Asking the Right Questions: Yaa Gyasi’s Transcendent Kingdom

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Yaa Gyasi’s Transcendent Kingdom, one of the most anticipated novels of 2020, delivers an intimate portrayal of a Ghanaian family making its way in the contemporary American South, a story as multifaceted as the human brain itself. For Gyasi to write a novel strong enough to follow her highly acclaimed debut Homegoing, she had to create the diamond that is Transcendent Kingdom. I paid full price for the book during a pandemic, preordering my copy without thinking about the cost. When it arrived, I swan-dived into its pages, into a story that moves with speed, heart, and scientific passion.

Narrated by Gifty, a sixth-year PhD candidate in neuroscience at Stanford, the story combines Gifty’s sterile life, observing reward-seeking behavior in lab mice, with flashbacks of her observing similar addictive patterns in her older brother, Nana, who overdosed on heroin. Gifty’s present narrative begins when her mother arrives from Alabama, in the throes of clinical depression and unable to care for herself, and moves into Gifty’s small apartment. Her absent father, whom they call “the Chin Chin Man” after a traditional snack food he used to love, moved back to Ghana when Gifty was four, “homesick and humiliated” after enduring years of low-paying jobs and systemic racism in Alabama. Nana was a star athlete until a sports injury stopped him, and painkillers helped him play again. His tragic descent into opioid addiction, followed by his death by heroin overdose, ravages the family.

Gyasi’s brilliance is seen in the way she structures the narrative, as Gifty seeks order in her utterly chaotic world—first in church, then in science. There’s a tenuous balance found in the book’s chapters, alternating between past and present, religion and science, spirit and intellect, addiction and discipline. The structure is a reflection of Gifty’s life, where beliefs and behaviors seemingly contradict each other. As opposing forces coexist in Gifty’s multifaceted heart and mind, she seeks explanation for everything, including her own heartbreak and hope. Gifty’s conflicted beliefs, combined with her desire to find clear answers to her questions, propel the narrative forward.

At first, Gifty believes there are scientific explanations for her brother’s addiction and subsequent death, but she soon recognizes how deeper wounds are uncharted in the brain. In the aftermath of Nana’s death, Gifty’s mother experiences her first real depression, which encourages her scientifically minded daughter to carefully observe her behavior: “I had studied her face for any sign of collapse, trying to make myself an expert on the shades of sadness I recognized in her eyes. Was it the everyday kind, the kind we all have from time to time, the kind that comes and, more important, goes?” Gifty’s own life, as a younger sister who had previously lived in the shadow of her athletically gifted brother, is now spent caring for herself and for her mother, whose shades of sadness make it impossible for her to recognize her daughter’s brilliance. Gifty’s need for her mother to return from her deepening depression is coupled with her desire to be seen; both must happen for these women to survive the fallout of Nana’s death.

Gifty seeks refuge in science, observing neural circuits of depression in rodent brains. Despite her understanding of the organ, Gifty knows the brains of her laboratory mice can never fully compare to a human’s: “And yet I had to try to understand, to extrapolate from that limited understanding in order to apply it to those of us who made up the species Homo sapiens, the most complex animal, the only animal who believed he had transcended his Kingdom, as one of my high school biology teachers used to say.” Unable to speak of losing Nana to his addiction, Gifty has few close friends, and unstable relationships with love interests. Her only enduring companion is a lab mate, Han, with whom she shares scientific interest and casual conversation.

And so, Gifty often escapes into her childhood journals, kept in her desk, which record her family’s transformation from hopeful Ghanaian American immigrants in Huntsville, Alabama, to lonely individuals dispersed into private worlds and fractured by grief. As each family member struggles with their own set of challenges, their stories are misunderstood, even by each other, and their bond begins to deteriorate. The harsh and unfamiliar land of Alabama makes them all feel foreign and lonely. They each escape into different worlds: Mother into church, Nana into sports, Gifty into school, and the Chin-Chin Man back to his true home, Ghana.

In Alabama, Gifty encounters racism from an early age. She lies to a snotty-nosed kindergarten classmate, telling him she’s a Ghanaian princess; he responds: “No you’re not. Black people can’t be princesses.” Racism seeps up through the fields where Nana plays soccer, is hidden in the speech of minor characters, and is denied to be lurking in every classroom Gifty enters: “When I was a child, no one ever said the words ‘institutionalized racism.’ We hardly said the word ‘racism.’ I don’t think I took a single class in college that talked about the psychological effects of years of personally mediated racism and internalized racism.” Gifty’s formative years take place in a society that denies her beauty, strength, and significance. “What I’m saying is I didn’t grow up with a language for, a way to explain, to parse out, my self-loathing. I grew up only with my part, my little throbbing stone of self-hate that I carried around with me to church, to school, to all those places in my life that worked, it seemed to me then, to affirm the idea that I was irreparably, fatally, wrong. I was a child who liked to be right.” As a college student, Gifty’s desire to succeed eventually leads her to neuroscientific research, a field so elevated that she escapes the slippery landscape of opinions altogether.

Gifty’s greatest struggle, though, is her desire to feel significant within her family. Born to a traditional Ghanaian mother who has already received her miracle baby, Gifty is almost a footnote in her mother’s story. “Nana, my mother’s Isaac,” Gifty says, is the necessary hero of the family, a boy born to his mother in her old age. “Nana was the first miracle, the true miracle, and his birth cast a very long shadow.” Gifty herself, she adds, was “born in the darkness that shadow left behind.” The favor her mother shows her only son informs Gifty’s expectations and opinion of herself. In childhood, her mother describes Nana as a miracle baby, and makes sure Gifty knows she was the difficult one: “I understood that, even as a child. My mother made certain of it. She was a matter-of-fact kind of woman, not a cruel woman, exactly, but something quite close to cruel.” Gifty grows up knowing Nana is valued more than she is, for his gender and physical talent, but also notices her mother’s protection of his emotional health—especially after the Chin-Chin Man leaves. When Nana stops playing soccer without giving his mother a reason, she supports him instead of demanding an explanation: “…she put all of Nana’s soccer gear into a box, sealed the box, and dumped it into the nether regions of our garage, never to be seen again.” The mother’s expectations of her daughter are more traditional, and Gifty learns from her how life is different for girls. The family attends the First Pentecostal Church of God, a place of worship that often appears in her dreams of the future: “When I was a child, I thought I would be a dancer or a worship leader at a Pentecostal Church, a preacher’s wife, or a glamorous actress.”

In church, Gifty finds answers but in school, Gifty finds questions. Her fascination with science takes hold when she realizes that discovery is about asking the right questions: “We don’t even know the questions we need to ask in order to find out, but when we learn one tiny little thing, a dim light comes on in a dark hallway, and suddenly, a new question appears.” Gifty’s teachers soon recognize her diligence and brilliance, and encourage further study of “the hard sciences.” Her mother remains unimpressed throughout Gifty’s adolescence, and even into college, causing Gifty to constantly second-guess herself. Her inability to ask the right questions disturbs Gifty, especially after Nana’s death. She sees this clearly when deciding on a thesis project: “I would waste months on one experiment, find that it led nowhere, then backtrack only to end up in the same place as before.” When Gifty finally admits to herself that her dead brother’s life and addiction have been haunting her, she gains clarity: “The thing I really wanted to know. Can an animal restrain itself from pursuing a reward, especially when there is risk involved? Once I had that question figured out, everything else started to fall into place.” Now, in a world of research and experimentation with mice, in a controlled laboratory atmosphere, Gifty can admit she wants answers about her brother’s addiction—or at least better questions. How can a young man so filled with promise choose to medicate his pain, instead of healing his emotional issues with the same intensity and discipline he applied in sports?

Possibly most compelling about the narrative is Gifty’s desire to resolve the divide between science and faith. In her childhood journals, she records her prayers: “Dear God, I’ve been wondering where you are. I mean, I know you’re here, with me, but where are you exactly? In space?” Gyasi’s loyalty to her protagonist’s voice is most pronounced when these journal entries are juxtaposed with adult Gifty and her quest to find scientific answers. Gifty confronts her spirituality, her beliefs, and the unexplained phenomena of the human spirit, all of which cannot be scientifically explained. As if growing up Black in the racist South isn’t enough, Gifty lives as a closeted Christian among her scientific peers. Once, after outing herself to fellow students, she wonders why she spoke up. “I don’t think any of my ideas were ever taken seriously until someone repackaged them as their own. After all, what could a Jesus freak know about science?” Logically minded, Gifty recognizes that spirituality, unexplained by scientific evidence or DNA, is different from religion, whose authenticity collapses after the church continues to wound and fail her family.

Transcendent Kingdom becomes an experiment in itself. Gyasi creates a narrator who connects with the reader, mirroring the lens we use to evaluate the story. Gifty’s power as a character, and as a protagonist with whom many readers will relate, comes from the way she’s been forged under pressure. The structural brilliance of Gyasi’s novel is found in each chapter’s reveal, which contains a necessary piece to complete—rather than solve—the proverbial larger puzzle of the story. Gyasi bestows remarkable trust and authority in her narrator, then allows Gifty to demonstrate how the human brain is more than a computer that runs programs. Gyasi’s Kingdom has no easy answers, only the hopeful purity of Gifty’s voice. In the end, this is more than enough.

Janet Rodriguez is an author, teacher, and editor living in Northern California. She is the author of Making an American Family: A Recipe in Five Generations (Prickly Pear Press, 2022), a family memoir. In the United States, her work has appeared in Hobart, Pangyrus, Eclectica, The Rumpus, Cloud Women’s Quarterly, American River Review, and Calaveras Station. She is the winner of the Bazanella Literary Award for Short Fiction and the Literary Insight for Work in Translation Award, both from CSUS Sacramento in 2017. Her short stories, essays, and poetry usually deal with themes involving morality in faith communities and the mixed-race experience in a culturally binary world. She holds an MFA from Antioch University, Los Angeles. She is currently Assistant Editor of Interviews at The Rumpus . Follow her on Twitter at @brazenprincess. More from this author →