I felt an immediate connection to Transcendent Kingdom when I read the epigraph, taken from one of my favorite poems, Gerard Manley Hopkins’ “God’s Grandeur”: The world is charged with the grandeur of God/It will flame out, like shining from shook foil. Subsequently, we learn that Gifty, the novel’s narrator—a brilliant graduate student in neuroscience at Stanford—hated Hopkins’ poetry when she took a class in it as an undergraduate at Harvard, to fulfill a humanities requirement. (My guess is that author Yaa Gyasi, unlike her protagonist, probably appreciates the poem.)
As the novel opens, Gifty’s mother has had a second episode of serious depression. The first was when Gifty was eleven; then, she was sent to family in Ghana “to wait her [mother] out.” In Ghana, she was mortified when her aunt loudly pointed out a “crazy person,” and “we kept walking past the hordes of people gathered in that agoraphobia-inducing market . . .” In a few words, we see the chasm of understanding about mental illness between two cultures. (The link of agora, Greek for market space, to agoraphobia is clever word play.) Gifty’s voice, her way of trying to understand the world, is a force to be reckoned with.
Typically, when I’m reading, I might flag two or three passages in a book, but by the end of Transcendent Kingdom, I had seventeen flags (and had to stop myself from adding more). Gyasi’s way with words makes you take notice. For example, here is why Gifty has decided to pursue neuroscience, after her brother Nana has died of an overdose, and her mother has struggled with depression:
. . . it seemed like the hardest thing you could do, and I wanted to do the hardest thing. I wanted to flay any mental weakness off my body like fascia from muscle . . . I had watched Nana walk into the alley and I had watched my mother go in after him, and I was so angry at them for not being strong enough to stay in the light. And so I did the hard thing.
Transcendent Kingdom is about neuroscience—and specifically about optogenetics: using light to control neurons that have been genetically modified to be light-sensitive. (Gifty is conducting experiments on mice in her lab, with an aim to understanding how to control addiction.) It’s also about faith, race, immigration, family dynamics, guilt, shame, repression, ambition, redemption, and self-knowledge. The tension between faith and science forms the core of Gifty’s story:
At times, my life now feels so at odds with the religious teachings of my childhood that I wonder what the little girl I once was would think of the woman I’ve become—a neuroscientist who has at times given herself over to equating the essence that psychologists call the mind, that Christians call the soul, with the workings of the brain. I have indeed given that organ a kind of supremacy, believing and hoping that all of answers to all of the questions that I have can and must be contained therein. But the truth is I haven’t much changed. I still have so many of the same questions, like “Do we have control over our thoughts?,” but I am looking for a different way to answer them. I am looking for new names for old feelings. My soul is still my soul, even if I rarely call it that.
Gifty has reached a point where she must try to integrate her past and her present, for the sake of her future. She’s on the verge of recognition for her research, she’s caring for her mother yet again, and her personal life is arid. She cannot continue to ignore her self as she pursues her science; she must grapple with, as she deems it, her own self-loathing. Partly, the damage to her self-worth has been the result of a fraught relationship with her mother, her absent father, the death of her brother, and her family’s crushing isolation from other family or social supports. But much of the trauma has been derived from outside the home, from the culture her family arrived in as immigrants from Ghana to Alabama.
“When I was a child,” Gifty realizes:
. . . no one ever said the words ‘institutionalized racism.’ We hardly even said the word ‘racism.’ I don’t think I took a single class in college that talked about the physiological effects of years of personally mediated racism and internalized racism. This was before studies came out that showed that black women were four times more likely to die from childbirth, before people were talking about epigenetics and whether or not trauma was inheritable. If those studies were out there, I never read them. If those classes were offered, I never took them. There was little interest in these ideas back then because there was, there is, little interest in the lives of black people.
. . . I didn’t grow up with a language for, a way to explain, to parse out my self-loathing . . . my little throbbing stone of self-hate that I carried around with me . . .
What a heavy, heavy load.
Having read Homecoming, I had every expectation that Gyasi’s next book would be a triumph, and it is. Transcendent Kingdom is a much more personal book—one woman’s story, instead of a story of generations—and it saddens me to assume that Gyasi may not have had to fabricate Gifty’s experiences of institutionalized racism very much at all. Gifty’s story of struggle and discovery is compelling, moving, and beautifully told. The title’s transcendence should not have had to be so painfully achieved, but it’s important for all of us to acknowledge that, here in our country today, for people of color, it still very much is.