2020 Great Immigrants Recipient

Yaa Gyasi
Author
Born in:
Ghana

Yaa Gyasi was born in Mampong, Ghana, and came to the United States in the early 1990s at age two with her family to join her father, who was finishing his PhD in French at Ohio State University. After moving around, the family finally settled when her father got a tenure-track position at the University of Alabama in Huntsville. As a girl, Gyasi was a voracious reader, and soon began to write her own stories. After discovering the writings of Nobel laureate Toni Morrison as a teenager, Gyasi decided that she wanted to pursue writing as a career. She studied English at Stanford University and earned an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, the prestigious writing program at the University of Iowa.

The idea for Gyasi’s debut novel Homegoing(2016) came during the summer of her sophomore year at Stanford, when she went to Ghana on a writing fellowship. It was only her second time visiting the country since she left as a toddler. One of the places she visited was Cape Coast Castle, the site of a slave port that held captured Africans before they were shipped to the Americas. It was a place that Gyasi’s family never mentioned despite its proximity to the town from which her mother came. She was also surprised to learn that not all African women who lived in the castle in the eighteenth century were slaves: some were married to British officers stationed there. Gyasi’s desire to give voice to these women resulted in a sweeping multigenerational novel exploring the legacy of slavery in West Africa and the United States. At just 26, Gyasi won the National Book Critics Circle’s John Leonard Prize for Best First Book for Homegoing. Her other honors for the novel include the American Book Award, the PEN/Hemingway Award for Debut Novel, and the Vilcek Prize for Creative Promise in Literature. Homegoing received wide acclaim and made the New York Times’ “100 Notable Books of 2016” list.

Transcendent Kingdom, Gyasi’s second novel, which follows a Ghanaian immigrant family in Alabama, was published in 2020. Gyasi’s fiction and nonfiction writing has also appeared in the African American Review, Granta, the Guardian, and the New York Times.

In the New York Times review of Homegoing, Michiko Kakutani noted that “the book leaves the reader with a visceral understanding of both the savage realities of slavery and the emotional damage that is handed down, over the centuries.” Gyasi sees her work as part of an effort to encourage a deeper discussion of the complex legacy of slavery and colonialism in Ghana, the United States, and around the world: “I hope that we can start to have a longer view of our history and how that informs the way that we treat people in the present.”