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Published September 16, 2020

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Transcendent Kingdom
Transcendent Kingdom
by Yaa Gyasi

Hardcover (1 Sep 2020), 288 pages.
Publisher: Knopf
ISBN-13: 9780525658184

Yaa Gyasi's stunning follow-up to her acclaimed national bestseller Homegoing is a powerful, raw, intimate, deeply layered novel about a Ghanaian family in Alabama.

Gifty is a sixth-year PhD candidate in neuroscience at the Stanford University School of Medicine studying reward-seeking behavior in mice and the neural circuits of depression and addiction. Her brother, Nana, was a gifted high school athlete who died of a heroin overdose after an ankle injury left him hooked on OxyContin. Her suicidal mother is living in her bed. Gifty is determined to discover the scientific basis for the suffering she sees all around her. But even as she turns to the hard sciences to unlock the mystery of her family's loss, she finds herself hungering for her childhood faith and grappling with the evangelical church in which she was raised, whose promise of salvation remains as tantalizing as it is elusive.

Transcendent Kingdom is a deeply moving portrait of a family of Ghanaian immigrants ravaged by depression and addiction and grief--a novel about faith, science, religion, love. Exquisitely written, emotionally searing, this is an exceptionally powerful follow-up to Gyasi's phenomenal debut.

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.

Full Excerpt

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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Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!

  1. How do Gifty and her mother use prayer differently throughout their lives, and especially after Nana's death? What variations of prayer do the two women discover in the novel?
  2. How does Gifty approach the moral predicament of running her science experiments on mice? What elements of her faith and sense of connection to God's creations are evident in how she treats the mice?
  3. Consider the stigmas surrounding addiction, especially opioid addiction, the rates of which are exploding in today's society. What other stigmas and expectations was Nana responding to by not asking for help to deal with his addiction, and others not doing more to help?
  4. In what ways does Gifty take on the role of caretaker for those in her life? Who, if anyone, takes care of Gifty?
  5. Gifty admits that she values both God and sciences as lenses through which to see the world that both "failed to fully satisfy in their aim: to make clear, to make meaning" (198). Why does she have to lead with the caveat that she "would never say [this] in a lecture or a presentation or, God forbid, a paper"? How does the extreme belief in science mimic the faith of the religious zealots she turned away from?
  6. What messages do Gifty and Nana hear about the intersection of race and poverty in their youth church meetings? How do the siblings respond to the conflation of the two—and what does the assumption that African countries are impoverished or need saving by missionaries suggest about the colonial power dynamic engrained in our society?
  7. Gifty refers to her relationship with her mother as an "experiment." Are there similarities in the way Gifty approaches her work and her relationship with her mother? How did the separate events of losing the Chin Chin Man and Nana's death affect their relationship? Throughout the course of their lives, how does Gifty determine whether or not her and her mother are "going to be ok" (33)?
  8. Throughout the book, Gifty struggles to find a sense of community in places where people traditionally find it (school, work, family, church, etc.). What life experiences shape her understanding of community? In what ways does this affect her ability to build relationships with the people in her life (Anna, Raymond, Katherine, Han)?
  9. Explore the idea of humans as the only animal "who believed he had transcended his Kingdom" (21). How does this idea influence Gifty's relationship with science? With religion?
  10. Describe the difference between Gifty's connection to Ghana and her connection to Alabama. In what ways does she feel connected to her Ghanaian ancestry?
  11. How does Gifty feel when she overhears congregants gossiping about her family? How does this experience influence her relationship with the church? With her family? With God?
  12. Gifty privately considers her work in the lab as holy—"if not holy, then at least sacrosanct (p. 92)." Explain her reasoning, and why she chooses not to discuss this feeling with anyone.


Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Knopf. Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.

In this tenderly wrought exploration of the workings of grief, addiction and spirituality, Yaa Gyasi creates human subjects worthy of wonder.

Print Article Publisher's View   

Yaa Gyasi's (pronounced "yah jessie") Transcendent Kingdom is, among other things, a meditation on science and religion. However, this cursory description doesn't do justice to the full contents of the novel any more than the scientific method encompasses the human quest for knowledge, or than the practice of prayer explains the human impulse to seek guidance from a higher power.

Gyasi's book follows a woman named Gifty as she cares for her depressed, bedridden mother and attempts to reconcile her present existence as a graduate student studying neuroscience with her past existence as a fervently religious child. A series of flashbacks swirl around the present timeline, covering key events that have produced profound effects on Gifty: her father's decision to return to his home country of Ghana, leaving his family behind in Alabama; her brother Nana's opioid addiction and death; and the subsequent breakdown of her mother's mental health, which now seems to be recurring.

As first-person narrator, Gifty takes the methodical approach one might expect of a scientist to understanding the raw material of her life. The author takes a similar approach to dissecting and arranging events in a logical (if not always chronological) order. A tendency towards systematic, evidence-based thinking is also visible in younger Gifty, whose journal entries, in which she writes to God, read as experiments in defining and communicating with the unknown. That the result of all of this is an emotionally evocative text may appear paradoxical, but this seems to be the point; the main character's strong spiritual experiences and her scientific outlook on life are not in conflict but firmly intertwined.

Gifty is both a fascinating observer and a strangely likable person — strangely because her likability is at odds with the way she treats others. She struggles with expressing herself romantically and sexually, has a habit of ghosting friends and lovers, and keeps details of her brother's death and life from those who seek to be close to her. She has a tendency towards self-deprivation, developed in response to Nana's addiction as well as the rigidity instilled by her evangelical past, which lives on in the beliefs of her still-evangelical mother, who is now barely speaking to her. But from the inside perspective the reader is given, Gifty isn't only sympathetic and comprehensible, she is a warm and funny character with touching quirks and vulnerabilities, one who explains her job on first dates by saying she gets mice hooked on cocaine (when in fact she has switched to feeding them Ensure because it is more easily accessible and the mice find it just as addictive) and avoids a certain Safeway because she is afraid the intimidatingly beautiful cashier who works there will judge her shopping choices.

The work that Gifty is struggling to complete in grad school, which she hopes will lead to better methods of treatment for addiction, is — like her forays into faith — an attempt to understand and gain mastery over the mechanisms of desire and restraint. But it is also an outlet for her genuine curiosity, as well as a way of feeling close to her brother, of whom she eventually reaches an understanding that stretches far beyond the question of his lack of self-control:

Forget for a moment what he looked like on paper, and instead see him as he was in all of his glory, in all of his beauty. It's true that for years before he died, I would look at his face and think, What a pity, what a waste. But the waste was my own, the waste was what I missed out on whenever I looked at him and saw just his addiction.

The flipside of Gifty's wish for control, and her most sympathetic trait, is her willingness to remain open to reevaluation. This is what ultimately allows her to come to terms with her brother's death, her father's estrangement, her mother's state of mind and the loss of her own younger self.

The expected route for the novel to take would be to reveal Gifty's work as a futile attempt to "fix" her world. But Gyasi lets her protagonist's science remain as multitudinous as her self, lets the reader experience the same quiet struggles and occasional sense of wonder that Gifty does. Similarly, her childhood belief in God does not exist for the sake of mere character definition; religion acts with agency upon her life, an entity in itself. This generous approach to concepts that are often reduced to stereotypes or mere facets of identity is striking, and it forms the core of a novel that is humbling in its uncompromising wholeness.

Reviewed by Elisabeth Cook

The Wall Street Journal
[Transcendent Kingdom] is burningly dedicated to the question of meaning… The pressure created gives her novel a hard, beautiful, diamantine luster.”

The New York Times Book Review
Transcendent Kingdom trades the blazing brilliance of Homegoing for another type of glory, more granular and difficult to name.

The Washington Post
A book of blazing brilliance… of profound scientific and spiritual reflection that recalls the works of Richard Powers and Marilynne Robinson… A double helix of wisdom and rage twists through the quiet lines.

With deft agility and undeniable artistry, Gyasi's latest is an eloquent examination of resilient survival.

Publishers Weekly (starred review)
[M]eticulous, psychologically complex...Gyasi's constraint renders the emotional impact of the novel all the more powerful...At once a vivid evocation of the immigrant experience and a sharp delineation of an individual's inner struggle, the novel brilliantly succeeds on both counts.

Library Journal (starred review)
Though it's a departure from her gorgeous historical debut, Homegoing, winner of the NBCC's John Leonard Prize, Gyasi's contemporary novel of a woman's struggle for connection in a place where science and faith are at odds is a piercingly beautiful tale of love and forgiveness.

Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
The author is astute about childhood grandiosity and a pious girl’s deep desire to be good; she conveys in brief strokes the notched, nodding hook of heroin’s oblivion…final chapter that gives readers a taste of hard-won deliverance.

Author Blurb Ann Patchett
"I would say that Transcendent Kingdom is a novel for our time (and it is) but it is so much more than that. It is a novel for all times. The splendor and heart and insight and brilliance contained in the pages holds up a light the rest of us can follow.

Author Blurb Roxane Gay
Absolutely transcendent. A gorgeously woven narrative about a woman trying to survive the grief of a brother lost to addiction and a mother trapped in depression while pursuing her ambitions. Not a word or idea out of place. Completely different from Homegoing. THE RANGE. I am quite angry this is so good.

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Gerard Manley Hopkins

Black and white photograph of Gerard Manley HopkinsIn Yaa Gyasi's Transcendent Kingdom, Gifty, a PhD student of neuroscience, recalls a college course she took to fulfill a humanities requirement that focused on the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins. While Gifty didn't care for Hopkins' poetry, she felt a "strange sense of kinship" with the man himself when she reflected on the struggles he had in squaring his religious devotion with his sexual desires. Hopkins, a now-famous Victorian-era poet who converted to Roman Catholicism and became a priest, failed to achieve recognition during his lifetime, partly due to his unusual poetic style. Today, some writers and scholars consider his poetry to be informed by a repressed homosexuality that was at odds with his religious life.

Hopkins was born on July 28, 1844 in Essex, England, where he grew up in a well-to-do family with artistic inclinations and was raised in the Anglican Church. He took an early interest in visual art and poetry, and went on to study classics at Balliol College, Oxford. After reading about John Henry Newman's conversion to Catholicism in his book Apologia pro via sua, Hopkins joined the Roman Catholic Church. In 1867, he began training to become a Jesuit priest and burned all of the poems he had written to date, considering them to be in conflict with his chosen pursuit.

Hopkins began to write poetry again in 1875, two years before he was finally ordained, when he found himself deeply affected by the wreck of a German ship called the Deutschland and resolved to create a poem about it. With "The Wreck of the Deutschland," he introduced "sprung rhythm," a flexible poetic form that employed elements of both metered rhyme and free verse. He attempted to have the poem published in a Jesuit magazine that rejected it at least in part due to its unconventional rhythm. In his subsequent work, Hopkins continued to modify traditional poetic structures.

While due to his commitment to the priesthood Hopkins likely never had a romantic relationship with anyone, his journals reveal an attraction to men, perhaps most notably Digby Mackworth Dolben, a poet Hopkins met while studying at Oxford and a cousin of Poet Laureate Robert Bridges (a friend of Hopkins'). In his biography of Hopkins, Robert Bernard Martin writes that he "was completely taken with Dolben, who was nearly four years his junior, and his private journal for confessions the following year proves how absorbed he was in imperfectly suppressed erotic thoughts."

Hopkins' spiritual devotion was often a subject for his poetry, and some see the religious intensity of his work as an alternative means of expressing his sexuality. In A History of Gay Literature, Gregory Woods asserts that his "technical innovations are the key to the actual expression of an eroticism which, for all his struggles against the temptations of voyeurism and masturbation, he could not conceive of suppressing altogether."

In Transcendent Kingdom, Gifty's professor declares that "Hopkins is all about a delight in language." She proceeds to quote from the poem "Duns Scotus's Oxford," noting the pleasure the poet takes in the way hyphenated phrases such as "Cuckoo-echoing," "bell-swarmed" and "lark-charmed" fit together. Gifty observes that the woman looks "ecstatic and pained as she said this, like she was halfway to orgasm." While this passage paints a comical picture of an educator's enthusiasm for her subject, it also calls attention to certain elements of Hopkins' reputation, and how his poetry has been analyzed heavily, perhaps sometimes reductively, for links to his private life and repressed eroticism. While Gifty dislikes Hopkins' poetry, she takes a respectful, holistic view of him as a person, considering his sexuality and his religious devotion seriously.

Hopkins died of typhoid fever in 1889 without having published any of his work, but Robert Bridges later edited a volume of his poetry that appeared in 1918. Hopkins' work has influenced many other poets, including W.H. Auden, Dylan Thomas, Elizabeth Bishop and John Berryman.

Gerard Manley Hopkins

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By Elisabeth Cook

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