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Transcendent Kingdom [Book Review]

Summary

Transcendent Kingdom is Yaa Gyasi’s sophomore novel which follows Gifty, a neuroscience PhD candidate as she researches reward-seeking behavior in mice. Gifty’s task is a difficult challenge which she hopes will offer insights into better understanding and treating depression and addiction in humans. Her work is inspired in part by her brother’s death from a heroin overdose and her mother’s debilitating grief. But deep down inside, Gifty was drawn to her work as the Alabama born and raised child of Ghanian parents who struggles to balance the Christianity of her childhood with the hard science in which she seeks comfort as an adult.

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Show Notes

Gifty’s family began as a foursome consisting of her parents, Ma and the Chin Chin Man, and older brother, Nana. But the family is now her and her mom. Beginning during childhood she keeps a journal where she writes to God and also about the things that are happening in her life. It’s interesting to have her go back and read her thoughts and experiences from childhood through the eyes of an adult. It’s also cute that she uses these random code names for her family members when it’s obvious who she’s referring to.

Her parents were both in their 30s when they got married which was rather old in Ghana. They have a hard time trying to conceive a child and when all else fails, Ma turns to her faith and dedicates herself to praying. Her efforts are successful and she and the Chin Chin Man become pregnant. During this period she had somewhat of a crisis of faith but the experience reaffirmed her reliance on prayer and her religion to get through difficulties and find solutions to her problems.

The Chin Chin Man is a bright-spirited jovial man while Ma seems a bit more reserved and strict. But like any parents, they both want to give their children a good start in life. Given their difficulties trying to conceive they came to regard Nana as their miracle baby. The Chin Chin Man loves and is content with Ghana but Ma feels that Ghana will not offer Nana all the things the wider world has to offer. She sees America as a place of great opportunities and wants to move there to give Nana a better life. This leads to arguments with the Chin Chin Man but he relents and they immigrate to Huntsville, Alabama. This is an early indicator that they don’t place importance on the same things and they have different aspirations for Nana.

Ma is blunt to the point of coming across as being callous. She blurts things out with no kind of filter or any attempt to shield Nana and Gifty or be considerate of their feelings. Yet when it comes to the difficult but important conversations she’s unable or unwilling to have them. Gifty points out that her mom isn’t the kind of parent to sugarcoat things to make the kids feel comfortable. But that’s not it, Ma seems to go out of her way to say mean things to Gifty.

It reminded me of people who say that they’re brutally honest. Being honest is a positive trait but being brutal about it is usually unnecessary. More often the inclination to be brutal comes from a lack of consideration for the feelings of others rather than a sense of duty to be straightforward.

There was a bit of a culture shock for both Ma and the Chin Chin Man when they arrived in America but it differed in some respects due to their genders. Ma finds work as a home health aide taking care of people in their later years. The first man she works for is racist and calls her a racial slur instead of her name. Yet, she doesn’t see this as prejudice and brushes it aside as a result of the man’s age. Ma works very hard but because the job doesn’t pay much she has difficulties providing for the family.

The Chin Chin Man is described as being 6 feet 4 inches with an athletic build that many people find intimidating. He is stereotyped and on multiple occasions accused of shoplifting. When he also tries to work as a home health aide, clients are uncomfortable with having a large Black man in their homes. He is unable to find a place outside of his home where he feels safe from suspicion and judgment which causes him to become a temporary recluse. It’s worth noting that when Ma and the Chin Chin Man experience difficulties in life they both turn inward and have limited interactions with their family.

Gifty develops into a child and adult with tremendous amounts of angst and insecurities. She’s dealing with traumatic events in her life but doesn’t receive the support and guidance that she needs to learn how to cope healthily. To some extent, her journal, the decision to channel her emotions into her studies, and the example of her older brother helped to keep her on the right track. Though they don’t seem to help much with her emotional suffering.

Nana is in the same situation but with the added pressure of being the miracle child who has spent more time with both parents in the home. He was very close to his father and lost him around the start of puberty, an important and confusing period in many children’s lives. This is especially true for a Black boy growing into a large Black man in the American South. Nana shows early promise as a soccer player, a sport through which he bonds with the Chin Chin Man.

The loss of the Chin Chin Man upsets Gifty but devastates Nana. He bottles up his feelings by choosing to not speak about them and vents through explosions of anger. There is an important moment in Transcendent Kingdom where Nana finds himself unable to continue playing soccer which was his father’s sport. As Nana gets older and begins to define his own identity, he begins playing basketball. It was his way of dealing with his hurt and anger towards his father by quitting the sport they shared and becoming involved with a sport of his choosing.

Ma comforting Nana in his moment of despair was surprising. She loved her children but wasn’t described as being particularly affectionate. Because of the Chin Chin Man’s working situation, he spent time at home with Nana through which the two developed a close relationship that Ma envied. She works a lot and very hard to provide for the family so it’s understandable that she’s not home as much as the Chin Chin Man. But when she does have the opportunity to be home with the kids she’s a bit harsh. Gifty recalls that she doesn’t keep the little arts and crafts projects or knick-knacks that they make in school. Yet, she’s warm towards her patients and their families.

It was troubling that Ma and the Chin Chin Man doted on Nana but seemed unimpressed with Gifty. Nana’s birth and childhood were a joy because of their difficulties conceiving. Gifty was unplanned and her parents seemed a bit displeased at having another child, or at least Ma did. I’ve heard that sometimes parents can have a favorite child but the good ones usually try not to show favoritism. But Ma makes it a point to let her know that they were content with their first child and weren’t thrilled about having to raise a second.

I remember watching a television show a long time ago where parents dedicated more of their time and attention to one of their children. The child had some health issues as a baby but was now a healthy and robust school-aged child. Yet, the parents continued to neglect the other kids out of concern for this one child. I saw that to a degree with Nana, where he was valued because there was such difficulty in conceiving him. And Gifty became an afterthought because her conception was effortless.

There are a few situations where Gifty reminisces about clamoring for attention as a child but her parents are preoccupied with their thoughts or Nana. Gifty doesn’t receive the attention she needed from her parents to develop into a confident young woman. Over time her extroverted nature fizzles out as she turns inward to comfort herself when problems arise in the family.

She points out that we tend to preserve fond memories of people who are no longer around either due to death or distance. We remember the flaws and shortcomings of those who are still alive or nearby. This applies to some degree for both Gifty and Ma.

Gifty has fond memories of kindness from her brother who has since passed away. But it’s clear that while there are some positive memories he was also a very angry young man who at times lashed out at both her and Ma. Ma mourns the loss of her firstborn child and laments that she only has Gifty. I took a pause when Gifty recalled her mother’s comment. It was unclear if she was pointing out the irony or meant it in the sense that Gifty was an unwanted consolation prize.

Nana and Gifty are of Ghanian heritage but don’t know much about Ghana as Nana was a baby when he left and Gifty was born and raised in America. They experience both the good and bad that America has to offer but with nothing else to compare it to America is all they know. Conversely, their mother and father were born and raised in Ghana and immigrated to America as adults.

But even they have different perspectives on the hardships they face in America. Ma looks at their life in America and sees all the future possibilities that might be available to her child. She sees the life that she’s working hard to provide as being a step up from what they would have had in Ghana. But the Chin Chin Man views America through the lens of what he gave up in Ghana and the little he gets in return.

The Chin Chin Man is warm and tender towards the children and an outgoing friendly man with everyone else. Ma seems to be the opposite as she is more reserved and non-emotive. We never get a true understanding of Ma’s feelings. But from Gifty’s perspective, she adapts well to life in Alabama and doesn’t seem affected by the hardships they face. The Chin Chin Man has a hard time adapting and feeling unwelcome in this new society makes him homesick.

Ma is downright cold and even callous at points but we never learn much about her life before marriage to the Chin Chin Man. There’s no real opportunity to understand how she came to be the person she is or her inner feelings about the hardships the family endures. Past life experiences wouldn’t excuse her behavior but might explain how she came to be the person she is. There is a quote that I thought was very truthful and insightful which changed my perspective on Ma a bit:

“If I’ve thought of my mother as callous, and many times I have, then it is important to remind myself what a callous is: the hardened tissue that forms over a wound.”

We see this in Gifty telling her own story. As a child and into young adulthood she didn’t have a clear vision of who she wanted to be. Only what her religion and the world around her told her she should be. She recognizes from an early age that there are things within her mother that she does not like and her mother is not the person she would like to become. But as Transcendent Kingdom progresses Gifty comes to realize that try as she might there are bits and pieces of her mother within her.

This shows how both nature and nurture shape people. The people around us, both our family members and community have an impact on our thoughts, perspectives, and identities. Gifty reaches a point following the death of her brother where her hometown begins to feel too small and she feels as though she has to escape. To grow as a person and to find some degree of happiness in life she has to leave behind the people and places that no longer and likely never brought her happiness or a sense of contentment. And with that, she goes off to college, first to Harvard for her undergraduate degree and later Stanford.

In reading about the difficulties that the family experienced following the move to America, I wondered why Ma didn’t move the family back to Ghana. But in later reading about Gifty’s need to get out of Alabama I began to think that Ma might have felt a similar driving force in Ghana. Despite the hardships and the sacrifice, it was better than living with the limitations she felt in Ghana. Some of Ma’s depression stems from her guilt about the decision for her and the kids to remain in Alabama. But there are hardships all around the world and who is to say that they wouldn’t have found some new ones had they returned to Ghana?

From a very young age, Nana showed promise as an athlete and became a prize player on any team of which he was a member. Nana is still young at the point where he decides he no longer wants to play soccer. But the team has come to depend on him as their star player. A sense of obligation pushes him to try to continue playing although his heart is no longer in the sport. Gifty looks into his face during that brief moment and caught a glimpse of the vulnerability and hurt that Nana hid behind a facade of premature manhood.

It was crazy how much importance parents, coaches, and other adults placed on the kids playing sports. As a young child, Nana has to deal with parents from other teams yelling racial slurs at him for being a good player. When he gets older and begins playing basketball he becomes a local superstar. But it seems like few if any of these adults took any real interest in him as a person beyond his abilities as an athlete. And when he begins to struggle with addiction as a teen they lament the loss of what could have been. Not what he could have been as a person or the extra hardships he will now face in life but rather the loss of his abilities for the team and the town.

In some ways, Nana’s story reminded me of the unfortunate tale of many athletes. The young men who dedicate their entire childhoods and teenage years to sports. But unable to make it to the majors, they find themselves lost because no one took the time to develop the other areas of their lives. Everyone is only interested in their physical health and abilities. They don’t take the time to ensure they develop in all areas to become healthy well-rounded adults. And like Nana when they are no longer able to help the team win games, the once cheering crowd now greets them with ridicule at best or indifference at worst.

Growing up in Huntsville Gifty goes to church and school with people who do not look like her and are not always welcoming. There’s an ugly undercurrent that identifies her and her family as outsiders who will never be a part of the wider community. As Nana and Gifty try to understand and come to terms with their personal religious beliefs and identities they asked questions. And because some of the religious leaders haven’t taken the time to consider what their beliefs would mean or signify to people who are not exactly like them, they give flippant responses that have deep implications.

There’s an expectation of blind faith without asking questions or seeking knowledge that many of the local people are comfortable with. That closed-mindedness and lack of comfort play a part in what turns Gifty away from the church. She moves further away from her childhood beliefs during her studies. But she also finds new ways to believe through questioning which helps her find her way back to religion.

Gifty enters young adulthood as a virgin who has no knowledge of her anatomy and is uncomfortable with her sexuality as a result of her religious upbringing. In general, Gifty doesn’t have a clear idea of who she is and is uncomfortable with her entire being. During college, she began to experiment with her sexuality and branched out to form a few friendships. She spent and would continue to spend a lot of her time alone while hoping for if not intimacy, then some kind of a connection with others.

But after her first relationships fizzled, she began entering into these shallow one-night stands. They allow her to experience the quasi intimacy or presence of others that she seeks while being able to remain emotionally unavailable. We learn that this goes back to her childhood where she felt a need to hide the difficulties and emotional turmoil she was experiencing. This tendency to close herself off after sharing intimate details about herself or her life with others prevents her from forming the relationships she seems to want.

Throughout Transcendent Kingdom, Gifty approaches things from a dramatic either/or perspective where she jumps from one end of the spectrum to the other without. By her late 20s, she is unhappy and searching for an understanding of why and how to change this. Her very black and white way of seeing things draws her to bouncing between opposites when quite often the answer to her problem is most likely somewhere in the middle.

To deal with her discomfort, Gifty switches tactics from isolating herself to forming relationships and then passive-aggressively pushing the other person away when they start to get too close. She hasn’t fully dealt with the issues that have arisen in part from her religious upbringing. And some of her issues are a result of her personality and experiences. How she sees the world as a person who is unsure of herself who she wants to be and what’s important to her versus what outside forces tell her she should be or should believe.

At one point in Transcendent Kingdom, Gifty reminisces about a time when she attended church and learned about the idea of dedicating her life to Christ by praying constantly. She took this literally and set out to pray non-stop. But she was disappointed with herself as she found that despite being willing to pray she was unable to remain undistracted. In speaking to her mother about this dilemma Ma explained that by living a good and upstanding life Gifty would be living a constant prayer. It is a positive and realistic philosophy that applies to Gifty although she might not have seen it for herself.

Gifty spends much of Transcendent Kingdom lamenting both her naivete about religion and also her loss of faith. But keeping her mother’s message in mind it puts Gifty’s life into a different perspective. A child who has been through so much with so little has grown into an adult who is compassionate in her way. She’s trying through her means to help other people find release from the sorrows of addiction. Gifty is flawed but in living a life of service she is following the teachings of Christ.

I’m not a religious person but I am open to hearing about other people’s perspectives on religion, philosophy, and the world in general. I wasn’t put off by the concept of Transcendent Kingdom but it did take me a while to get into the story. Gifty’s early religious beliefs and the details of her later neurological experiments didn’t immediately draw me in.

About two-thirds of the way through Transcendent Kingdom she began to discuss her philosophy of science vs religion and I found that very interesting. I was a bit lost during the first two-thirds of Transcendent Kingdom about why she felt the need to choose between science or religion when the two can coexist. It was intriguing when she came to this realization as well and began to sort through her conflicted feelings about science and religion. Instead of continuing to choose one side or the other, she came to a point where she was more comfortable defining her beliefs and developing a philosophy for herself based on the things she connected with within religion and science.

I didn’t particularly care for any of Gifty’s family members at the start of Transcendent Kingdom. They were all mean and selfish in their ways. But my feelings towards them softened a bit as the book progressed. I learned more about their experiences and thought about the things Gifty might not have been privy to. They’ve all done some wrong to Gifty and I wanted her to find some sense of comfort, contentment, and a bit of happiness in life. But I also recognized that Gifty’s family members were carrying internal hurt, pains, and disappointments. By the time Transcendent Kingdom ended, I still didn’t like all the other characters but I had come to care about them.

I don’t think Transcendent Kingdom is for everybody as for a good part, I thought it wasn’t for me. The first thing I would state is to not approach Transcendent Kingdom expecting it to be anything like Yaa Gyasi’s previous book Homegoing. That book flows like your typical story whereas Transcendent Kingdom can feel a bit rambling and freeform at times. It’s like someone sharing their philosophy on science and religion with moments from their life and work thrown in. You have a better chance of connecting with Transcendent Kingdom if you have an interest in any of those topics, especially areas in which they overlap.

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