Courtesy of Peter Hurley/Vilcek Foundation
Welcome to Shelf Life, ELLE.com’s books column, in which authors share their most memorable reads. Whether you’re on the hunt for a book to console you, move you profoundly, or make you laugh, consider a recommendation from the writers in our series, who, like you (since you’re here), love books. Perhaps one of their favorite titles will become one of yours, too.
Yaa Gyasi shares a few things in common with the protagonist of her second novel, Transcendent Kingdom (just out in paperback from Vintage). Both are Ghanaians who grew up in Alabama attending Pentecostal church and go on to Stanford—Gyasi as an English major; her character, Gifty, as a neuroscience PhD candidate studying reward-seeking behavior in mice, perhaps to unlock the secrets of a brother’s addiction and a mother’s depression.
The idea came after visiting her neuroscientist best friend’s lab, just as the idea for her 2016 debut novel, Homegoing, sprung from a visit to a slave castle in Ghana. The tale of eight generations descended from half sisters—one enslaved, one free—won the National Book Critics Circle John Leonard Award and the PEN/Hemingway Award among other accolades and has been optioned for television. Her first prize, at age seven, was a Reading Rainbow Young Writers and Illustrators Contest honorable mention for a story she submitted called “Just Me and My Dog.”
The Brooklyn-based Gyasi (her first name means “girl born on a Thursday” in Ashanti culture; last name sounds like “Jessie”) once wanted to be a singer (she sang in church and school choirs), worked at a startup in San Francisco, lived in Berlin, and doesn’t drink coffee.
Among the most charming virtual book events, Gyasi’s with the National Writers Series last fall featured two special guest appearances: her AP English teacher and her parents (dad’s a Francophone African literature professor; mom’s a nurse) whose audience question had nothing to do with craft or process but one perhaps a lot of grown children can relate to: When are you coming home?
The book that:
…helped me through a loss:
I memorized poems from Lucille Clifton’s Good Woman one summer when I was having a particularly hard time. That book feels like the old friend who always knows exactly what to say.
…made me late:
You Are Not a Stranger Here: Stories by Adam Haslett. I was in the middle of “The Beginnings of Grief” while riding the bus to work. It’s the most beautiful, saddest story, in the most beautiful, saddest book. I spent the rest of my bus ride crying and was incredibly late.
…made me weep uncontrollably:
All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews. I finished it on New Year’s Eve of 2019, so in hindsight, to have wept my way into 2020, given all that year would bring, feels incredibly prescient. It’s an utterly gorgeous novel, both hilarious and devastating all at once.
…shaped my worldview:
Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe. A classic for a reason.
…I’d gift to a new graduate:
How We Get Free edited by Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor. It’s a book that shares the mission statement of the Combahee River Collective along with interviews of the founding members and contemporary activists. A great reminder of the work that has been done and the work that is ongoing.
…made me laugh out loud:
Oreo by Fran Ross. It’s so playful and strange. One of those books you read and think, Why don’t we write books like this anymore?
…I’d like turned into a Netflix show:
I’m late to the party, but I recently finished The Fifth Season, the first book of The Broken Earth Trilogy by N.K. Jemisin and loved it. It would make a fantastic television series.
…I last bought:
Let the Record Show by Sarah Schulman. A political history of ACT UP, written by someone whose work is endlessly interesting and engaging? Yes, please.
…has the best title:
…has the best opening line:
From Lisel Meuller’s “Monet Refuses the Operation” in Alive Together: “Doctor, you say there are no haloes/around the streetlights in Paris/and what I see is an aberration/caused by old age, an affliction./I tell you it has taken me all my life/to arrive at the vision of gas lamps as angels,/to soften and blur and finally banish/the edges you regret I don’t see,/to learn that the line I called the horizon/does not exist and sky and water,/so long apart, are the same state of being.”
…has the greatest ending:
Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison. “…if you surrendered to the air, you could ride it.” The most moving ending in all of literature.
…I’ve re-read the most:
Probably Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë, just from my middle school years alone.
…features the most beautiful book jacket:
The Octopus Museum by Brenda Shaughnessy. I bought the book just based on the beauty of that jacket alone, though, luckily for me, the poems are just as gorgeous.
…I could only have discovered at ___:
…that holds the recipe to a favorite dish:
I’ve been making the Buttermilk Biscuits from Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat by Samin Nosrat for years now. I always have a batch in my freezer. They are basically a butter-filled vehicle for butter. I could eat them every day.
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