Yaa Gyasi’s debut novel Homegoing is one of my most recommended books. The structure and breadth of the book, which covers three centuries is a marvel to read. When I learned that she had written another book, Transcendent Kingdom, I was already salivating to get lost in another historical work of fiction. However, when I read the blurb of the book it did not read like a historical fiction book, it was contemporary. The blurb was still enticing enough to discover what Gyasi had penned. It would be easy to classify Transcendent Kingdom as another immigrant novel but as you read along you will soon understand why it commands to be described as much more.
Transcendent Kingdom is told through the eyes of Gifty, who was born in the United States of America to Ghanaian parents. She narrates the story of life in the present where she is a PhD candidate in neuroscience at Stanford University and uses flashbacks to show us what her upbringing was like and the reasons behind her passion for neuroscience. In Transcendent Kingdom, Gyasi explores multiple themes— immigration, race, addiction, religion, science and depression besides others. She does this with a cast of few characters around Gifty’s life.
Gifty’s mother decided to seek out the American Dream and left Ghana. Her husband whom Gifty refer’s to as Chin Chin Man and brother, Nana join her later. Gifty is born a few years later in the USA. As soon as the family immigrate things begin to unravel. Gifty’s mother takes on multiple jobs and assuming the role of breadwinner. The Chin Chin Man fails to adapt to the new environment, finding work is a challenge and he is constantly reminiscing about what he left behind in Ghana. This is the narrative of many Africans who leave the continent for USA or Europe with the ambitions of greater opportunities. However, soon discover that streets are not paved with gold but can be an unforgiving terrain to navigate.
The anchoring character in Gifty’s story is Nana who was a talented athlete. He excelled in basketball and was a sort of celebrity in his town of Huntsville, Alabama. Then the absence of their father and an injury led him down the path of an opioid addiction, which had a tragic end. We get to see how Nana’s addiction affected Gifty and her mother. Addiction in many households is still shrouded in shame and is often misunderstood. This situation was no different. We see the struggle of a helpless mother to get her son help whether it is through rehab or the church and yet like a boomerang the cycle begins all over again. At one point Gifty poignantly puts it, “I have seen people who suffer from addiction and the family and friends who love them in various places and at various points in my life.”
It is her brother’s addiction that steers Gifty towards the path of neuroscience. Where her brother was talented at sports, she had academic prowess. She is pursuing a doctorate in neuroscience having previously studied at Harvard. She is trying to understand what causes addiction and how she can find a solution to help those who are addicted or at the bare minimum get to understand it. It seems to be an attempt to gain closure from her brother’s death. The adult parts of Gifty’s life are about her work and taking care of a depressed mother who has failed to come to terms with her son’s death even years later.
Gifty also struggles to reconcile her religious upbringing and the science she has come to learn. As a child, she kept a journal and wrote to God about what was happening in her life. Her entries were often witty, hilarious and naïve. Gifty was also a guarded person and at times felt like an outsider.
Gyasi shows how the support structures we establish in Africa can come in handy when one is going through challenges such as an illness or death. The Ubuntu spirit which is engrained in most African cultures was lacking. Gifty did not have uncles, aunts and cousins to visit because there were none. She grew up when communicating with people back in Ghana was reserved to abbreviated calls once a month. Unlike today where cheaper video and voice calls bridge the distance and has made it easier to cope as immigrants can still witness events like weddings or funerals in real time through video calls. This is what Gifty did not have access to in the USA and like many immigrants, the only support structure they can rely on is their family. Perhaps if her extended family was within reach maybe the outcome would have been different. It is in sections where she is talking about her family or the lack of it that Gyasi’s writing shines, at times I could not wait for the parts where Gifty is interacting with the mice to end. These parts tended to drag and could be mistaken for fillers.
Transcendent Kingdom is a book that keeps the reader rooting for Gifty, hoping that the grey clouds would part from her life and the sun would shine. Yaa Gyasi tackles sombre subjects such as addiction and depression with care and honesty. Her ability to let the reader empathise with the characters is her literary prowess. Shinning a light on topics of addiction and depression is a discussion that needs to be brought to the table even though it can make us uncomfortable. In some African societies, this is further complicated when religion whether Christianity, Islam or indigenous are brought into the mix. The gravity of mental health is still not taken as a priority by most African governments. Going to rehab or for therapy is still largely frowned upon, which prevents people from seeking help. When you finish reading the final page, you will feel that the experience was far-reaching. The best way to describe that feeling is Transcendent.