By Yaa Gyasi
A family in isolation is a kind of science experiment. Gifty, the neuroscience graduate student at Stanford who narrates Yaa Gyasi’s second novel, “Transcendent Kingdom,” compares her relationship with her mother to the first bit of laboratory science she remembers performing. Gifty and her middle-school classmates submerged an egg in various solutions, then watched as it was denuded of its shell, swelling and shriveling, changing shape and color. Intended to demonstrate osmosis, the experiment, Gifty reflects later, suggested the central question about her and her mother: “Are we going to be OK?”
“I didn’t want to be thought of as a woman in science, a Black woman in science,” Gifty thinks early in the novel; she is no more interested in the “immigrant cliché” of the academically successful child whose striving parents sweat blood for her success than Gyasi is in a novel that pits the home culture against the outside world to see which one wins out. Instead, Gyasi builds her characters scientifically, observation by observation, in the same way that her narrator builds her Ph.D. thesis experiment — a study of reward-seeking behavior in mice that self-consciously mirrors her brother Nana’s struggle with opioids. Gyasi sometimes reminds me of other writers who’ve addressed the immigrant experience in America — Jhumpa Lahiri and Yiyun Li in particular — but less because of her themes than her meticulous style, as when Gifty says of her lab partner: “It embarrassed me to know that I would have been embarrassed to talk about Nana’s addiction with Han,” a sentence whose awkwardness is in the service of its emotional precision.
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Gyasi’s style here is especially striking given the time-traveling fireworks of her enormously successful debut, “Homegoing” (2016), an examination of the effects of African, British and American slavery on one Ghanaian family over three centuries. Some readers of “Transcendent Kingdom” may miss the romantic sweep of that novel and the momentum Gyasi achieved by leaping a generation and a continent every few chapters. If “Homegoing” progressed in more or less linear fashion, in this book narrative time is more relative; like one of those rubber balls attached to a paddle, it rebounds between Gifty’s childhood and her brother’s death by overdose, her elite education and her mother’s suicidal depressions. That bouncing around also beautifully captures the rhythms of life with a depressive, the way that the shadows of the past persist in the present.
While Gifty shares some biography with Marjorie, a character in “Homegoing” — both grow up in Huntsville, Ala., and encounter a “crazy” person on a trip to Ghana — the picture of mental illness in “Transcendent Kingdom” is darker and more nuanced. Gifty, who prefers evidence to anecdote, cites a study of schizophrenics in India, Ghana and California; while the Indian and Ghanaian subjects hear benevolent voices, sometimes those of friends and family members, the Californian schizophrenics are “bombarded by harsh, hate-filled voices, by violence, intrusion.” It’s not, as Gifty’s mother suggests, that mental illness is an invention of the toxic West, but that the way it’s experienced on either side of the ocean is different, depending on the surrounding culture.
Gifty arrives as an undergraduate at Harvard, where the combination of New England weather and her grief over her brother leads her to the university’s mental health services, to request a lamp for treating seasonal depression. There’s no device to combat the brutal frost of American racism, though, and it touches Gifty and her family everywhere they go. Her mother refuses to acknowledge its effects on her or her husband, but Gifty knows “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.”
Her father eventually abandons his family to return to Ghana; her mother seeks solace in religion, but doesn’t know enough about the American South to choose a Black evangelical church instead of a white one. For Gifty it’s a “spiritual wound” to worship with people who believe that Nana’s addiction is unsurprising because “their kind does seem to have a taste for drugs” (in fact, a doctor casually prescribed OxyContin for a basketball injury); that Nana had a chance at a bright future only through sports; that if an African village hasn’t received Christian teachings, its residents are damned to hell. There’s an agonizing fulcrum where you imagine what a Black church might have done for Gifty and her family, how the story of their life in America might have been different.
As in the work of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie or the Ghanaian-American short-story writer Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah, the African immigrants in this novel exist at a certain remove from American racism, victims but also outsiders, marveling at the peculiar blindnesses of the locals. Even as Gifty absorbs “that little throbbing stone of self-hate that I carried around with me to church, to school” — a brilliant mirror image of the gold-flecked black stone passed down through the generations in “Homegoing” — inside the house some of her mother’s preserving distance sustains her. In one of the novel’s most beautiful scenes, Gifty’s mother puts on makeup before going to one of several jobs. “I’m pretty, right?” Gifty asks her. Her mother pulls her in front of the mirror and says in Twi: “Look what God made. Look at what I made.” Finishing her makeup, her mother kisses her reflection, then leaves Gifty alone to kiss her own. The moment is emblematic of her mother’s fierce love, which requires a corresponding step toward self-love from her daughter.
While her father flees the country in humiliation, and her brother and mother take more interior flights, Gifty responds to America’s challenges with success, deciding that “I would always have something to prove and that nothing but blazing brilliance would be enough to prove it.” To her classmates, professors and even her romantic partners, this dazzling performance is sometimes inscrutable; unfortunately for the reader, Gyasi sometimes obscures Gifty from us as well. When Gifty has a romantic relationship with another girl in college, she muses, “We had kissed and a little more, but I couldn’t define it and Anne didn’t care to.” It’s nice that a same-sex relationship doesn’t occasion conflict the way it once did in American fiction — but it’s hard to imagine that the child of evangelical Ghanaian immigrants wouldn’t have at least some internal dialogue on the subject, whether ambivalent or defiant.
Gifty’s relationships with men are similarly sketchy. The exception is the one with her lab partner, Han, who comes alive through small details, like the way his ears redden every time he and Gifty talk about anything more emotionally fraught than the behavior of the mice in her experiment.
Men, though, are not the point. Although Nana’s addiction is reflected in his sister’s scientific work, it’s the rich portrait of their mother — a woman who pitches between stoicism and intense vulnerability — that constitutes the novel’s most rewarding experiment. “A matter-of-fact kind of woman, not a cruel woman, exactly, but something quite close to cruel,” Gifty calls her, and yet when Nana refuses to get off the team bus at a soccer game that their mother has missed work and a day’s pay to attend, she doesn’t scold him, but quietly takes the children home and boxes up the expensive gear. Except when Gifty refers to her mother as “the Black Mamba” — in a childhood journal where each entry is addressed to God — she remains unnamed, but she is the book’s focus and heart. For this reason, a short, information-laden chapter that concludes the novel felt unsatisfying, seeming to tie up the strands of this fascinating woman’s life too quickly.
For most of the novel, Gyasi refuses to give Gifty’s mother’s depression a narrative arc, instead showing us the never-ending waiting that relatives of depressives are forced to endure. Gifty’s mother appears in all her complexity, her face turned to the wall, “courting death, practicing for it, even,” and at the same time as an unbending protector, washing the vomit off her detoxing son in the bathtub, telling him that everything will be all right.
“Transcendent Kingdom” trades the blazing brilliance of “Homegoing” for another type of glory, more granular and difficult to name. In place of the lyricism of her first novel, Gyasi gives us sentences like this one, where the grace comes from rhythm rather than melody: “I loved Alabama in the evenings, when everything got still and lazy and beautiful, when the sky felt full, fat with bugs.” The transcendent kingdom of this Ghanaian, Southern, American novel is finally not a Christian or a scientific one, but the one that two women create by surviving a hostile environment, and maintaining their primal connection to each other.