Yaa Gyasi: 'Toni Morrison blew away everything I thought I knew about literature'

The bestselling novelist on tackling her to-be-read pile during the pandemic, crying over Natasha Trethewey, and not finishing Ulysses

The book I am currently reading
I’ve been shopping my bookshelves these past few pandemic months, trying to read some of the books I’ve owned for years but hadn’t yet read, which is what led me to my current read, Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi. It’s just enchanting. Funny and lyrical with something sinister lurking.

The book that changed my life
I read Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison when I was 17 and it blew away everything I thought I knew about what literature was, what literature could do. I remember thinking that I wanted to feel like this every time I read: shaken and in awe.

The book I wish I’d written
Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward. Just a perfect book. Only Ward could write it, but I can dream.

The book that changed my mind
Before I read Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond, I didn’t know much about the eviction crisis in the US. The book clearly, devastatingly shows how eviction itself can plunge people into poverty. I have thought of it almost daily as news of the pandemic evictions pours in. It has been said, but it still bears repeating: the failure of our government to meet this crisis will have catastrophic and far reaching effects on all aspects of our lives.

The last book that made me cry
Memorial Drive by Natasha Trethewey. I’ve long known Trethewey for her poetry and so was eager to read her memoir. It was so beautifully written, so piercing, so tender and full of mourning. I cried and cried.

The book I couldn’t finish
James Joyce’s Ulysses.

The book I give as a gift
The one I’ve given most often in recent years is Her Body & Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado. It’s such a singular book that I know that the recipient is not likely to have read anything like it. The stories are so shape-shifting that there really is something for everyone in it and I love to hear back from people after they’ve read it about what stuck with them. Usually, they’re just gobsmacked by the whole thing.

My earliest reading memory
Once, when I was really young, my parents made me write a report on the children’s book I was reading at the time. I think it was The Rainbow Fish by Marcus Pfister, but I’m not totally sure. At any rate, I wrote something to the effect of “This book is very good. If you’d like to learn more about it, read it yourself.” I’m happy to say that was the end of the book reports but not the end of my love for reading.

Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi (Penguin, £14.99) has been longlisted for the Women’s prize for fiction. To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.

Contributor

Yaa Gyasi

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