From Prodigies to Paragons
Yaa Gyasi and Sarah Jarosz were recognized early for their gifts. Now they are becoming role models.
Yaa Gyasi is an acclaimed novelist, best known for her award-winning debut Homegoing.
Born in 1989 in Mampong, Ghana, Gyasi moved to the United States as an infant so her father could pursue a PhD at Ohio State University. After stints in Ohio, Illinois, and Tennessee, her family settled in Huntsville, Alabama.
An omnivorous reader as a child, Gyasi began writing at an early age, winning an award from the TV show Reading Rainbow at age 7. She earned a BFA at Stanford University and an MFA from the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Gyasi returned to Ghana on a research trip after her sophomore year at Stanford. This research formed the basis of her first novel, Homegoing (2016), about the descendants of two Ghanaian half-sisters, one of whom is sold into slavery in the United States. Gyasi received a million-dollar advance for the book, which received numerous prizes including the PEN/Hemingway Award and an American Book Award.
Her second novel, Transcendent Kingdom (2020), follows a Ghanaian American PhD student at Stanford and her struggling family members. It was shortlisted for the 2021 Women’s Prize for Fiction.
Sarah Jarosz is a Grammy-winning folk musician known for her virtuosic mandolin, banjo, and guitar playing and the rich storytelling of her songwriting.
Born in Austin in 1991, Jarosz began playing mandolin at age 10 and was soon joining bluegrass jams in her hometown of Wimberly, Texas. She signed a record deal and released her first album, Song Up in Her Head (2009), while still in high school. Despite receiving a Grammy nomination and gaining a reputation as a musical prodigy, Jarosz eschewed life on the road to enroll in the New England Conservatory of Music. She recorded two more albums before graduating with an honors degree in contemporary improvisation.
Her fourth album, Undercurrent (2017), topped the Billboard bluegrass charts and won a Grammy for Best Folk Album. Jarosz won her fourth Grammy (from nine nominations) in 2021 for the album World on the Ground (2020). She released her sixth album, Blue Heron Suite, in 2021.
Jarosz is also a founding member of the all-female folk trio I’m With Her.
Welcome to Articulate, the show that explores how really creative people understand the world. I’m Jim Cotter, and on this episode, “From Prodigies to Paragons.” As a child, the Ghanaian-American novelist Yaa Gyasi’s family moved often. It was a boon for a young girl curious about who she might become.
Yaa Gyasi: I haven’t ever been very attached to a place, or felt like this is where I belong in some way that feels like it’s quieting some need in me to go onto the next thing. I don’t know if a place could make me feel that way.
And branded a child prodigy, singer-songwriter Sarah Jarosz, now in her thirties, is finally getting to cast aside this earlier identity.
Sarah Jarosz: I get carded all the time. People do not believe it’s my real driver’s license. There was a phase, maybe around 27, where I was like they’re still using prodigy? And then I just, I don’t know, in the last year, it’s like, people are gonna say what they wanna say.
That’s all ahead on Articulate.
By the time she was nine, Yaa Gyasi’s family had moved five times.
Yaa Gyasi: It was Ghana, Ohio, Illinois, Tennessee, Alabama.
Yet those nomadic years gave her a perspective on how location can help shape a person.
Gyasi: I was aware of the fact that in each new place that we lived in, there was like a new set of rules, new ideologies. What people thought to be inherent to them, I could see as an outsider as being in part informed by where they had grown up and the people they had grown up around. And so I became kind of obsessed with doing these little thought experiments, like if I stayed in Ghana who would I be? If I stayed in Ohio, who would I be?
Those hypothetical questions are, of course, impossible to answer, but Gyasi isn’t as interested in answers as she is in rigorous questioning. For her, this interrogation of the world takes form in writing, which she likens to prayer.
Gyasi: Because I did grow up in the church, I’m thinking of it as that kind of daily sustained practice that feels at times even as you’re doing it feels pointless, but you again feel faithful that something will come out of it, even if you don’t know what that thing is.
Growing up, Gyasi says books were her closest friends, and a love for reading quickly led to a love for writing. When she was seven, she submitted a short story to a competition on the children’s television show Reading Rainbow and won an honorable mention. As a teenager, she wrote young adult fiction, which she admits almost no one has seen. But it was in college that she took the leap that would shape her writing for years to come. After her sophomore year, Gyasi traveled to Ghana, only her second time back since leaving as a child. She kept the reason for her trip from her parents.
Gyasi: I had gotten a fellowship to research a novel, but I didn’t tell them that, and so they just kept telling everyone that I was there to do research, but they didn’t know what it was for, or what it was.
It would take another six years for the novel she was researching to become Homegoing. It’s hard not to see the book as the embodiment of those what if’s Gyasi had asked herself growing up. It begins with two Ghanaian sisters separated early in life. One is sold into slavery, the other stays in Ghana. From there, we follow the stories of their descendants over the next several hundred years, tracing the intergenerational consequences of that long ago separation.
(Excerpt from Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing)
A month passed, and it was time again for Marcus to return to his research. He had been avoiding it because it wasn’t going well. Originally, he’d wanted to focus his work on the convict leasing system that had stolen years off his great-grandpa H’s life, but the deeper into the research he got, the bigger the project got. How could he talk about great-grandpa H’s story without also talking about his grandma Willie and the millions of other black people who had migrated north, fleeing Jim Crow? And if he mentioned the Great Migration, he’d have to talk about the cities that took that flock in. He’d have to talk about Harlem. And how could he talk about Harlem without mentioning his father’s heroin addiction, the stints in prison, the criminal record? And if he was going to talk about heroin and Harlem in the sixties, wouldn’t he also have to talk about crack, everywhere in the eighties?
For Gyasi, Homegoing became an answer to a quandry of identity. An immigrant child of African parents, she was reluctant to write about Ghana, having left so long before. But her parents also raised her to see herself as Ghanaian rather than Black or American.
Gyasi: I have this long ethnic history that’s separate from the American, Black American, experience, so it feels, I do feel like there’s a kind of separation for me, and I wouldn’t want to say that my experience is exactly the same as someone who grew up here, whose parents are descended from enslaved people.
AJC: But you still have to deal with the slings and arrows?
Gyasi: Oh yes, sure. Sure. But there are also protections that come along with having this Ghanaian ancestry. The sense of being displaced is not one that I have, and that’s a psychological thing. It’s hard to explain, but I can if I want to, I could trace my family back past the great-grandparents, past the great-great-grandparents. But I recognize that to Ghanaians, to people who had grown up there their whole lives, I’m this other thing. I’m American. And so that distance was always one that I didn’t know whether or not I was comfortable navigating.
Homegoing was an astronomical success. Gyasi won the PEN/Hemingway Award for a Debut Novel in 2017, as well as another eye-catching and life-chancing achievement: an advance for her first book of over a million dollars.
AJC: Describe to me the moment when the agent called you, and said you’ll never believe this, but they want to give you this much money.
Gyasi: Yeah. They already kind of suspected that it was going toward that, because there was a bidding war. But then when he said the final number, I think I was very silent, and he asked if I was okay. And I said yes. I think I played it very cool, but then when I got off the phone with him, I started crying. Yeah.
AJC: With joy, or with fear, or with both?
Gyasi: With both. Joy and anxiety, and a very complicated mix of emotions. Mostly because I recognized that my life was going to change completely. Anxiety in those years was that feeling, that worry that I hadn’t protected my inner life somehow, and I wouldn’t be able to figure out how to return to whatever that quiet place is that I need in order to write, that I’d given too much away somehow.
In the aftermath of Homegoing Gyasi recovered that inner life by once again displacing her outer life. She moved to Berlin to work on her second novel, Transcendent Kingdom. This time, she limited herself to one protagonist, a neuroscientist named Gifty who’s working through the traumas that have torn her family apart. Many parts of Gifty’s life mirrored Gyasi’s. Both are black women born to Ghanaian parents. Both grew up in Huntsville, Alabama, and both went to Stanford. But that doesn’t mean Gifty is any sort of stand-in for Gyasi. If writing for her is prayer, then those similarities are just a starting point for deeper contemplations.
Gyasi: I think of those autobiographical details as a kind of scaffolding that you put up to build the house, but it doesn’t matter, ultimately. Anything that is from my life that goes in the book is unrecognizable, to me, at least, by the time I finish it. So for example, when my brother, my older brother, read the book, one of his first reactions was, “I really don’t like that main character.” And I was like oh okay, phew. That means it’s not me. So I’m always trying to get to know the character as I’m writing, and a first draft is really an opportunity to kind of listen to what a character might be trying to say, or how they might want to reveal themselves. It’s a kind of communication with something that you can’t see. I’m asking something to come forth, but I don’t know what it is. And I don’t know when I’ll know. I just have to be faithful and keep doing it.
This searching applies just as much to Gyasi’s external world as her inner one. The latest stop in her odyssey is New York City, but that doesn’t mean she’ll live there forever. Even after living in multiple countries on different continents, she’s never felt completely content in any one place.
Gyasi: My brother calls it having a hot foot, like this restlessness of needing to move every couple of years, or wanting to move every couple of years, has mostly been the case for me. I haven’t ever been very attached to a place, or felt like this is where I belong in some way, that feels like it’s quieting some need in me to go onto the next thing. I don’t know if a place could make me feel that way, but maybe I just haven’t found the place.
It could also be that place isn’t something to be found, but rather created and cultivated. In spite of a lack of attachment to any one location, Gyasi doesn’t feel unmoored or rootless. Instead she finds a sense of stability and control in the people and work she surrounds herself with.
Gyasi: There is for me a rootedness in the fact of my family, my family support, and their continued presence in my life. And then also the writing. I think that the writing gives me a sense of rootedness that’s really helpful. When I was writing Homegoing, I think I had so many more questions about identity and place and where I fit, and as I wrote, not that I started to answer those questions, but I started to care less about what the answers to those questions were.
For Yaa Gyasi, the act of questioning itself can be a sort of answer. The aim isn’t certainty or correctness, rather it’s finding a way to exist with the inevitable changes, contradictions, and complexities of life. And her winding journey has a ways to go, with so many more questions to ask, and stories to tell.
Very early in life, Sarah Jarosz was dubbed a musical prodigy. These gifts might have gone to her head, but instead she’s remained grounded and focused.
Sarah Jarosz: I am so lucky to just be surrounded by people who would slap me upside the head, and just put me back down to earth. That kind of ‘don’t get above your raisin’ mentality.
A decade and a half into her career, Jarosz is still sometimes referred to as a prodigy. Now in her thirties, she’s a young woman, to be sure, but she says, not that young.
Jarosz: I get carded all the time. People do not believe it’s my real driver’s license. Yeah, I mean at the end of the day, I just don’t spend too much time thinking, I think there was a phase where I was, maybe around 27, where I was like they’re still using prodigy? Because I didn’t identify with that anymore. And then I just, I don’t know, in the last year, it’s like people are gonna say what they wanna say. I’m just gonna be myself.
And she has managed to be herself, and to remain humble. But even with her prodigious gifts, she has always worked hard to hone her skills as an instrumentalist and singer.
Jarosz: I’ve been thinking a lot about this recently, where people will say oh, “I’m bad at math.” You’re just not interested in math. And you need to be obsessively interested in something to, even if you have natural ability, you’re not going to succeed if you don’t put in the hours. So that was my whole childhood was just that obsessive phase, where it was, I think I kind of realized that some of it was coming pretty quickly to me, but then I was very lucky to just be surrounded by adults who never treated me as a kid, even though I was often the youngest person in the room, they just threw me a solo like I was one of them. And so there wasn’t any talking down to me, or playing down to me.
Born in 1991, Jarosz was raised in the small Texas town of Wimberley. Her parents, both schoolteachers, listened to all kinds of music at home, and would take her to concerts in nearby Austin. Young Sarah drank it all in, and soon began on her own creative path.
Jarosz: When I sort of took charge of the music that I was making, it was kind of around nine, age nine, 10, and made me realize, oh young people are playing this acoustic folk music, but it’s cool, and they look cool, and maybe I could do this. When I came to the mandolin at around age 10, that’s when I started becoming obsessed with music, and just in my room, working on learning how to play the mandolin, and taking it into my own hands, as opposed to just something that I was doing as an activity with my family.
Jarosz: The through line of everything was this Texas singer-songwriter tradition, and that’s honestly my earliest memories of hearing records around the house were Guy Clarke and Nancy Griffith, who, I’m wearing Nancy on my shirt.
In 2008, Jarosz signed a record deal with the iconic bluegrass and Americana label, Sugar Hill Records. She cut her debut album, Song Up In Her Head, while she was still a senior in high school. But rather than succumb to the allure of a music biz lifestyle, she enrolled in a degree program at the New England Conservatory of Music.
Jarosz: I wanted to have this four year barrier between being an 18-year-old and life. Almost if for nothing else, just to have those four years of being around other kids my age, having such a rich music community in Boston, it’s just hard for me to think back, if I had gone out on the road at 18 with that first record, that it would have been a very healthy mental health situation for me in the long run.
AJC: But you say other 18, 19-year-olds, not other 18, 19-year-olds with a major record deal and Grammy nominations, and a clear pathway to how things might work out well. How did they respond to you?
Jarosz: I was so fortunate to have just great friends, and supportive friends throughout that time, because really when I look back on it, it was a little insane. To be doing all of that stuff. So it was intense. I definitely put in a lot of hours. But it was just, like I said, even though the workload was very intense, psychologically, just to know that I was in Boston doing the college thing.
AJC: You were a college student.
Jarosz: I was at college, I was with my friends. I think that really was important for me to have that time.
Those college years were indeed a whirlwind of deep immersion in her studies, combined with a lot of traveling to record and perform. But it wasn’t all work and no play.
Jarosz: There was an apartment on 65 Hemingway, and it so just became known as 65. And that was the central place, and honestly that was where so many musicians, anyone who was coming in on tour would stop by and jam. I feel like I got so much musical stimulation from that experience.
Jarosz: But also your normal college partying experience, which was also fun.
These and her earlier experiences of creating music in a community she says is what has sustained her, and still pushes her to be the best she can be.
Jarosz: I think that was a lot of what has allowed me to keep doing it beyond just being a kid is that there was this element of oh no, this is fun. I just want to do it. And I never went really far down the competition fiddle contests, or mandolin contests route. Personally, that was never for me. And I think it was a much healthier situation to just have it be about meeting with your community, and your people, and your friends, and sharing music. I feel like I trace it back to that, you being thrown a solo, and you have your moment, and there is a lot of improvisation in that moment, and so you are expected to rise to your moment.
So far, Jarosz says, her life in music has met her expectations. The aspirations of that teenager practicing and singing in her room. And she says she’s in it for the long haul.
Jarosz: I just feel really fortunate that even at that time, I had my sights set on the long game. I think it’s really easy when young artists are getting started to just want the hit, or want the recognition, or want the attention right away.
Jarosz: I think I have, I always try to be honest in my songs, and in a way, I feel like if I’m not putting myself in that vulnerable state, then it’s not gonna connect with the listener. It almost takes letting yourself go there for somebody to get it, for somebody to feel it. I mean, at the end of the day, my barometer, my guiding force, is if I’m focusing on making music, I can’t really go wrong. If I’m focusing on making the best music that I can make.
Jarosz: As opposed to worrying too much about–
Jarosz: All the social media, likes, and all that stuff, and I’m just like anyone, I get caught up in that too.
In 2020, Jarosz won her fourth Grammy for World on the Ground. It might well be her finest work to date, and for her, it was a turning point in her musical growth, ever stronger evidence of her seemingly effortless command of her gifts, and her crafts: songwriting, instrumental virtuosity, and that unique singing voice.
Jarosz: World on the Ground is really the first record that I felt like I tried to turn away from just always being the ‘I’, and kind of coming at it from more of an–
AJC: An observation?
Jarosz: An observation, a storytelling perspective, almost creating characters. I think because I was writing my first four records when I was in high school and then college and then immediately after college, it was important for me to have that outlet of, because when you’re at that age, a lot of what’s happening is your inner monologue, and your feelings, and your hormones, and everything.
And that continuous personal growth has been fostered by the people she loves, and who love her. Especially recently when she, like many of us, was forced into a period of honest self-examination.
Jarosz: I have great friends, and they keep me honest. I think, I also think the pandemic really, if there was a silver lining of it, it was that it was this long pause, and this potentially at a point when I would have gotten a little swept up in things, I was forced to just sit with my mental health, and start seeing a therapist for the first time, and these things that I just never took the time to do, because I was so busy. I’m thankful for all of that, and I’m thankful for people who remind me that all of that is important.
Jarosz: Starting to come out of the pandemic, just being out on the road, trying to plan better and smarter, at the end of the day, is gonna make a better show. And that’s what I want to give people, a great show, because I want to connect. That’s kind of what it’s all about. The listener knows. The listener knows what’s good.
Starting young, Sarah Jarosz has come a long way, and is already demonstrating the kind of wisdom she saw in those she grew up watching, not tied to any one style, but dedicated to an honest, open, and candid outlook on life that’s reflected in her music.