Excerpt from Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Transcendent Kingdom

by Yaa Gyasi

Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi X
Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi
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  • First Published:
    Sep 2020, 288 pages

    Paperback:
    Jul 2021, 304 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Elisabeth Cook
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Excerpt
Transcendent Kingdom

When I was a child I thought I would be a dancer or a worship leader at a Pentecostal church, a preacher's wife or a glamorous actress. In high school my grades were so good that the world seemed to whittle this decision down for me: doctor. An immigrant cliché, except I lacked the overbearing parents. My mother didn't care what I did and wouldn't have forced me into anything. I suspect she would be prouder today if I'd ended up behind the pulpit of the First Assemblies of God, meekly singing number 162 out of the hymnal while the congregation stuttered along. Everyone at that church had a horrible voice. When I was old enough to go to "big church," as the kids in the children's service called it, I dreaded hearing the worship leader's warbling soprano every Sunday morning. It scared me in a familiar way. Like when I was five and Nana was eleven, and we found a baby bird that had fallen out of its nest. Nana scooped it into his big palms, and the two of us ran home. The house was empty. The house was always empty, but we knew we needed to act fast, because if our mother came home to find the bird, she'd kill it outright or take it away and drop it in some small stretch of wilderness, leaving it to die. She'd tell us exactly what she'd done too. She was never the kind of parent who lied to make her children feel better. I'd spent my whole childhood slipping teeth under my pillow at night and finding teeth there in the morning. Nana left the bird with me while he poured a bowl of milk for it. When I held it in my hands, I felt its fear, the unending shiver of its little round body, and I started crying. Nana put its beak to the bowl and tried to urge it to drink, but it wouldn't, and the shiver that was in the bird moved in me. That's what the worship leader's voice sounded like to me—the shaky body of a bird in distress, a child who'd grown suddenly afraid. I checked that career off my list right away.

Preacher's wife was next on my list. Pastor John's wife didn't do much, as far as I could tell, but I decided to practice for the position by praying for all of my friends' pets. There was Katie's goldfish, for whom we held a toilet-bowl funeral. I said my prayer while we watched the flash of orange swirl down and disappear. There was Ashley's golden retriever, Buddy, a frantic, energetic dog. Buddy liked to knock over the trash bins the neighbors put out every Tuesday night. Come Wednesday morning our street would be littered with apple cores, beer bottles, cereal boxes. The trash collectors started to complain, but Buddy kept living out his truth, undeterred. Once, Mrs. Caldwell found a pair of panties near her bin that didn't belong to her, confirming a suspicion she'd had. She moved out the next week. The Tuesday night after she left, Mr. Caldwell sat outside next to his trash bin in a lawn chair, a rifle slung across his lap.

"Iffn that dog comes near my trash again, you'll be needin' a shovel."

Ashley, scared for Buddy's life, asked if I would pray for him, as I had already made something of a name for myself on the pet funeral circuit.

She brought the dog by while my mother was at work and Nana was at basketball practice. I'd asked her to come over when no one was home, because I knew that what we were doing was in a gray area, sacrament-wise. I cleared a space in the living room, which I referred to as the sanctuary. Buddy figured out something was up as soon as we started to sing "Holy, Holy, Holy," and he wouldn't stay still. Ashley held him down while I placed my hand on his head, asking God to make him a dog of peace instead of one of destruction. I counted that prayer successful every time I saw Buddy out and about, alive, but I still wasn't sure if I was destined for the ministry.

It was my high school biology teacher who urged me toward science. I was fifteen, the same age that Nana was when we discovered he had a habit. My mother had been cleaning Nana's room when she noticed. She'd gotten a ladder from the garage so she could sweep out his light fixture, and when she put her hand in the glass bowl of the light, she found a few scattered pills. OxyContin. Gathered there, they'd looked like dead bugs, once drawn to the light. Years later, after all the funeral attendants had finally gone, leaving jollof and waakye and peanut butter soup in their wake, my mother would tell me that she blamed herself for not doing more the day she'd cleaned the light. I should have said something kind in return. I should have comforted her, told her it wasn't her fault, but somewhere, just below the surface of me, I blamed her. I blamed myself too. Guilt and doubt and fear had already settled into my young body like ghosts haunting a house. I trembled, and in the one second it took for the tremble to move through my body, I stopped believing in God. It happened that quickly, a tremble-length reckoning. One minute there was a God with the whole world in his hands; the next minute the world was plummeting, ceaselessly, toward an ever-shifting bottom.

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Excerpted from Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi. Copyright © 2020 by Yaa Gyasi. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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