Contemporary Literature

Transcendent Kingdom

Like many other people, I absolutely loved Homegoing. I read it a few years ago and was truly blown away. It’s actually one of the very first books I ever reviewed on my blog. (Also, looking back at the post to link it here, I had totally forgotten that I included recommendations for similar books at the end of some of my earlier posts and I’m kinda impressed with myself for doing that. I feel like it would be cool to restart that…but also a lot of extra work.) Anyways, the point is, I knew I was going to read Transcendent Kingdom as soon as I heard about it. Shoutout and thank you to for the ALC of the audiobook. Also, this is the third book of the 2021 Aspen Words Literary Prize longlist fifteen (that I’m trying to get through before February!) that I’ve finished/reviewed.

Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi

“It took me many years to realize that it’s hard to live in this world. I don’t mean the mechanics of living, because for most of us, our hearts will beat, our lungs will take in oxygen, without us doing anything at all to tell them to. For most of us, mechanically, physically, it’s harder to die than it is to live. But we still try to die. We drive too fast down winding roads, we have sex with strangers without wearing protection, we drink, we use drugs. We try to squeeze a little more life out of our lives. It’s natural to want to do that. But to be alive in the world, every day, as we are given more and more and more, as the nature of ‘what we can handle’ changes and our methods for how we handle it change, too, that’s something of a miracle.”

Transcendent Kingdom is Gifty’s story. Born in the US to immigrants from Ghana, she and her older brother, Nana, are raised in an Evangelical church community in Alabama. Her brother is a talented basketball player, but after a knee injury during a game, he becomes addicted to opiates and, after a few years grappling with that addiction, he dies of an overdose. Years later, Gifty is a PhD candidate studying reward-seeking behavior in mice while caring for her mother who is has been struggling with depression since Nana’s death. 

Goodness what a story. This is like, a distillation of American life in an affecting, family-focused, way that I have never experienced quite the same way before. Gyasi addresses such intense and profound concepts as immigration, addiction, the contradictions of religion and science in such a fully developed way through a deeply human lens. In the background we get about Gifty’s parents, how they met and decided to come to America and their years together there and then separated, she paints a vivid picture of the way the US breaks down of immigrants of color from proud to shrinking; over the years they spend here and are disabused of all hopeful conceptions of what the country could give them. With Nana’s story, Gyasi exemplifies the universality and unbiased impacts of the opioid crisis. She unflinchingly reveals the shame and stigma (especially for family, as this story is from Gifty’s POV), the emotional pain and guilt and hurt of addiction for everyone, and the way no one is ever prepared to handle the permanency of that grief and loss, especially those without unlimited [financial] resources to help figure a way through it. And she addresses, with Gifty’s memories of her brother from when they were younger, the “waste” that it is when we lose the humanity of the person behind the addiction, when we separate a person from what they fully are and see only what they are on paper.

Bringing both of those major themes together is the theoretical framework of religion vs science. Gyasi shows how Gifty’s path to studying reward-seeking behavior and the science of addiction from a neurological perspective was driven/shadow-guided by the mental health experiences of her mother (grief, depression) and Nana (addiction). Perhaps not in the reasoned way one might expect, but clearly related all the same. And combining this lens with that of her evangelical, God-fearing childhood, Gyasi shows the interactions of science and religion within a person’s life in such fine detail on such precise, meticulous levels, weaving them together seamlessly in the ways they are both used to interpret the same mysteries of the world depending on the mind/viewer in question. Despite all the implications of believing in religion or science, the assumptions made by people about each other on this front, the seeming reality that there is truly no room for both within a single person, the seemingly impossible task of compromising the entrenched conflicting notions of intellectualism/secularism/progressivism and the church/religion, Gifty continues to attempt it, to search for the way to have both, to believe in both. In addition to all this, Gyasi recognizes how all of this plays out alongside [internalized] institutionalized racism, which plays an immeasurable role in reactions/decisions about who deserves saving, both through religion and the soul AND/OR science and medical treatment. And then, the way that for those without words for or an understanding of those decisions, like young Gifty, that internalization leads to enduring spiritual wounds and self-loathing.

Honestly, I have no idea how Gyasi was able to take all of this topically and gorgeously layer it together, in a way that delivers universal, meaningful insight through the lens of an individual family’s experiences. All of these themes and concepts create a single narrative that ebbs and flows in time and focus (a style that I’m realizing is a favorite of mine), giving the reader endless small moments of clarity and observations about the reality of the way the world works that are simply breathtaking. It’s so freaking impressive.

I tried really hard to go into this book with expectations separated from my thoughts about Homegoing. After such a stunning debut, the danger for preset expectations to ruin a sophomore novel reading was high. And I had seen a couple reviews that had me feeling like that was possible. I’m glad I did that. While I still think I was more into Homegoing, it comes down to personal preference for me. One of the major concepts in this novel, the push and full of religion and science, is just not one that resonates with me. I don’t have the internal “crisis of faith,” if you will, that Gifty deals with…though I imagine it will resonate with many readers. However, that doesn’t change how absolutely spectacular the writing and or how profound the impact of Gyasi’s philosophical and moral explorations or how well she shows the way our lived experiences create who we become in a way we cannot escape or, even, predict. I am, again, really quite blown away by her writing and the way she captures her characters’ complex realities and experiences. 

“The truth is that we don’t know what we don’t know. We don’t even know the questions we have to ask in order to find out, but when we learn one tiny little thing, a dim light comes on in a dark hallway, and suddenly a new question appears. We spend decades, centuries, millennia, trying to answer that one question so that another dim light will come on. That’s science, but that’s also everything else isn’t it? Try. Experiment. Ask a ton of questions.”

“…memories of people you hardly know are often permitted a kind of pleasantness in their absence. It’s those who stay who are judged the harshest, simply by virtue of being around to be judged.”

“But the memory lingered, the lesson I have never quite been able to shake: that I would always have something to prove and that nothing but blazing brilliance would be enough to prove it.”

“If I’ve thought of my mother as callous, and many times I have, then it is important to remind myself what a callus is: the hardened tissue that forms over a wound.”

“…he was making the face that I’ve only seen in young boys, a face that is the façade of a man, hiding a boy who has had to grow up far too fast. I have seen that faux tough look on boys as they pushed shopping carts, walked siblings to school, bought cigarettes for their parents who waited in their cars. It breaks my heart now, to see that face, to recognize the lie of masculinity sitting atop the shoulders of a young child.”

“‘What’s the point of all this?’ is a question that separates humans from other animals. Our curiosity around the issue has sparked everything from science to literature to philosophy to religion. When the answer to this question is ‘Because God deemed it so,’ we might feel comforted. But what if the answer to this question is ‘I don’t know,’ or worse still, ‘Nothing’?”

“We read the Bible how we want to read it. It doesn’t change, but we do.”

“They knew that there was risk involved, but the potential for triumph, for pleasure, for something just a little bit better, was enough to outweigh the cost.”

“I understood that the same thing that made humans great – our recklessness and creativity and curiosity – was also the thing that hampered the lives of everything around us. […] I grew up being taught that God gave us dominion over the animals, without ever being taught that I myself was an animal.”

“I was thinking that I could never shake my ghosts, never, never. There they were in every word I wrote, in every lab, in every relationship.”

8 thoughts on “Transcendent Kingdom

  1. Gorgeous review! It sounds like a read I’ll need to be very present for but I’m definitely intrigued after hearing your thoughts. Thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

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