Like Yaa Gyasi’s previous novel, Homegoing (2016), and in the spirit of many other works by West African writers, her latest book, Transcendent Kingdom, straddles two worlds. This story about how a young woman resolves the tension between her African and American heritage uses a collage of memories set in Ghana and the United States to create a present that reevaluates the past. Rooted in the narrator’s retelling of her family’s exodus from Ghana, this cross-cultural conversation juxtaposes these memories with scenes of her life in Huntsville, Alabama, the town where Gyasi, Ghanaian by birth, was herself raised. Critics have noted Gyasi’s exploration of culture, alienation, and dissonance, particularly in the context of the opioid crisis. But for any reader interested in the subjects of faith and remembrance within a diasporic context, Transcendent Kingdom is without a doubt one of the most compelling contemporary narratives available.
In tone and rhythm, the novel reads like a personal journal. The brief, nonlinear chapters give the story a cadence somewhat like a heartbeat, while immediately establishing an intimate air. The first chapter opens with an anecdote relayed by a Ghanaian American woman named Gifty, who recounts her first time seeing a “crazy” person in the markets of Ghana at the age of eleven. Gifty has been sent into the care of her aunt while her mother, back in Alabama, recovers from a severe depression following the loss of Nana, Gifty’s older brother, to opioid addiction. The reader is placed squarely in Gifty’s head via a visceral description of her thought-life. The embarrassment invoked by her aunt whispering and pointing out the mentally ill man in public establishes a parallel structure that focuses on Gifty’s present musings on the remembered past. In encountering this person, Gifty pictures a split screen, the dreadlocked man on one side, and her mother on the other. He is “at perfect peace, even while he gesticulate[s] wildly,” but her depressed mother back in Alabama lies “infinitely still” in her bed and yet is still “wild inside.” This dynamic goes on to establish itself as the very lifeblood of the novel.
As an adult, Gifty becomes a graduate researcher in neuroscience, studying reward-seeking pathways in the brains of mice. She explores and expresses her sense of self concretely in her goals, memories, and family relationships. When she hears that her mother has come under another depressive episode, the second since Nana’s death, she takes her mother into her care while continuing to pursue her study. Despite her alienation from her Ghanaian heritage, Gifty attempts to exhume what little she knows about her mother’s old stories, her mother’s food, and even her mother’s faith, just for the chance that any of these offerings will be pleasing enough to cause her ailing mother to rise from her bed.
After arriving in America decades earlier, Gifty’s mother had been the first to secure a job as a home health aide, only to be put in service of a virulently racist man who consistently demeaned and insulted her. Gifty’s father had an even harder time securing a job; even after he had been hired by the same home health service, “too many people complained once they saw him walk through the door.” The struggle Gifty’s parents face is one that is well known to many new immigrants alone in a new land.
Gyasi’s characters reveal the mindset of an African immigrant family newly arrived in America, unequipped with the names, terms, and experiences to deal with the phenomenon of racism. “When I was a child,” Gifty recounts deep into her meditation, “no one ever said the words ‘institutionalized racism.’ ” Her own mother, when commenting on why people complained enough to jeopardize her husband’s first job in the States, chalks it up to simple fear—“she almost never admitted to racism,” despite all she has endured in her own job. “But walking around with my father,” Gifty tells us, “she’ d seen how America changed around big black men. She saw him try to shrink to size, his long, proud back hunched as he walked with my mother through the Walmart, where he was accused of stealing three times in four months.”
From the way Gifty’s mother stands out in a predominately white church to the many subtle and unsubtle ways Gifty and Nana also encounter racism during their formative years, the sustained American education of the family touches and shapes these characters all at once, affecting them all the same, yet driving them to different paths. For Gifty’s father, the path is back to Ghana, after years of barely making ends meet while working as a janitor, after years of fighting day after day with his wife about the state of their affairs. His heart never really left Ghana, as Alabama makes him so humiliated and homesick that he stops leaving the house entirely. “In my country,” he says, “neighbors will greet you instead of turning their heads away like they don’t know you. . . . There is no word for half-sibling, stepsibling, aunt, or uncle. There is only sister, brother, mother, father. We are not divided. . . . People may not have money, but they have happiness in abundance. . . . No one in America is enjoying.”
And so it was, and is, with many families who arrive on the shores of America, looking to start a new life. “America is a difficult place, but look at what we’ve been able to build here,” Gifty’s mother says to her husband. And yet the tension remains, the stress of barely keeping a family afloat with a job that pays minimum wage, the weight of suspicious eyes all waiting for someone of his skin color and stature to do something truly dangerous. After long enough, it is enough—Gifty’s father leaves America to visit his brother in Ghana and never comes back.
For Gifty’s mother, the path is to church, a First Assemblies of God church that becomes, as Gifty recalls, “her second home [and] most intimate place of worship,” a house of prayer, “a church packed full of white, red-blooded southerners in their pastel polos and khakis, my mother brilliant in ankara.” To her mother, there is no difference between the churches, between Assemblies of God and Baptists, between the predominately white and the predominately Black. For her, it is a place to escape, a safe haven from the stresses of her job, the agonies of poverty, the trauma of her husband’s abandonment, and the death of her son.
For Gifty’s brother, the path is to sports, for which he has a natural talent, first with soccer (or “football,” when his father is around) and then basketball after his father leaves. “Nana was five when he started playing the sport,” Gifty reflects, “and by the time I was born, he’ d already made a name for himself on the field.” Through this experience, he grew more connected with his father, who makes sure to attend every game with the much younger Gifty. Through soccer, Nana also endures his first encounter with racism in its loud and unsubtle form, learning along with Gifty that they will always have something to prove “and that nothing but blazing brilliance will be enough to prove it.”
For Gifty herself, her path is to education—to excellence, to be precise. Be it in church, through devout prayer, or in school, through academic achievement, good performance is the root of her happiness. As a child, she has a heart to please. She works hard to please her mother, her father, her brother, even to please God. In fact, it is through her faith that she learns the rule of good fortune earned by good works. The desire to please God and pray without ceasing easily translates itself into a strong work ethic during her academic career, even long after her faith dies with her brother. Yet in her adulthood when reflecting on her motivations for studying neuroscience, aside from the addiction that took her brother and the condition that was plaguing her mother at the time, “the truth is I’ d started this work not because I wanted to help people,” she notes, “but because it seemed like the hardest thing you could do, and I wanted to do the hardest thing, . . . to flay any mental weakness off my body like fascia from muscle.” In essence, the path of blazing brilliance.
And it is this immigrant experience that Transcendent Kingdom portrays so well. For Gifty’s parents, there is always a tension between the way things were in their homeland and the realities of the new land that they wish to make their home. At the center of many of the fights between Gifty’s mother and father is the investment in one land over the other, in America or in Ghana. Yet for Gifty, a first-generation African American from a lower-middle-class household, there is no conflict at all. “Nana couldn’t remember Ghana, and I had never been. Southeast Huntsville, northern Alabama, was all we knew, the physical location of our entire conscious lives.” For her and her brother, Alabama, not Ghana, is home. As African as they are, America is what they know. Through this remembering of a family’s adaptation to their new world, Gyasi renders this hyper-realistic account of the diasporic experience.
The early pages of Transcendent Kingdom depict the experience of Gifty’s family adapting to Southeast America in a subtle, yet hot and muggy way. The racism in their new home is like a physical presence, a nigh-omnipresent weight, like the summer heat that all Southerners are accustomed to. Using the words of Gyasi, or rather Gifty herself, “it works on you, to carry that weight around. Sometimes, if you’re not careful, it sinks you.”
Transcendent Kingdom. By Yaa Gyasi. New York: Knopf, 2020. 288 pages. $16.00, paper.