Title/Author: Transcendent Kingdom
In a nutshell (Publisher): Gifty is a sixth-year PhD candidate in neuroscience at the Stanford University School of Medicine studying reward-seeking behavior in mice and the neural circuits of depression and addiction. Her brother, Nana, was a gifted high school athlete who died of a heroin overdose after an ankle injury left him hooked on OxyContin. Her suicidal mother is living in her bed. Gifty is determined to discover the scientific basis for the suffering she sees all around her. But even as she turns to the hard sciences to unlock the mystery of her family’s loss, she finds herself hungering for her childhood faith and grappling with the evangelical church in which she was raised, whose promise of salvation remains as tantalizing as it is elusive. Transcendent Kingdom is a deeply moving portrait of a family of Ghanaian immigrants ravaged by depression and addiction and grief–a novel about faith, science, religion, love. Exquisitely written, emotionally searing, this is an exceptionally powerful follow-up to Gyasi’s phenomenal debut.
My verdict: A profound, thought-provoking and an honest novel about addiction, depression, science, religion, love, family and immigrants.
“I think we’re made out of stardust, and God made the stars.”Transcendent Kingdom, Yaa Gyasi
A profound, thought-provoking and an honest novel about addiction, depression, science, religion, love, family and immigrants. I had many sentences and passages highlighted for further reflection. Yes, this book, hurt my head, but in a good way!
The narrator is Gifty, a Ghanaian-American sixth-year PhD candidate in neuroscience at the Stanford University of Medicine who was studying reward-seeking behavior in mice. Her story went back and forth from her childhood days to the present.
Being raised a pious Evangelical Christian by her mother, an immigrant from Ghana, Gifty thought she’d be a dancer or a worship leader, a preacher’s wife or an actress, even though her good grades could pave her way to becoming a doctor, an immigrant cliché. But all that changed when she lost Nana, her brother. She turned to science hoping to find a solution to drug addiction and depression, hoping it could save lives.
In their home in Alabama, Nana was a celebrated basketball player, so much so that he gotten the attention from universities who asked him to play for them. He was also struggling with the absence of his father who had moved back to Ghana, never to return. Nana’s life went on a downward spiral when he injured his leg and was prescribed OxyContin. Before long, he got addicted to it, and later died of an overdose.
After losing Nana, Gifty lost her mother to depression. Gifty was only 11 then. For her mother to heal, she asked Gifty to go to Ghana to stay with her aunt whom she didn’t know existed until she was there. In Ghana, she saw what life could’ve been for her mother and wondered if it would’ve been better for her mother had she stayed.
What stood out most to me in this book was the the insightful, constant questioning on religion and science. One conversation that made me ponder, was the one where Anne asked if Gifty believed in evolution:
“Of course I believe in evolution,” I said.
“Okay, but how can you believe in evolution and also believe in God? Creationism and evolution are diametrically opposed.”
Gifty, who had her Bible verses memorized when she was young, struggled with that contradiction too; on one hand she was raised to believe that God was the answer to everything, on the other, she found herself seeking answers in science in drug addiction and depression, “but ultimately both have failed to fully satisfy in their aim: to make clear, to make meaning.”
Gifty once asked a TA, “If the brain makes it possible for ‘us’ to feel and think, then what is ‘us’? Do you believe in souls?”
Even with her belief in science, she still held her faith in her religion and developed a deeper appreciation for the Bible when she read it to her mother during her depression, after years of abandoning it.
Yaa Gyasi (pronounced yar jessie) is a very gifted author. She writes evocatively and empathetically. She captured Gifty’s fierce, strong-willed mother vividly and showed how much depression affected her, while retaining her strength:
“My mother crawled out of her deep, dark tunnel, but perhaps this phrasing is too imprecise, the image of crawling too forceful to encapsulate the relentless but quiet work of fighting depression. Perhaps it was more correct to say that her darkness lifted, the tunnel shallowed, so that it felt as though her problems were on the surface of the Earth again, not down in its molten core.”
Gyasi also showed the struggles of African immigrants that we would not have seen or known as outsiders. When Nana kept scoring the goals for his team in one of his games, his family was called ‘niggers’ by the opponent’s family. As though being fueled by it, Nana performed even better. They celebrated the event, which to the outside world, might seem like they’d forgotten about that racist name-calling. But that day, Gifty learned a lifelong lesson, “that I would always have something to prove and that nothing but blazing brilliance would be enough to prove it.”
If you like reading a book that explores various themes concisely, one that makes you think, question, reflect and discuss, this one’s for you. There were many blazingly brilliant passages in this book that’d make for great book club discussions.
I can’t believe I haven’t read Homegoing. I must correct that soon.
On a side note, another great book I read on immigration and the ripple effects it has on families, is Patsy by Nicole Dennis-Bern.
Have you read ‘Transcendent Kingdom’? Or Homegoing? What did you think? Please share with me your thoughts!