Yaa Gyasi’s debut novel Homegoing was my One Outstanding read of 2017, and it was a book I initially avoided as it was the subject of much hype and expectation, which can cloud our ability to discern. However it was exactly the kind of book I love, thought provoking, taking the reader outside of their own culture but showing how the threads of an earlier culture have influenced where they are today.
In a sense that too is at the heart of Transcendent Kingdom, a family from Ghana immigrate to the US, the mother, the father (who the narrator, the daughter Gifty, the only one of the family born in the US, refers to as Chin Chin man), and their son Nana. Though they leave their country behind, something of remains in them, and though they are determined to ascend in their new country, it comes at a price.
I wanted her stories to about her life in Ghana with my father to be filled with all the kings and queens and curses that might explain why my father wasn’t around in terms far grander and more elegant than the simple story I knew. And if our story couldn’t be a fairy tale, then I was willing to accept a tale like the kind I saw on television, back when the only images I saw of Africa were those of people stricken by warfare and famine. But there was no war in my mother’s stories, and if there was hunger it was of a different kind, the simple hunger of those who had been fed one thing but wanted another. A simple hunger, impossible to satisfy.
Gifty is a sixth year PhD student studying neuroscience, observing mice in order to better understand the role of the brain and neural circuitry in relation to the desire for and restraint of reward-seeking behaviour. In other words, the tendency towards addiction or depression.
To know that if only I could understand this little organ inside this one tiny mouse, that understanding still wouldn’t speak to the intricacy of the comparable organ inside my own head. And yet I had to try and understand, to extrapolate from that limited understanding in order to apply it to those of us who made up the species Homo sapiens, the most complex animal, the only animal who believed he had transcended his Kingdom…
The narrative moves back and forth in time, in the present she works in a lab, while at home her mother stays in bed all day. This is not the first time her mother has succumbed, so memories of the first time return and the events that lead up to the disappointment(s) that became too much. Only now their roles have reversed.
The question I was trying to answer…was: Could optogenetics be used to identify the neural mechanisms involved in psychiatric illnesses where there are issues with reward seeking, like in depression, where there is too much restraint in seeking pleasure, or drug addiction, where there is not enough?
The novel also explores the controversial American opioid issue, how what begins in innocence can lead to devastating consequences. The inspiration behind the science of the novel comes from the work of Yaa Gyasi’s best friend as she shares in the acknowledgments and in the interview below.
‘At the time of writing, the opioid crisis was being reported on near-daily. I found the reporting to be very moving and willing to look at the effects, not only on the people with addiction but the families, too. It was the first time we were seeing an interrogation of the role of pharmaceutical companies in creating this crisis. I wanted to add my voice to the chorus but from the perspective of a black family.’
Though Gifty is focused on the science on what has afflicted her family, she is reluctant to observe or consider her own behaviour, her difficulty in forming relationships or allowing people to get close to her, the consequence of having lived through trauma.
While she pursues the science and looks for a logical answer to her question, she considers the role of faith. Because science doesn’t explain the feelings of shame, of anger, of hatred, self-loathing.
“What is prayer?” my mother asked?
This question stumped me then, stumps me still. I stood there, staring at my mother, waiting for her to give me the answers. Back then, I approached my piety like I did my studies: fastidiously.
It’s a thought provoking novel of seeking to understand human behaviour, of the propensity “to try to make order, make sense, make meaning of the jumble of it all” and to find a way to seek solace and refuge from it all.
Though it took me a little while to get into it, there was a turning point where it began to click and become more than just a story, where the interconnecting threads became apparent. An enjoyable read and follow up to her impressive debut.
Yaa Gyasi was born in Mampong, Ghana and raised in Huntsville, Alabama. Her first novel, Homegoing, was a Sunday Times and New York Times bestseller, won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Best First Novel and was shortlisted for the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Fiction.
In 2017 Yaa Gyasi was selected as one of Granta’s Best of Young American Novelists and in 2019 the BBC selected her debut as one of the 100 Novels that Shaped Our World. Transcendent Kingdom was shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2021. She lives in Berkley, California.
Women’s Prize Shortlist Interview + Reading: ‘I couldn’t imagine having a life where books weren’t important’: Yaa Gyasi on her Inspirations (Interview Begins at 27:30)
Interview : Paris Review: We Take Everything with Us: An Interview with Yaa Gyasi By Langa Chinyoka
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services: What is the U.S. Opioid Epidemic?