Yaa Gyasi’s Book Recommendations

yaa gyasi's book recommendations

Courtesy of Peter Hurley / Vilcek Foundation


Welcome to the lifespan, The books section of ELLE.com, in which the authors share their most memorable readings. Whether you’re looking for a book to console you, move you deeply, or make you laugh, consider a recommendation from the writers of our series who, like you (since you’re here), love books. Maybe one of their favorite titles will become one of yours as well.

Yaa Gyasi shares some common points with the protagonist of her second novel, Transcendent kingdom (just in Vintage paperback). Both are Ghanaians who grew up in Alabama, attending the Pentecostal church and traveled to Stanford-Gyasi as an English major; her character, Gifty, as a neuroscience doctoral student studying reward-seeking behavior in mice, perhaps to unlock the secrets of sibling addiction and mother depression.

The idea came after visiting his neuroscientist best friend’s lab, as did the idea for his 2016 debut novel, Back home, born from a visit to a slave castle in Ghana. The story of eight generations descended from half-sisters – one slave, one free – won the National Book Critics Circle John Leonard Award and the PEN / Hemingway Award among other accolades and was shortlisted for television. Her first prize, at the age of seven, was an Honorable Mention in the Reading Rainbow Young Writers and Illustrators competition for a story she submitted titled “Just Me and My Dog”.

Brooklyn-based Gyasi (her first name means “girl born on a Thursday” in Ashanti culture; her last name sounds like “Jessie”) once wanted to be a singer (she sang in church and school choirs), worked in a startup in San Francisco, lived in Berlin and does not drink Coffee.

Among the most charming virtual book events, that of Gyasi with the National writers series last fall, two special appearances: his English teacher AP and his parents (the father is a professor of French-speaking African literature; the mother is a nurse) whose public question had nothing to do with craftsmanship or the process, but which perhaps many adult children can relate to: When are you coming home?


The book that:

… Helped me through a loss:

I memorized poems by Lucille Clifton Good wife a summer when I had particularly difficult times. This book looks 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” as I took the bus to work. This is the most beautiful and saddest story of the most beautiful and saddest book. I spent the rest of my bus ride crying and I was incredibly late.

… made me cry uncontrollably:

All my little sorrows by Miriam Toews. I finished it on New Years Eve 2019, so looking back, crying until 2020, considering how much this year would bring, feels incredibly prescient to me. It’s an absolutely beautiful novel, both hilarious and devastating.

… shaped my view of the world:

Things are falling apart by Chinua Achebe. A classic for a reason.

… I would give a gift to a new graduate:

How we get it for free edited by Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor. It is a book that shares the mission statement of the Combahee River Collective as well as interviews with founding members and contemporary activists. A great reminder of the work that has been done and the work that is in progress.

… made me laugh out loud:

Oreo by Fran Ross. It’s so playful and weird. One of those books that you read and think about, why don’t we write more books like this?

… I would like to transform into a Netflix show:

I’m late for the party, but recently finished The fifth season, the first book of The Broken Earth Trilogy by NK Jemisin and I loved it. It would make a fantastic TV series.

… I bought for the last time:

Let the record show by Sarah Schulman. A political story of ACT UP, written by someone whose work is endlessly interesting and engaging? Yes please.

… has the best title:

Two come to mind: What is not yours is not yours by Helen Oyeyemi and Go and separate by Nikky Finney. Two great books with titles that stick in my head like the lyrics of the songs.

… has the best opening line:

Extract from “Monet refuses the operation” by Lisel Meuller in Live together: “Doctor, you say that there are no halos / around the lampposts in Paris / and what I see is an aberration / caused by old age, an affliction. took my whole life / to get to the vision of gas lamps like angels, / to soften and blur and ultimately banish / the edges you wish I didn’t see, / to learn that the line I called l The horizon / does not exist and the sky and the water, / so far apart, are the same state of being.

… has the greatest ending:

Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison. “… if you let yourself go, you could ride it.” The most moving end of all literature.

… I reread the most:

Probably Jane eyre by Charlotte Brontë, just from my college days alone.

… presents the most beautiful book cover:

The octopus museum by Brenda Shaughnessy. I bought the book purely based on the beauty of this jacket, although luckily for me the poems are just as gorgeous.

… I was only able to find out at ___:

I took Agents by Brian Blanchfield after seeing it on a display table at McNally Jackson’s. I love this store, and Agents ended up being one of my favorite reads last year.

… which contains the recipe for a favorite dish:

I made the buttermilk cookies from Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat by Samin Nosrat for years now. I always have a batch of them in my freezer. They are basically a vehicle filled with butter for butter. I could eat them every day.

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