A Stunning and Rewarding Transcendent Kingdom (@theTable: “FSR Summer Book Club”)
By Holly Hillgardner.
I played a game with Yaa Gyasi’s second novel that helped get me through the demands of the fall 2020 semester. If you teach, perhaps the game might be somewhat familiar? A certain number of graded assignments resulted in my indulging in a treat: sometimes chocolate, sometimes five minutes of TikTok; but, for a weekend in late November, a chapter of Transcendent Kingdom gave me the boost I needed to continue working through my final exams, five tests at a time. Transcendent Kingdom is my favorite kind of fiction for these times: fast-paced (written in bite-sized chapters that did not test my stamina at the end of a COVID-19 semester) but also rich with deeply drawn, complex characters and existential themes. This is both a gorgeous and also a harrowing book about making meaning from a devastated life. The narrator and protagonist, Gifty, is a survivor and a seeker whose questions propel the novel. Her questions lead to more questions, ultimately rocking the whole epistemological enchilada, to mix some metaphors. She describes the moment she lost her faith in a second. This is a book about losing one’s religion.
In a similar background to Gyasi’s own, Gifty grows up as part of the only Ghanian immigrant family—indeed the only Black family— in her white Pentecostal church in Alabama. Through this cultural and religious context, Gift learns what questions are allowed to be asked. Living with her mentally ill mother and her athletically-gifted brother who develops a heroin problem, Gifty cannot stop asking questions about why the world is the way it is. The subtle and yet still harrowing racism her family experiences leads to Gifty’s sense of isolation and her eventual move to California.
Reminiscent of The Color Purple, Gifty asks questions through letters written to God. In excerpts from her childhood journal, we see her musing on Bible passages that mark her doubts and ideas. For example, the biblical injunction to “love the Lord Your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” gets read through the lens of a budding neuroscientist who is beginning to move away from her Pentecostalism. “How can the heart and soul and mind be separate?” she wonders. In the future, neuroscience will ask her to reduce all to the brain, but that does not work for her either. Years later, as a Stanford scientist in the laboratory, she prays that science will provide answers that will heal her psychological wounds and those of her family. Her loss of faith, which maybe can be better described as a transference of fidelity to a different schema, does not fully change her thinking, forged as it was in childhood. As an adult, she watches her sick mother’s chest rise and fall as she cares for her, and she asks herself of her caretaking, “Was this prayer?” The old ways remain, but the questions keep emerging.
In graduate school, when Gifty hangs out with her boyfriend and his friends, who are doctoral candidates in English, her reactions to their research methods highlight the reasons she chose neuroscience as a field. As they drink and banter, she and the English scholars share similar research questions: about the possibility of an agential self, for example. The difference between her and them, Gifty explains, is that she, in the epigenetics lab with her rats, has access to answers. From her scientific perspective, the other researchers lack any means to find answers to life’s important questions. For Gifty, haunted by her family members’ illnesses rooted in the brain, questions such as “Do we have any agency over our thoughts?” become neuroscientific questions. She pursues this question, among others, in her work with the rats in the lab. Science offers her a method to answer the questions that drive her; yet, even as she begins to find the answers she is looking for, she sometimes asks, “What’s the point?” Her metaphysical questions continue to point out the limitations of science.
And what of Transcendent Kingdom as a title? As a trained feminist theologian, ready critiques come to mind for both words of the title. A focus on “transcendent” things can draw attention away from earthly bodies and their needs, and “kingdom,” of course, is all about androcentric hierarchy. After just a few chapters, I trusted that Gyasi had something up her sleeve with the title choice. She tells us that in high school, Gifty’s biology teacher teaches her that homo sapiens are the “only animal who believed he had transcended his Kingdom” (21). And that transcendence, Gifty explains, was lodged in the brain that she studies. She intends to find it. The title may also allude to the possibility of Gifty’s breaking through into a happy life of her own not eclipsed by the past. Can our work help us get free? Can our communities help us do that? Do we have to do it alone?
I found myself underlining all the smart parts: the poetic lines, the sharp dialogue, the laugh-out-loud lines, the Biblical and literary references, the heartbreaking observed details of mental illness and addiction—this novel stuns. And I didn’t always stick to my 5:1 essay to chapter deal with myself, to my own detriment. Almost devouring it one night, I found my emotional stamina tested, and I had to tend to a Transcendent Kingdom hangover for a full day before diving back into the surprise ending. So maybe it wasn’t the perfect end of semester book for all those papers to grade, but I am not sorry. For summer reading though, if you can find little space around the pressing task of academia, you will be rewarded by gasps and tears as Gyasi’s novel navigates through questions of faith, science, addiction, immigration, and family.
Dr. Hillgardner is a teacher-scholar trained in constructive theology, with a particular interest in comparative theology. The author of “Longing and Letting Go: Hindu and Christian Practices of Passionate Non-Attachment” (Oxford University Press, 2016), she teaches a wide variety of religious studies, gender studies, and philosophy classes at Bethany College. Her current research interests include pilgrimage studies and transformative pedagogies.