Tag Archives: yaa gyasi

TRANSCENDENT KINGDOM by Yaa Gyasi

Like 2020, its year of publication, Yaa Gyasi’s latest novel Transcendent Kingdom is a swirl of issues and emotions. The book covers a lot of ground – racism, religion, addiction, science, depression and more – but never feels weighted down. Instead, it ricochets from topic to topic, decade to decade, taking readers through the narrative of a troubled Ghanaian immigrant family and how it was affected by these larger forces.

Why I picked it up: I read and enjoyed Gyasi’s debut novel, Homegoing (reviewed here), and buzz for Transcendent Kingdom was off the charts. It was an easy pick for my September BOTM.

Gifty grows up in Alabama, the daughter of Ghanaian parents (Ma and the Chin Chin Man). She adores her older brother Nana, and is an observant, thoughtful, religious girl who follows the rules and does what is expected of her. The family suffers two losses before Gifty turns 12: her father returns to Ghana, leaving his wife and two children in America, and her brother dies of an overdose after becoming addicted to opioids and then heroin following a basketball injury. These two traumas profoundly affect both Gifty and her mother, sending the latter into a deep depression and the former on a decades-long quest to reconcile her religious faith with her need to understand the science of addiction and whether humans can be prevented from falling prey to its clutches.

Gifty herself best describes the tension inherent within her:

This is something I would never say in a lecture or a presentation or, God forbid, a paper, but at a certain point, science fails. Questions become guesses become philosophical ideas about how something should probably, maybe, be. I grew up around people who were distrustful of science, who thought of it as a cunning trick to rob them of their faith, and I have been educated around scientists and laypeople alike who talk about religion as though it were a comfort blanket for the dumb and the weak, a way to extol the virtues of a God more improbable than our own human existence. But this tension, this idea that one must necessarily choose between science and religion, is false.

Transcendent Kingdom goes back and forth between Gifty’s lonely childhood in Alabama, her confusing undergraduate years at Harvard and her present job as a neuroscientist at Stanford. Decades later, Gifty is still trying to connect with her deeply withdrawn mother, while her research on mice is her own way of making peace with what happened to her brother and whether it could have been prevented.

For a rather short book (265 pages), there is a lot going on. While Homegoing was told in a linear format, tracing 300 years in the lives of two half-sisters and their descendants, Transcendent Kingdom practically floats from issue to issue, touching down long enough to ground Gifty’s search for meaning and understanding before moving on to another dimension of her family’s pain. Gifty talks about being a black female scientist, institutional racism, her difficulty in making friends and opening up to men, her anger at her father and her frustration with her mother, yet the book never feels preachy or dramatic. It is quite the opposite: compelling and deeply moving.

I listened to Transcendent Kingdom on audio. The narrator, Bahni Turpin, was excellent (her Ma was unforgettable), but I’d recommend doing this one in print. Given the meandering nature of Transcendent Kingdom, the audio version is a little disorienting. I was often unsure of where I was in the timeline of the narrative, and without the visual cues of paragraph breaks, it was sometimes hard to recover. This is not at all the fault of the talented narrator, but simply the reality of reading via audiobook vs print.

Transcendent Kingdom was book #46 of 2020.

HOMEGOING by Yaa Gyasi

One of the books with a lot of buzz going in to BEA this year was Homegoing, by Yaa Gyasi. It is definitely one of the hot books of June, and for once, I actually read a book right when it came out! Shocking.

9781101947135Homegoing is a sweeping book about the legacy of slavery in Ghana that covers 300 years tracing the ancestors of two half-sisters. One, Effia, married a British colonist and moved to a life of relative luxury, while her half sister, Esi, is sent to America ship via the slave trade, where her children and grandchildren are raised as slaves. The book follows the two threads of the family tree as the generations are born and the decades pass. The chapters alternate between Ghana and America, with each chapter devoted to one person from each generation.

Homegoing is an admirable novel, and I enjoyed it and am very glad that I read it. Gyasi powerfully depicts the shameful legacy of slavery and racism in so many contexts, providing a rich and, at times, almost unbearably painful picture of how deeply they have affected society over the last few hundred years. The African chapters trace European colonization, the slave trade, tribal warfare and poverty, while the American chapters loko at slavery, Jim Crow, racism, the Great Migration and the civil rights movement. The two threads come together in the end, when the present day descendants of Effia and Esi meet and decide to return to Ghana and, unwittingly, the place where their ancestors were originally entwined.

This is not a light read.

I commend Gyasi for her meticulous construction of these parallel paths, and how the dual plots unfold in lockstep despite the thousands of miles and cultural abysses that separate them. Her chapters are almost like short stories, since each one introduces a new character (and a new type of injustice), but the stories are linked both in theme and in genealogy. I think that the wide cast of characters may have made the book less enjoyable for me, as every time I had to re-establish where I was in the family tree (luckily included at the front of the book) and the historical context for the latest installment. This construct made the book a little harder to get into.

At the same time, I learned a lot that I didn’t know before, such as that freed slaves in the South were routinely convicted of petty crimes and forced to work in coal mines for years to pay off their fines, effectively reestablishing slavery despite its illegality. There is a lot of unforgettable horror in here, but there is also love and hope. Homegoing is not a simple book: Gyasi offers a textured portrayal of black Africans who traded their own people to Europeans and light-skinned black Americans who forsook their roots and abandoned their children to avoid the impact of racism.

I listened to Homegoing on audio. The narrator, Dominic Hoffman, ably handled both continents, adopting one accent for the African chapter and another for the American ones. I thought he did an excellent job. HIs voices for men, women, children, white, black – all seemed accurate and authentic.

Overall, I really recommend Homegoing. It’s not a beach read, so save it for when you’re looking for something you can really think about and digest.

(I went to a Q&A with Yaa Gyasi a few weeks ago, which I will write up here in a few days.)