“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.