Ghanaian-American writer Yaa Gyasi’s debut novel, 2016’s Homegoing, reads like a very elaborate and harrowing empathy essay. Monstrous in scope, the book went on to bag all the laurels that any author — seasoned or budding — dreams of. Among the prizes were the coveted PEN/Hemingway and National Book Critics Circle award for best debut.
Even prior to its release, Homegoing had become something of a sensation with rumours swirling around of a seven-figure advance from the publishers. When the title was assigned as reading material to incoming freshmen at Stanford University (Gyasi’s own alma mater) in the year of its release, and was endorsed by Ta-Nehisi Coates, its status as a classic was sealed.
Homegoing begins in the mid-18th century on the coast of Ghana, where two half-sisters meet wildly contrasting fates. Effia becomes the wife of a slave trader, destined for a life of privilege, while Esi is shipped off as a plantation worker to the New World, where nothing but stretches of cotton fields, exploitation and repression await her under a “punishing southern sun.” Gyasi chases the sisters’ offspring down a family tree — traversing two and a half centuries and travelling deep into the pitch-dark bowels of history through different settings, chapter by chapter, to reflect upon the damaging legacy of colonialism and slavery — until she meets their descendants in modern-day America.
In comparison to its prequel, Transcendent Kingdom is much more modest in scope, though equally ambitious in its premise. The book is an exceedingly intimate account of the life of a second-generation immigrant from Ghana living in the American South, and trying to come to terms with childhood trauma and tragedy.
To her colleagues and friends, Gifty is living the solitary and indolent life of an academic; a graduate student of neuroscience at Stanford University, fussing over her lab rats and dreaming of the day when she will finally have a draft ready for her thesis. The research question she is pursuing is this: how is reward-seeking behaviour influenced by risk, especially in the case of drug addicts and the clinically depressed? However, the question is borne out of something more than just intellectual curiosity.
A celebrated writer’s sophomore novel may be much more modest in scope than her debut, but is equally ambitious in its premise, tackling immigration, trauma and race
Over the course of her life, Gifty witnesses the loss of two family members. First, her father abandons them for his former life in Ghana only a few years after his arrival, disillusioned by the American dream. Then, the family is ravaged by the death of Gifty’s brother, Nana, a gifted athlete who succumbs to a drug addiction after a leg injury during a game leaves him hooked on painkillers.
This is a loss that turns out to be a far bigger turning point in Gifty’s life than the flight of the family patriarch. Soon, Gifty’s mother starts sinking deep into the throes of depression, broken by the death of her dearest child, conceived after years of remaining childless.
From a very early age, it had been made clear to Gifty, by her somewhat impassive mother, that her brother was the centre of their family’s universe and that her birth was nothing but an afterthought. After her husband’s abandonment, Gifty’s mother coddles Nana, giving all of herself to him the way a single, immigrant mother who has endured a long and painful spell of barrenness is wont to do with an only son. Taking cues from her mother, Gifty, too, comes to define herself against the only male figure in the family and the institution of white authority her mother literally worships: the local church.
One day, while Gifty is working on her thesis, her mother unexpectedly comes to stay with her, forcing Gifty to revisit their relationship along with many personal myths — of self, identity, morality and faith — that she had grown up with. Left to fend for herself from a young age, she recalls the feverish obsession with which she clung to religion the way the vulnerable — children and immigrants — do to cope with their foreignness in a strange world.
Gradually, though, she finds herself straying away from her faith, when it fails to heal first her brother and then her mother: “One minute there was a God with the whole world in his hands; the next minute the world was plummeting, ceaselessly, towards an ever-shifting bottom.” Failed by God, Gifty turns to science for answers.
She constantly interrupts her reflections with excerpts from a range of academic texts — philosophy, theology, literature — but, in the end, realises that she needs to look no further than her own family’s history and the suffering endured by her ancestors to locate the source of their trauma. The more Gifty tries to rid herself of all the shame she feels for her brother’s death and her mother’s condition, the more it shadows her, haunting her adulthood relationships and friendships.
The fictional narrator’s life begs comparisons with Gyasi’s own experience as an immigrant who grew up in northern Alabama with two brothers. But to label Gyasi’s works as semi-autobiographies would be dismissive of the characters’ fascinating backstories and the author’s literary flair, as well as the immense amount of hard work she puts into each one of her projects.
While Homegoing was inspired by a spontaneous trip to the dungeons of an old British slave port in Ghana, the idea for Transcendent Kingdom took seed during a visit to a neuroscientist friend’s lab. From there onwards, Gyasi put her brilliant imagination to work to weave a narrative about a mother-daughter relationship.
Gyasi touches upon some difficult questions as Gifty finds herself parenting her own mother through her depression: to what extent can one undo one’s upbringing? Can trauma be inherited? Is the nature of black people’s suffering inextricably linked to their race?
Gifty’s connection with her mother also makes us painfully aware of our current condition, where we find ourselves playing lab rats to data algorithms, stripped of all physical human bonds and our most fragile necessity: care and affection. All this she does with a mix of pain, anger and frustration, in a language that is plainspoken, yet poetic.
Transcendent Kingdom reveals a writer who is already in command of her talent and has no qualms about using it to educate the world on the sensitive nature of the conversation around race and citizenship. The overarching message in her work warns us of what can happen when a community is robbed of its sense of belonging: the damage echoes through generations.
The reviewer is a Lums graduate, currently working at a policy think tank
By Yaa Gyasi
Penguin Random House, UK
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, February 14th, 2021