It is said that no two people ever read the same book. Our personal history goes a long way in determining the points of references that resonate with us in a story. This is especially true for my time with Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi, since so much of what resonates with me about the story is because of how closely it resembles my own experiences. The protagonist, Gifty, is propelled to pursue a doctorate in neuroscience at Stanford after losing her brother to opioid addiction. While I am now a clinical psychologist, initially what made me gravitate towards psychology after high school was a similar grief following the sudden death of someone very close to me.
This novel follows up Gyasi’s spectacular debut Homegoing, and just to make sure no one labels this breakout novelist a one-hit wonder, she made sure that her second novel is nothing like her debut in terms of subject matter and tonality. While Homegoing was an intergenerational epic, sprawled over generations and continents, Transcendent Kingdom is a much more intimate and granular story of an immigrant Ghanian family in Alabama. Gifty is a scientist who is carrying on her shoulders the burden of the collective trauma of her family. Not only is she struggling to come to terms with her brother’s tragic death due to a drug overdose, she is also taking care of her mother’s depression and suicide attempt that followed in its aftermath.
An important thread in the story is the complex relationship between Gifty and her mother, the only two surviving members of their family in America. Gyasi sets the tone of their relationship from the get go with Gifty’s caustic introduction of her mother on the first page. “For months on end, she colonized that bed like a virus, the first time, when I was a child, and then again when I was a graduate student.” She is now under Gifty’s care once again after another severe bout of depression. The loss of her son has turned her mother vindictive and aloof. Anhedonic and overwhelmed by her colossal grief, she frequently lashes out at her only surviving child, inflicting verbal wounds like, “I only wanted Nana, and now I only have you.”
During her childhood, Gifty’s mother worked brutal hours at her thankless job as a home health aide, and it rarely left her with any time for affection for her children. Their father, referred to as The Chin Chin Man by our protagonist which implies conscious detachment, moved reluctantly from Ghana on the insistence of his wife, but never acclimated. He eventually moved back to Ghana and remarried there.
Rather than unpacking her emotional baggage and the trauma she has inherited from her family, Gifty the scientist is focused on somehow using her lab as her sanctuary to disassemble and decipher the entity responsible for all of this—the brain.
Gifty’s research involves studying the neural circuits of reward-seeking behavior in mice in order to alter the neural mechanisms involved in addictive and depressive behavior. One day, Gifty hopes to replicate her findings to homo sapiens, “the only animal who believed he had transcended his Kingdom.” A psychologist might deduce that this is Gifty’s coping mechanism to somehow blot out the loss of her brother to addiction, but whatever her motivations, it is clear that our stoic protagonist draws from inner reserves of unprocessed grief to stimulate her professional ambitions.
Her research is her penance as well as her salvation. Gifty’s predilection to turn to science in hours of distress had a basis in her childhood. She notices in hindsight how she took meticulous notes of Nana’s final years in her journal. “I wrote like an anthropologist with Nana as my sole subject.”
The novel also sensitively tackles the subject of how mental illness and therapy in particular is still frowned upon and very much a taboo subject among ethnic communities. Our narrator talks about how her mother refused to call her “illness” depression, and her refusal was grounded in the fact that according to her, ”Americans get depressed on TV and they cry.”
Gifty’s mother hated therapy and was forthright about her disbelief in mental illness. Nana was 15 when he developed a dependence on OxyContin after being prescribed the drug to alleviate pain from a sports injury. The matriarch lacked awareness to recognize the looming threat. “She thought the problem would just go away, because what did we know about addiction? What, other than the ‘just say no campaigns,’ was there to guide any of us through the jungle of this?”
The book broaches the divide between neuroscience and psychology with shrewd clear sightedness. Even though the two fields share a lot of common ground, the major demarcation is that psychology is more about the dynamic “mind”, while neuroscience is about the organ we call the brain. Gifty talks about her initial disdain for psychology which she considered a soft science since it dealt with intangible things like mood and emotions which she could not trace back in data, or locate anywhere on the frontal lobe of the brain.
However, this betrays Gifty’s emotional side, which she hides so steadfastly behind her scientific armor. When delineating how her research is based on identifying neural pathways involved in psychiatric illnesses like depression and addiction, Gifty divulges that her real aim was whether this science would also work on people who needed it the most. “Could it get a brother to set down a needle? Could it get a mother out of bed?”
One of the most appealing things about the narrative, which might be attributed to her scrupulously objective mind, is how self-aware and discerning our protagonist is about her various foibles. She contemplates how people assumed she pursued a career in neuroscience solely out of a sense of duty to him, but her decision did not rest on altruistic motives, but instead on the fact that it seemed like the hardest thing one could do. Not one to focus on emotions or sentimentality, Gifty was driven to “flay any mental weakness off my body like fascia from muscle.” However, as most introspective narratives go, this style runs the risk of being discursive.
Gifty’s narration as a high-achieving Black neuroscientist, an anomaly in itself, highlights the prejudice against women in the field of scientific research. Gifty is self aware and guilty of that unconscious discrimination herself, confessing how she had deliberately maintained distance from other women in her field. She had “clambered for the attention of the hotshot male scientists”, adamant on having her name spoken in the same breath as theirs. She wanted to be known as simply a scientist with no allusions drawn to “the millstone of womanhood” worn around her neck.
The descriptions of casual racism the family faces in Alabama, especially in their all-white church are eye opening. When Nana developed a habit, the church gossip lapped it up. Gifty overheard a deacon telling another woman how “their kind does seem to have a taste for drugs. I mean they are always on drugs. That’s why there’s so much crime.” Despite her close bond with her brother, Gifty hated him at that time for slotting them neatly as a Black stereotype. In hindsight, Gifty realizes this self loathing is a part of the larger pattern of institutionalized racism. A devout child, hearing gossip about “her kind” after word of Nana’s addiction got out inflicted irreparable damage, “a spiritual wound” that took years to recognize and address.
Ultimately, Gifty’s journey from an evangelical child to a pedantic academic yielded no concrete answers. “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 ultimately, both have failed to fully satisfy in their aim: to make clear, to make meaning.”
Gyasi manages the uphill task of not only meeting the expectations of her best seller debut, but also surpassing it. Transcendent Kingdom is an evocative portrayal of the immigrant experience and an astutely written character study of an individual reconciling with her past, along with her struggle with faith and science.
By Yaa Gyasi
Published September 1st, 2020