hear about a new book by an African writer, I get it. I was just saying to someone that, for most of my life, if you asked someone to name an African writer, Chinua Achebe was the only writer they could name. It’s been exciting to see so many new voices of African descent emerging, such as Dinaw Mengestu, Taiye Selasi, and Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah.

BOOKS: Do you own a book with special meaning for you?

GYASI: My special book is my copy of Lucille Clifton’s poetry collection, “Good Woman,” which is one of the three books Stanford University mailed me as one of the incoming freshmen. I was 17. That’s a great program, which Stanford still does. I had “Homegoing” chosen for that when it came out. That felt very full circle."

Follow us on Facebook or Twitter @GlobeBiblio. Amy Sutherland, author, most recently, of "Rescuing Penny Jane,'' can be reached at amysutherland@mac.com.