‘Transcendent Kingdom’ offers quiet hope in the face of racism
In Yaa Gyasi's second novel, the daughter of a troubled immigrant family finds a way to combine science and faith in her career as a neuroscientist.
The Ghanaian-American writer Yaa Gyasi was in her mid 20s when she rose to literary fame with “Homegoing,” an award-winning novel that traces the legacy of American slavery through eight generations. Where “Homegoing” was a sweeping epic, migrating between Africa’s Gold Coast and the United States, her latest novel “Transcendent Kingdom” is a deep dive into one immigrant family’s struggles to realize the American dream, as told by the daughter Gifty. Set mainly in Huntsville, Alabama, and narrower in scope than the first book, “Transcendent Kingdom” is no less ambitious and timely in the themes it tackles.
Gifty, as her name suggests, possesses exceptional intelligence and curiosity, as does her older brother Nana, who is also an outstanding athlete. The question is whether these gifts can be realized, because of the family's status as African immigrants to the South with no network of extended family or friends. Gifty’s experience in Huntsville (where Gyasi also spent her formative years) serves as a microcosm for the way racism grinds down Black Americans, whether in the over-prescription of painkillers that has led to the opioid crisis, the racist underpinnings and politicization of the local evangelical church, or the racial animus of soccer dads who hurl slurs when Nana outperforms their sons on the field.
Gyasi excels at showing the interwoven nature of these evils and the stress they place on Black lives. Her depiction of what Nana experiences as a teenager whose athleticism is valued over his intellectual potential and mental health is particularly wrenching. Nana, facing an injury and subsequent bout with addiction, is treated as expendable by his community, and that devaluation takes its toll. Their father must similarly navigate the white community’s mistrust of him as a tall, dark-skinned man – a pressure and constraint that exacts a severe cost.
While these themes may not make for the lightest read, there is hope in Gifty’s journey and a call for empathy. Driven by a desire to uncover a cure for addiction, Gifty finds her calling in neuroscience, immersing herself in her lab at Stanford – episodes from her youth are recounted as flashbacks. Her lifestyle may be spartan, but she has friends (well, one very loyal and persistent friend) and a love interest. Counseling against the impulse to judge addicts, she notes: “I, too, have spent years creating my little moat of good deeds in an attempt to protect the castle of myself. … I know that it’s easier to say ‘Their kind does seem to have a taste for drugs,’ easier to write all addicts off as bad and weak-willed people, than it is to look closely at the nature of their suffering.”
The theme of salvation is at the novel’s heart, shaping Gifty’s her life, whether in fierce attempts to cure her lab mice of addiction or rouse her mother from a debilitating depression. Gyasi’s portrayal of Gifty's spiritual journey is refreshing in that a negative experience with her church does not cause her to reject Christianity altogether, though she wrestles mightily with her faith. One brief scene recalls Langston Hughes’ classic story “Salvation,” in which a boy, called on by his pastor to be saved, fakes his come-to-Jesus moment. Gyasi’s rendering of a parallel moment for Gifty takes a different turn, serving not as a rebuke, but a counternarrative. Just as Gyasi unflinchingly spotlights the failures of evangelicalism, she casts an equally critical eye on the knee-jerk scorn with which atheists can sometimes treat religion during scenes set during Gifty’s undergraduate years at Harvard. Gifty marks out her own path, then, in the face of great personal tragedy.
Gifty’s relationship with her mother is also unusual and deeply affecting. Her mother’s indefinite retreat to bed during a bout of depression frames “Transcendent Kingdom,” and Gifty’s anxiety and attempts to nurse her feel all too real. The mother-daughter relationship is intense and fraught, yet it's also undergirded by love.
The only weakness of “Transcendent Kingdom” comes at its rather too-tidy conclusion, but this is a slight quibble in a novel that insightfully explores many pressing issues of our time, and in marrying science with faith, explores the limits and possibilities of both.
Elizabeth Toohey is an associate professor of English at Queensborough Community College, CUNY and a Knight Visiting Nieman Fellow at Harvard University.