Transcendent Kingdom: Yaa Gyasi Does it Again
Yaa Gyasi’s second novel is a masterpiece. Gifty is the narrator from beginning to end, and the first-person narration and vivid flashbacks make for a deeply personal and heartbreaking story. As readers, we are in Gifty’s head contemplating her religion, wading through years of history with her brother and mother, and tying it all together to understand herself in the present better. Gifty’s brother, Nana, is a well-liked high school basketball champion who develops an opioid addiction following an injury on the court. After his last bender, Gifty’s mother swiftly decides to send him to rehab. In the present, Gifty is a sixth-year Ph.D. candidate at Stanford, experimenting with mice to better understand reward-seeking behavior in mice, and it’s obvious she’s looking for answers to the unanswered questions she’s had since the loss of her brother as a child. Gifty’s upbringing is not only influenced by her faith but enveloped by it, and as a result, there are many biblical allusions in the book. One that stands out to me is comparing the birth of Nana to Isaac, son of Abraham and Sarah. “Nine months to the day later, my brother, Nana, my mother’s Isaac was born” (15). Lines like this make Nana’s story even more heart-wrenching.
Gifty and her mother’s contention surrounds her mother not accepting a mental health diagnosis and not seeking help from professionals. Gifty’s mother relies on her faith to help her navigate her illness over receiving help from medical professionals; Gifty is continuously plagued with this as hard as she tries to disassociate from it. A defining part of Gifty’s religious upbringing is her family attending a white evangelical church in the South, and dealing with the dichotomous and pious beliefs juxtaposed with racist attitudes. A strong theme in Transcendent Kingdom is the immigrant experience in America, specifically the Ghanaian experience in Huntsville, Alabama. It serves a backdrop to the struggles of addiction, mental health, and grief. I enjoyed many aspects of this book, but I appreciated the amount of research Gyasi must’ve done to understand the science in this book better; Gifty’s research is based on real research from Dr. Christina Kim at Stanford Medical School. For all my science nerds, Gyasi also references an interview-based study published in the British Journal of Psychiatry from Tanya Luhrmann, a Stanford professor of anthropology. This study compares the voice-hearing experiences of schizophrenic patients from India, Ghana, and the United States to better understand how cultural and social context may be necessary for determining treatment.
I enjoyed Transcendent Kingdom so much I did not want to finish it. I would also like to note that mental illness is treated tenderly and thoughtfully in this book, and we need more of this and fewer stereotypes and ignorance.