Some readers will be tempted to pigeonhole Yaa Gyasi’s Transcendent Kingdom as an “immigrant novel.” A quick scan of the reviews shows that several critics focused on the theme of “science and religion.” But what’s impressive about Gyasi’s second book is that it's both a story of migration and a novel of ideas. Understanding the story requires both modes.
Gifty, the novel’s protagonist, is the daughter of working-class Ghanaian immigrants who are believing Christians. She grows up in America, and becomes a successful neuroscientist and, eventually, an agnostic. The novel concerns Gifty’s attempt to make sense of her conflicted life while she cares for her mother, who suffers from clinical depression. At the beginning of the story, Gifty is a sixth-year PhD candidate at the Stanford University School of Medicine, studying “the neural circuits of reward-seeking behavior.” She hopes her research will one day help those who suffer from addiction. The inspiration behind her career is her brother Nana, who died from an OxyContin overdose while Gifty was still a child:
Nana is the reason I began this work.… Science was a way for me to challenge myself, to do something truly hard, and in so doing to work through all my misunderstandings about his addiction and all of my shame. Because I still have so much shame.… I can look at my data again and again. I can look at scan after scan of drug addicted brains shot through with holes, Swiss-cheese, atrophied, irreparable. I can watch the blue light flash through the brain of a mouse and note the behavioral changes that take place because of it, and know how many years of difficult, arduous science went into those tiny changes, and still, still think, Why didn’t Nana stop? Why didn’t he get better for us? For me?
This passage exposes how the clash between science and faith has split Gifty in two. On the surface, it gives us Gifty the scientist, committed to reason and empirical evidence. When this Gifty asks, “Why didn’t Nana stop?”, she looks for an answer in the physiology of the brain. But the pathos here points to another Gifty, a baptized Christian. This Gifty asks “Why?” in a different way, the existential “why” of the Book of Job. Why must we suffer? Gifty seeks an answer to both versions of this question, though at times she despairs of finding an answer to the existential one. (“I wasn’t interested in mystery, I wanted reason.”)
Gifty’s love of science was nurtured in American public schools. Her Christianity comes from Ghana, where her parents and brother were born. “By the time I wanted to hear the complete story of why my parents immigrated to America, it was no longer a story my mother wanted to tell.” Her origins create another psychological rift: Gifty has one foot in the United States, where she doesn’t always feel completely at home, and one foot in Ghana, where she had never been until she was a teenager. Her parents settled in Huntsville, Alabama, where her father (nicknamed “the Chin Chin Man”) works various low-wage jobs, and her mother works as a caretaker for the elderly. In their adopted country, Gifty’s parents endure petty humiliations from store clerks, racist insults from employers, and more subtle bigotries from fellow Christians.
“We were the only black people at the First Assemblies of God Church; my mother didn’t know any better. She thought the God of America must be the same God of Ghana, that the Jehovah of the white church could not possibly be different from the one of the black church.” Nobody alerted Gifty’s family about what Martin Luther King, Jr. once called “the most segregated hour in America,” the racial split within the American Church. Even long after segregation, there is still an unholy distance between Gifty’s family and that of the rest of the majority-white congregation. Gifty never feels like a full member of the Church. But she can never fully shake her childhood faith, even if she doesn’t quite believe in it anymore.