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Yaa Gyasi: ‘I don’t think any one book can teach us about humanity’

Urvi Nagrani/photo illustration by the globe and mail

Yaa Gyasi's debut novel, Homegoing, follows the lives, and descendants, of two half-sisters living in 18th-century Ghana. It was published this month by Bond Street Books. Gyasi, 26, was born in Ghana, raised in Alabama, studied at Stanford University and the Iowa Writers' Workshop and currently lives in California.

What's the best advice you've ever received?

I once had a teacher tell me to read all my stories aloud and I've been doing it ever since. There's really no better way, I think, to catch when something is off in a sentence. The teacher told me to do this because I had a bad habit of switching tenses in the middle of a sentence and reading my work aloud immediately cured me of that habit, but beyond the grammatical, it also allowed me to hear the musical quality of stories and the rhythm that sentences make when joined together, so that now sometimes I can tell that a phrase is missing from a sentence just by the way that sentence sounds when read aloud. It's been a great help to me when editing.

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What agreed-upon classic do you despise?

I read Gone with the Wind in middle school and hated it so much that when I finished it I threw it against the wall of my bedroom. It's a massive book, and it made such a loud noise that my dad came in to see if I was all right. I hated that novel not just because it is an obscenely racist book, but also because I was a hopeless romantic back then when it came to literature, and I just couldn't believe that I had invested my time in a thousand-plus page novel only to find that Rhett and Scarlett didn't end up together. What a waste!

Would you rather have the ability to be invisible or time travel?

It would be nice to be invisible while time travelling, as many of the time periods that I write about in my novel are not exactly hospitable to black people. Time travelling would have been great while I was researching. I'm sure it's every writer's dream to get to see the places and situations that they can only access through their imaginations up close. Though, if I couldn't be invisible while time travelling, I would just choose invisibility. I think that being able to listen in on any conversation you wanted without worrying that people would alter what they said because they knew someone was listening would be invaluable.

If aliens landed on Earth, which book would you give them to teach them about humanity?

If aliens came to Earth I would give them a copy of Things Fall Apart. I don't think any one book can teach us about humanity but I think that book deals beautifully with the pitfalls of "discovering" a new place and suddenly feeling the need to impose your own ideas and customs onto the people who already live there. I would hope that if the aliens had any leanings towards colonizing Earth, this book might warn them against it. If they didn't, they could just enjoy the loveliness of the simple prose and complex ideas.

Which book got you through the darkest period of your life?

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Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison got me through that very confusing transitional period between high school and college. Seeing that a black woman could be a writer, and not just any writer, but one of the very best writers I had ever encountered, was, simply put, life-changing. And, whenever I felt pressure from people in my life who didn't want me to become a writer, I would return to Morrison and remember why I think this work is vital.

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