Yaa Gyasi on the Mysteries of Faith and Reason

“I’d never written fiction that stays with a single character for hundreds of pages; it almost felt like too much freedom.”

Yaa Gyasi
Peter Hurley / Vilcek Foundation / The Atlantic
Editor’s Note: Read Yaa Gyasi’s new fiction, “When My Mother Came to Stay.”

“When My Mother Came to Stay” is taken from Yaa Gyasi’s forthcoming novel, Transcendent Kingdom (available on September 1). To mark the excerpt’s publication in The Atlantic, Gyasi and Oliver Munday, a senior art director of the magazine, discussed it over email. Their conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.

Oliver Munday: Your debut novel, Homegoing, is a work of breathtaking sweep, spanning eight generations and two continents. “When My Mother Came to Stay” is a more intimate story concerning the relationship between a mother and daughter. Can you describe the changes in the writing process that emerged while working with a narrower lens?

Yaa Gyasi: I had hoped to find the writing process for my second novel easier, but instead I encountered new challenges. Homegoing, structurally speaking, was quite tight—14 chapters, each set in a new time period with a new point-of-view character. The notable historical events that often marked the passage of time from chapter to chapter offered another constraint, so while the book as a whole was sweeping, the chapters were narrow in scope. Transcendent Kingdom is loose by comparison, and that looseness threw me at first. I’d never written fiction that stays with a single character for hundreds of pages; it almost felt like too much freedom. I worried that the intimacy of the story would come at the cost of narrative momentum, but this caused me to think about structure in an unexpected way. In “When My Mother Came to Stay,” that intimacy itself—that tenderness—is the propulsive quality. We are watching this woman’s relationship with her mother change, and the tension inherent in that process is what drives the story.

Munday: The story opens with Gifty, the narrator, sharing a memory of her mother lying in bed. In it, she uses the striking verb colonizing to describe her mother’s position. It’s an apt metaphor for the way a parent can loom large in the minds of children. Do you imagine the instinct to escape parental shadows is a necessary step in coming of age?

Gyasi: I think it depends on the nature of the child’s relationship with her parents. I imagine that many people welcome having a role to step into, and parents can often offer that ideal. In Gifty’s case, tragedy transformed her mother in ways that left very little capacity for the care that Gifty, or really any child, deserves. I think the quality of Gifty’s mother “looming large” results from a role shift, wherein Gifty, as a young child, finds herself having to care for her mother in much the same way we expect mothers to care for their children—making sure she’s eating, clothed, and taking her medication. Many of us find ourselves in this position as our parents age and start to require a different kind of care from us than they did when we were children. For Gifty, it’s the caretaking that is all-consuming. I don’t know that she ever escapes her mother’s shadow, nor do I necessarily think she wants to.

Munday: Growing up in Alabama, Gifty was exposed to the Pentecostal fervor of her mother, only to move to California, where she dedicates her life to science. Can you discuss the ways in which the narrator’s life choices were influenced by her religious upbringing?

Gyasi: It’s hard to disentangle any of Gifty’s life choices from her religious upbringing. I imagine that Gifty herself, often a contradictory character, would deny the overarching influence of religion. The clue she gives us is that her faith has failed to bring her the comfort, or the answers, that she expects from it, especially in times of tragedy. She has heard the oft-spoken cliché “God works in mysterious ways” and she’s rejected it, opting for reason instead. It’s this search for reason that leads her to science. Yet even the way that she practices science is marked by a lingering faith. Gifty still believes in the mystery despite claiming to no longer believe in God. She chases the mystery every time she performs an experiment, and it’s the attendant belief in solvability that propels her.

Munday: In her doctoral program, Gifty spends ample time in the lab studying the “neural circuits of reward-seeking behavior” in mice, which resonates in her own attempts to gain her mother’s approval, even in a menial task like making porridge. Is Gifty’s mother a hindrance to her academic ambition?

Gyasi: Not at all. There is, of course, the immigrant factor of understanding that one’s parents’ sacrifices enable one’s success. This is keenly true for Gifty, whose mother worked in one of America’s many long-hour, low-wage industries in order to support her kids. If anything, Gifty’s academic ambition is inextricable from her mother’s influence. A consequence of the reward-seeking behavior is the inability to derive pleasure from typically pleasurable things. When Gifty tries to gain her mother’s approval and is instead met with silence, she understands it as another piece of the puzzle she’s trying to solve. Many instances of personal pain can be professionally significant, too.

Munday: Gifty kept a journal as a child in which she used code names for the members of her family. Her mother’s sobriquet is Black Mamba: a snake that often counts mice among its prey. Does Gifty, as an adult, wish to keep her lab mice—her professional life—separate from her family life?

Gyasi: I think of Gifty as a character who “doth protest too much” when it comes to explaining how her personal life influences her professional life. She tells us repeatedly that her family history has nothing to do with her chosen career path, but this is clearly another form of code. Her journal’s code names fail to obscure anything, yet the need to conceal speaks volumes about Gifty’s discomfort. There’s a moment later in the novel when Gifty brings her mother to the lab with her, and she’s relieved not to encounter anyone. It’s telling that despite working within a behavioral-neuroscience program, where presumably no one would judge her mother’s depression, Gifty still feels it necessary to maintain the separation. It’s the shield she needs to do her work objectively.

Munday: Loss is central to the story, yet the details remain mostly concealed. The mother-daughter dynamic is fraught as a result of this loss, as Gifty seeks to care for her mother. Do you imagine a future where redemption is possible, or will we have to read Transcendent Kingdom to find out?

Gyasi: You’ll have to read Transcendent Kingdom to find out! I will say that even in the midst of all the fraught dynamics, all the tension and loss and shame and anger that these two characters feel at various points, I do believe there is something redemptive in the simple act of caretaking. As individuals, they don’t always have the capacity to tend to each other, yet Gifty and her mother still perform the small tasks that enable the other to go on. If that isn’t redemptive, or at the very least restorative, I’m not sure what is.

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