Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi, Knopf, 2020, $27.00, 288 pages.
“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.” (161)
Suppose you could make your brain into a dollhouse and unlock all the memories and ideas within it, reflections of your past, and unease about your future. In that case, you’d have something that gives you the same feelings as Yaa Gyasi’s ‘Transcendent Kingdom.’ Gyasi uses themes of family drama, religion, and race. As a result, she creates a story that serves as a heartbreaking retelling of what it means to be the outsider looking in on your life. The story’s main character, Gifty, is a 28-year-old Ph.D. student studying neuroscience who struggles to take care of her mother, who suffers from depression. Gyasi portrays Gifty in a way that makes us feel sympathetic for her yet frustrated with her at times, almost as if we’re her subconscious, brimming with thoughts of her and all her positives and negatives. By making Gifty a woman in STEM despite having a mother who is deeply invested in Christianity, Gyasi is showing us that this is a character who has and always is seeking ways to break out of molds while attempting to seek out some hidden truth about herself, even if she has no idea what it is. Both Gifty and her mother have spent their lives in the church. However, Gyasi utilizes this bond between them to portray what it means to break off from your family in more ways than physically.
All of the other characters in this story all attempt to seek something out for themselves. For Gifty’s mother, it’s a better life outside of Ghana. For her father, who is only really referred to as the Chin Chin Man, returning to Ghana after they move to America. And for her brother, it was to have true happiness as a family. Gyasi develops this story using these themes of family, faith, home, race, and immigration in a way that makes it so we only really see them through Gifty’s eyes. Because of this, the book could be relatable for readers from all walks of life. Gyasi’s characters are so human that the way they’re written out can make any reader feel like they could walk in their shoes. There’s no caricature in these people, and they’re all reflective of very human needs and desires. Further, the book doesn’t rely on just a few simple themes to tell its story. Even if it centers on a mother and daughter, using so many other ideas allows there to be a dynamic to this story that only further humanizes it.
Having been the youngest sibling, Gifty is given the job of retelling her family story since she, at this point, considers herself to be entirely alone. Gyasi carefully makes it so that the reader can tell that Gifty has lived an isolated life for a while now, as Gifty interjects with stories about how she would often be outside of various situations with family, with her friends, at the lab, etc. Peering in on her life’s events as if everybody else weren’t people, but the mice she runs tests on in her lab. Gifty’s childhood journal entries reveal to the reader just how long these thoughts and doubts of faith have run through her head.
Buzz says that Christianity is a cult except that it started so long ago that people didn’t know what cults were yet. He said we’re smarter now than we were back then. Is that true?’
Would you show me that you’re real?’ (212)
The good thing about being the outsider of the family is that you can call out the flaws and dust the dirt off of the secrets that would otherwise be kept hidden from the sight of others. Gyasi ensures that the reader knows all of these secrets, revealing them to us with little to no hesitation on Gifty’s part. How her brother lost his battle with addiction, how her mother knew about it, how her father abandoned her, how she’s hated him internally since the list goes on. Gyasi reveals these secrets to us by characterizing Gifty with a bluntness that can verge on being jarring when we hear them; the resulting feeling is uncomfortable, almost cathartic. As Gifty begins to slowly and somewhat reluctantly open herself up to other people later on in the book, Gyasi crafts her interactions with these people into something you would expect from a person who has spent most of their life as an outsider. They can get awkward, silences remain at some points, and most of the time, when the conversation ends, you walk away lingering on it. There’s something about how Gyasi writes these exchanges that lets us know there’s much more to everything under the surface.
When Gifty has to finally let things go, come to an acceptance that everything will be okay, Gyasi writes these final scenes in a way that leaves the reader with an almost cathartic feeling. Gyasi has carefully created a story where at this point, Gifty’s struggles have become our struggles and to witness her being able to finally find a sense of peace within herself as well as the life she has gives the reader their own kind of relief. Almost as if you were caught by a holy spirit. At the end of the story, Gifty reflects on her life thus far; “Some days, I sit there for hours, some days, mere minutes, but I never bow my head. I never pray, never wait to hear God’s voice, I just look. I sit in blessed silence, and I remember. I try to make order, make sense, make meaning of the jumble of it all. Always, I light two candles before I go.” (542)