Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi

A Ghanian American scientist makes findings about herself

“The thing I will never forget is that people were watching us do all of this,” recalls the narrator of Yaa Gyasi’s second novel. “We were three Black people in distress. Nothing to see.”

Transcendent Kingdom is an unsentimental account of the immigrant experience seen through the eyes of Gifty, a Ph.D. neuroscience candidate at Stanford studying reward-seeking behavior in Ensure-addicted mice. A Ghanian American raised evangelical in Alabama, Gifty is something of a double major: “I used to see the world through a God lens and when that lens clouded, I turned to science. Both became, for me, valuable ways of seeing, but both have failed to fully satisfy their aim: to make clear, to make meaning.”

Gifty and her family encounter numerous first-generation hurdles in America, not least of which is navigating a predominantly white community. Lack of assimilation leads to isolation when their father, tired of being undermined by structural racism, moves back to Ghana. Their mother, an overworked home health aide, is too busy making ends meet to spend any real time at home.

Young Gifty turns to their Pentecostal church but is met with mostly apathy (which in turn shakes her own piety). The white pastor does show concern, however, when Gifty’s older brother Nana, a star high school basketball player, sustains an injury that could cost them the season. Ultimately, it costs Nana his life: a painkiller prescription for his knee spirals into a three-year opioid addiction, ending in a fatal overdose.

Gifty is sent to stay with her aunt in Ghana for the summer while her mother battles debilitating depression back in Alabama. Aunt Joyce is a vibrant version of her ailing sister, as if to suggest the family would have been better off had they not gone to America. When Gifty asks to meet with her father, who has since remarried, their awkward and brief visit seems to finalize the distance between them. “He never said a word about my mother or Nana. He never said sorry, and I was old enough then to know that he never would,” Gyasi writes.

At 28 and six years deep into her doctoral work, Gifty is a self-described “immigrant cliché.” For much of her graduate career, she has been consumed by a single question: How does an animal restrain itself from pursuing a reward, especially when there is risk involved? Her research doubles as a personal inquiry into the neural circuitry of her own family. “All of this work to try to get to the bottom of the thing that had no bottom,” she reflects.

Toggling back and forth between the present and the past, empiricism and evangelicalism, belonging and not, the narrator makes every effort to understand human beings, the most complex of all the species – and the only ones that believe they’ve transcended their kingdom.

Gyasi, who herself was born in Ghana and grew up in Alabama, examines the dream and the struggle with total equanimity. She has written about ambivalence and estrangement and yearning with such weight, only an unfaltering voice like Gifty’s can make it bearable. Transcendent Kingdom honors the stranger, and in doing so, we recognize ourselves.

Transcendent Kingdom

by Yaa Gyasi
Knopf, 288 pp., $27.95

Yaa Gyasi will appear at the 2020 Texas Book Festival in the session "Transcendent Kingdom: Yaa Gyasi in Conversation" at noon Thu., Nov. 12, on the Texas Book Festival website.

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