Campus & Community

Simmons University Hosts Virtual Conversation with Best-Selling Author Yaa Gyasi

Yaa Gyasi emigrated to the United States from Ghana when she was just two years old. First settling in a strong Ghanaian community in Ohio, Gyasi’s family moved around before finally settling in Alabama — but each area they moved to had fewer and fewer Ghanaians. This is when she began to feel like an outsider in her own community.

“I felt this erosion of my sense as a Ghanaian,” explained Gyasi as she addressed the Simmons community on Wednesday evening. “There wasn’t the fullness surrounding me anymore… To this day, when my parents say ‘Home,’ what they’re talking about is Ghana. For me, if I say ‘Home,’ it’s very convoluted.”

This complex idea of one’s identity is a central theme in Gyasi’s sophomore novel, Transcendent Kingdom, which was selected as the fall 2021 Community Read. Centered around the exploration of important themes and issues, the Community Read is designed to engage the campus community, generate robust discussions, and foster the exchange of diverse ideas and perspectives.

In a virtual conversation with Assistant Dean for Community Engagement and Social Justice Gary Bailey, Gyasi discussed several themes from her novel, including the differences between race and ethnicity, religion and faith, and how these interplay with identity.

“We are all a million things all at once,” stated Gyasi.

We are all a million things at once.

In addition to being a bestselling author, Gyasi is a recipient of the National Book Foundation's 2016 "5 Under 35" Award. She is also the winner of the National Book Critics Circle John Leonard Prize, the PEN/Hemingway Award for Best First Novel, and was a finalist for the Dayton Literary Peace Prize for Fiction and the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize.

During their conversation, Bailey noted that Transcendent Kingdom felt like a continuation of her New York Times bestselling debut novel Homegoing, which follows two matriarchs from the Gold Coast and their descendants through eight generations. Confirming Bailey’s notion, Gyasi explained that at the conclusion of Homegoing, “you’re left with the sense that it’s a novel that can go on and doesn’t end. We continue to live this history. We continue to live with this history… Transcendent Kingdom is the idea that history comes with us.”

Similar to the idea of bringing history with us, Gyasi and Bailey discussed what works influenced her novels. An attendee asked if Gyasi was paying homage to The Color Purple because of her use of journal entries throughout the narrative.

“The short answer is no,” said Gyasi, “but the long answer is that I'm a firm believer that any book you love becomes a part of you. Suddenly you’re making choices that feel completely your own, but are part of a lineage of choices that have been made by writers you love… when you love something it becomes a part of your work.”

For Gyasi, one such novel is Song of Solomon by Toni Morrsion, describing it as a “holy experience” when reading it for the first time. She mentioned that Morrison’s novel influenced the fabric of who she is as a writer, and that her editor immediately thought of Song of Solomon after reading Homegoing.

“[The Color Purple and Song of Solomon] are some of the most important pieces in the cannon,” noted Bailey. “When you think about pieces that have articulated the Black experience, but also the experience of Black women by Black women — what a great mantel to have wrapped around your shoulders.”

As Bailey and Gyasi concluded their discussion, Bailey asked if there was anything Gyasi would tell her younger self to prepare for her present accomplishments.

“One piece of advice that I would give to my younger self would be not to diminish her skills, abilities, intelligence, or curiosity, and recognize that she owns those things,” said Gyasi. “It’s worth her while to continue to be curious. Find the thing that you love, but also the thing that you know you can do some good in. Seek that out to the fullest.”

The Fall Community Read is sponsored by Eileen Friars '72 and co-hosted by the Office of the Provost, the Office of Undergraduate Research and Fellowships, the Office of Student Affairs, and the Office of Advancement.

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