By the Book

How Yaa Gyasi Found Religion (in Literature)

Credit...Jillian Tamaki

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“There isn’t much literary fiction that deals with evangelicalism,” says the novelist, whose new book is “Transcendent Kingdom.” “‘Go Tell It on the Mountain,’ by James Baldwin, was the first book I read that spoke to that part of my life and it moved me so deeply to see faith rendered on the page with such care and brilliance.”

What books are on your night stand?

“The Barefoot Woman,” by Scholastique Mukasonga, “Alligator: And Other Stories,” by Dima Alzayat, “In the Wake,” by Christina Sharpe, “Sabrina & Corina,” by Kali Fajardo-Anstine, “A Tale for the Time Being,” by Ruth Ozeki, “The Vanishing Half,” by Brit Bennett.

What’s the last great book you read?

“Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments,” by Saidiya Hartman left me awe-struck and grateful. I don’t think I’ve ever read anything like it — radical, rigorous, lyrical, attentive. Hartman’s work, her example, has been formative for so many young writers and scholars, and it’s thrilling to me to think of all the work that this book will make possible, how Hartman, to paraphrase Morrison, stands at the edge and claims it as central and lets the rest of the world move over to where she is. I read this thinking that I want to be wherever Saidiya Hartman is.

Are there any classic novels that you only recently read for the first time?

“Parable of the Sower,” by Octavia E. Butler. It’s unnervingly prescient and wise. A worthy read for those intent on building a better world as this pandemic continues to lay bare how untenable, how depravedly unequal, the American way of life is and has always been.

Can a great book be badly written? What other criteria can overcome bad prose?

Really bad sentences will make me put a book down quickly, but I’m also wary of sentences that are all dressed up with nowhere to go, books that have beautiful prose but no spark. I think a truly great book won’t ask you to choose.

Describe your ideal reading experience (when, where, what, how).

I think of myself as someone who likes to read on the beach, but, in practice, I get very little reading done there. The couch is ideal for me.

What’s your favorite book no one else has heard of?

“Elsewhere, California,” by Dana Johnson, is a favorite I’d like more people to read. It’s such a brilliant, layered novel about a young woman coming of age, rooted in her family but growing up to be something all her own. I also love “Changes,” by Ama Ata Aidoo, about a career-driven, modern woman who makes the decision to enter into a polygamist marriage with the man she loves. A novel that eschews easy answers.

Which writers — novelists, playwrights, critics, journalists, poets — working today do you admire most?

There are so many! Jesmyn Ward, Edward P. Jones, Aamina Ahmad, Edwidge Danticat, Jhumpa Lahiri, Marilynne Robinson, Naomi Jackson, Kazuo Ishiguro, Adam Haslett, Angela Flournoy, Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah, Valeria Luiselli, Miriam Toews, Dana Johnson, Min Jin Lee, Justin Torres, Bryan Washington, Chia-Chia Lin, Louise Erdrich, Dinaw Mengestu, Kirstin Valdez Quade, Zadie Smith, Lesley Nneka Arimah, Jamel Brinkley, Tarell Alvin McCraney, Michaela Coel, Shayok Misha Chowdhury, Ron Ragin, Saidiya Hartman, Maggie Nelson, Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah, Doreen St. Félix, Hisham Matar, Eula Biss, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Matthew Desmond, Nikole Hannah-Jones, Isabel Wilkerson, Margo Jefferson, Alok Vaid-Menon, Tracy K. Smith, Aracelis Girmay, Rita Dove, Danez Smith, Solmaz Sharif, Claudia Rankine, Nicole Sealey, Robin Coste Lewis. I could go on.

What do you read when you’re working on a book? And what kind of reading do you avoid while writing?

The only thing I avoid reading while writing is anything that seems too similar, in topic or tone, to what I’m working on.

Do you count any books as guilty pleasures? Or comfort reads?

No guilty pleasures, just pleasures. For comfort, I like to revisit “Good Woman,” by Lucille Clifton. The copy I’ve had since I was 17 is so dog-eared and underlined that, at some point, I realized I just love every word, every page.

What’s the last book you read that made you laugh?

“Heads of the Colored People,” by Nafissa Thompson-Spires.

The last book you read that made you cry?

“Homie,” by Danez Smith, an absolute joy of a book.

The last book you read that made you furious?

I’ve been so furious these past few months. The enormity of the losses that we are seeing right now, of lives, of jobs, of housing, of safety, of civil liberties is infuriating because things were already so brutal for so many and the fallout from this will only further brutalize. It never had to come to this. I am thinking of Eula Biss’s “On Immunity,” where she writes, “However we choose to think of the social body, we are each other’s environment.” I am thinking of Matthew Desmond’s “Evicted,” which shows us that “eviction is a cause, not just a condition, of poverty,” as we face a mass eviction crisis. I’m thinking of Rachel Louise Snyder’s “No Visible Bruises,” where I learned that unemployment is one of the stressors that can turn domestic violence lethal as we face a mass unemployment crisis. I am thinking of Valeria Luiselli’s “Tell Me How It Ends,” as immigrants, refugees and migrants continue to be treated with naked, deadly contempt. I am thinking of Toni Morrison’s “On the Backs of Blacks,” where she writes, “A hostile posture toward resident Blacks must be struck at the Americanizing door before it will open,” as I see fellow immigrants and their descendants on the sidelines of or opposing the movement for Black liberation. I am thinking that “What you have heard is true” (from Carolyn Forché’s “The Colonel”) as the president sends Homeland Security officers to round up B.L.M. protesters in Portland because it only further proves that this sham of a department should never have been established, deputized to use terror under the guise of combating terror. An inch that should never have been given has become a mile taken. Over 150,000 dead, over 30 million unemployed with cruel, despotic politicians (and the corporations who bought them) at the helm. How are we going to account for all of this loss? My fury is boundless, no book required.

The protagonist of “Transcendent Kingdom” is a neuroscientist who grew up in an evangelical community in Alabama. What writers are especially good on the tensions between science and faith?

I actually haven’t read a lot on the tensions between science and faith, which is one reason I wrote this novel. I grew up Pentecostal and left the church when I was a teenager because I realized that my predominantly white church in Alabama, part of the religious right, was itself a weapon formed against me and the people I loved and, not to put too fine a point on it, justice and truth. Leaving was such a profoundly lonely and confusing experience that I longed for literature that could help me grasp it, literature that took faith seriously, but there isn’t much literary fiction that deals with evangelicalism. “Go Tell It on the Mountain,” by James Baldwin, was the first book I read that spoke to that part of my life and it moved me so deeply to see faith rendered on the page with such care and brilliance.

How do you organize your books?

I don’t. It’s chaos.

What book might people be surprised to find on your shelves?

When I was 8, I won a trivia game at a family friend’s house and as a prize the party hosts handed me a book off their shelves. The book turned out to be erotica about a Native American man who helps a white woman survive a snowstorm. I (a child who would leave for college without ever taking a sex-ed class) devoured this novel, but when a sibling discovered what I was reading and threatened to tell, I ran outside and shoved it down a sewer grate. Years later I tried to find it for nostalgia’s sake but misremembered the title. So now I have a book that I think was that one, but the first few pages proved too cringe-inducingly stereotype-ridden for me to continue reading so I don’t know for sure.

What kind of reader were you as a child? Which childhood books and authors stick with you most?

Voracious. I once saved up to buy a little clip-on light at the Scholastic Book Fair so that I could keep reading after my bedtime without getting caught. I read anything and everything I could get my hands on at the library.

What book would you elevate to the canon, and what book would you remove?

Why ask what book needs to be “elevated” to the canon rather than question the purposes of the canon entirely? I’m relieved to have escaped the literary imperialism of the English classrooms where we read the same four or five white people without any meaningful critique of the thin and/or inhuman portrayals of Black people, women, Jews, Asians, etc. in their books. I had a high school teacher who actually forbade us from mentioning race when discussing “Othello,” so what were we to make of “an old black ram tupping the white ewe?” Can Shakespeare not withstand serious inquiry from 16- and 17-year-olds? Or was it the teacher who could not? If the canon cannot expand, if it must be shielded from critique, then it is the canon itself that should be removed.

You’re organizing a literary dinner party. Which three writers, dead or alive, do you invite?

James Baldwin, Toni Morrison and Lucille Clifton, but really any of the writers whose work I’ve mentioned here. I would love the opportunity to give thanks, to sit in fellowship and share in the joy of their talents and imaginations, which have sustained and nourished me and so many others.

What books are you embarrassed not to have read yet?

My reading life is one of my deepest pleasures. I would never be embarrassed over a book I’ve yet to read. Everything in due time.

What do you plan to read next?

“Luster,” by Raven Leilani, which I hear is amazing.