When I read a book, I always find myself wondering what books the author was reading while they wrote. I’ve long imagined, for instance, that Alice Walker thought fondly of Zora Neale Hurston while writing The Color Purple, or Nicole Dennis-Benn called on Toni Morrison while crafting Here Comes the Sun. Those ruminations led to this series, in which I actually ask the authors of recently released novels, biographies, and nonfiction just that: what books they read while they wrote, and what books they feel their book is in conversation with.
For the second installment, I spoke with Yaa Gyasi, whose novel Transcendent Kingdom debuted this summer, and instantly became one of my favorite things I’ve read this year. The book follows Gifty, a neuroscience student who is in the final stretch of her Ph.D. program when her mother comes to stay with her. The two have a complicated relationship marked by grief and loss, which the book explores, along with Gifty’s equally complicated relationship with her faith (she was raised in an Evangelical church), addiction, and abandonment. Below, the books Yaa Gyasi read while writing her own, from a biography written by a neurosurgeon diagnosed with lung cancer to a novel about a seemingly normal man with a horrible secret and a dangerous past.
Gyasi read a lot of science-centered creative nonfiction while writing Transcendent Kingdom, like this one by Eula Biss. It’s about the author’s — a new mother — fear around immunization and vaccines. “I really liked that she pulled from different places in order to build out this narrative. She’d do things like talk about Dracula and vampires and what it means to be bitten. And then she’d talk about why we call a vaccine a shot. It was textured, and I wanted my novel to have a similar feel.”
“I was trying to kind of get into the voice of a scientist by looking at memoir-science hybrids,” says Gyasi. In Transcendent Kingdom, the protagonist Gifty is a neuroscience student, like Kalanithi (who writes in his memoir about his battle with advanced-stage lung cancer).
Gyasi also name-dropped this book by Siddhartha Mukherjee, which chronicles the history of cancer, starting thousands of years ago all the way through to the present day. Gyasi found this one helpful for understanding how a scientist might write about something as technical as cancer in an interesting, compelling way.
Gyasi’s protagonist Gifty examines her relationship to church, faith, and Christianity throughout the novel — something that strongly echoes James Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain, a semi-autobiographical novel that follows a young boy growing up in Harlem’s relationship to church. “It’s a longtime favorite book of mine,” says Gyasi. “It’s the book I was thinking most deeply about as I wrote, wanting to kind of pay as close attention to questions of faith, questions of hypocrisy within faiths that you want to believe in. I just love the way he deals with Evangelicalism and Pentecostalism in particular. You can see him really grappling with his faith and the way that his love of his family informs his faith and also how his understanding of his family’s limitations informs his faith. It’s a beautiful, beautiful book.”
Like Transcendent Kingdom, My Name Is Lucy Barton features a protagonist who has a difficult relationship with her mother, and is as much about what is said as it is about what is concealed. “The main character has this trauma in her childhood that the two don’t really speak about. I loved witnessing these two women who haven’t seen each other in years trying to relate to one another while avoiding the secrets that are kind of these little land mines in their lives.”
“This book is another great demonstration of all that isn’t said, particularly within families,” says Gyasi of The Dew Breaker, a novel by Edwidge Danticat that follows a man who immigrated to the United States and is hiding a horrible secret. “I wanted that sense in my novel as well. That there are places that we don’t touch and don’t talk about that still become present in our lives in really tangible ways, even through our avoidance. So I think about that book a lot.”
“I feel like there are so many ‘immigrants behaving really well’ stories, but this is the first ‘immigrant behaving badly’ story that I had read,” says Gyasi of Unaccustomed Earth, a collection of short stories by Jhumpa Lahiri. She recalled “Goodness” in particular, which is about a woman looking back on introducing her brother, an alcoholic, to alcohol. It shares themes with Transcendent Kingdom, like, for one, addiction. “She’s wondering if she’s complicit in his alcoholism,” she says. “I found it really moving and honest. And loved that she was willing to show the other side of the American Dream. Not just the narrative that you get here, ‘You work hard and everything’s great.’ Instead, here’s a family that’s being slowly ripped apart by the addiction of one family member. I found it really beautiful.”
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