Posts Tagged ‘Yaa Gyasi’

Over the summer I read Homegoing, Yaa Gyasi’s debut novel about the legacy of slavery that ranges over several generations. Last night I finished her new novel, Transcendent Kingdom, which is the story of one family, and focuses mainly on one character, Gifty, and to a lesser extent her older brother Nana and their parents. Much of the story is told through Gifty’s recollections of her childhood, and snippets of the the diary she kept. Because it’s a novel that takes place in Gifty’s thoughts, it isn’t a narrative tale; although Gifty eventually fills in much of her life’s story, her thoughts, like anyone’s, jump around.

As in Homegoing (and in Gyasi’s own life), Gifty’s family story begins in Ghana. But the book opens with Gifty’s childhood visit to Ghana to stay with her aunt. Even though we eventually learn that there is so much more to her mother, Gifty tells us in the first sentence, “Whenever I think of my mother, I picture a queen-size bed with her lying in it, a practiced stillness filling the room. For months on end, she colonized that bed like a virus, the first time when I was a child and then again when I was a graduate student.”

Gifty then recalls what led to the overpowering depression her mother experienced, the losses she faced, the ways America did not live up to the dreams her mother had when she entered a lottery to emigrate, causing her father, embarrassed and unsettled by racism and poverty, to visit Ghana and never return. “For a long time, most of my life, in fact, it had been just me and her, but this pairing was unnatural. She knew it and I knew it, and we both tried to ignore what we knew to be true – there used to be four of us, then three, two.”

Gifty’s athletic brother Nana, several years older than she is, is the next to go, when he gets hooked on OxyContin after an injury and cannot overcome his addiction. His overdose changes Gifty’s life even more tangibly than her father’s abandonment. Always an achiever, a child who yearns to be good by her mother’s and her evangelical church’s standards, she finds solace in math and science because of their certainty. As a graduate student, she has returned to a less certain world. What makes the brain work as it does? How much is science and how much is will? And what can science do to shape that will? Her experiments with mice and pleasure-seeking regions of the brain, she hopes, will prevent other little girls’ brothers from dying of an overdose, but shame and fear of being taken less seriously prevent her from sharing.

Gifty recalls,

“In the book of Matthew, Jesus says,”You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” Here is separation. Your heart, the part of you that feels. Your mind, the part of you that thinks. Your soul, the part of you that is. I almost never hear neuroscientists speak about the soul. Because of our work, we are often given to thinking about that part of humans that is the vital, inexplicable essence of ourselves, as the workings of our brains . . . . There is no separation. Our brains are our hearts that feel and our minds that think and our souls that are.”

Her work, she sees, is the same thing she was concerned with as a child: how much control we have over ourselves. “I am looking for new names for old feelings,” Gifty thinks. But her heart, in childhood and in adulthood, is the last thing she thinks about; it’s almost as if the trauma of her shattered family, compounded by racism’s psychological and economic tolls, piles up like bricks around Gifty’s heart. But the work she is doing gives her a kind of peace from the tensions of heart and mind, soul peace:

“The collaboration that the mice and I have going in this lab is, if not holy, then at least sacrosanct. I have never, will never, tell anyone that I sometimes think this way, because I’m aware that the Christians in my life would find it blasphemous and the scientists would find it embarrassing, but the more I do this work the more I believe in a kind of holiness in our connection to everything on Earth. Holy is the mouse. Holy is the grain the mouse eats. Holy is the seed. Holy are we.”

This deep thinking about mind and soul, neuroscience and faith, permeate Gifty’s story and make her who she is. And make this novel so much more than just the story of an immigrant family. It’s also beautiful — Gyasi’s writing is just a pleasure to read.


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I’d wanted to read Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi for some time; there were holds on it, I forgot about it. Then this summer book group I’m in at work selected it (that was also why I read Honour), and I remembered. I’m so glad. I found it to be an absorbing read. Interestingly this is two books in a row with a narrative that shifts from character to character and to different times and places — something I thought I didn’t like — that I’ve really enjoyed. Maybe I don’t enjoy when it’s not done well, but this book was wonderful.

In Homegoing, there are characters whose lives span a few centuries, in Ghana first, then later, in America and Ghana. As the stories unfold, you see the ways the different characters relate to those who came before. Right from the start, slavery impacts all of them, directly or indirectly. Readers meet people involved in the capture and sale of other people, and their descendants. As Gyasi winds through the generations, it’s easy to see how the tendrils of trauma wind along as well, wrapping around each family. More than once, I was reading before bed, and instead of getting sleepy, couldn’t put the book down. There are so many good stories, and so many interesting people, in this novel.

The writing is lovely, too. Here is a passage from a section about Yaw, a bachelor teacher who has hired a younger woman to care for his house:

“He pretended to be annoyed when she rolled off her list of endless questions, but since that first day, he always answered them all, each and every one. When it was not raining, he would sit outside under the shade of a big, bushy mango tree while she drew water from the well. She carried it back to the house in two buckets, and the swollen muscles of her arms would flex, and the sheen of sweat would appear on them, and when she passed him she would smile, the gap so lovely it made him want to cry.”

And like HonourHomegoing, incredibly, is a hopeful book. There is plenty of heartbreak and greed, bigotry and hypocrisy, violence and degradation. But there is so much love. And as the book comes to a close, with people who are perhaps of Gyasi’s generation, there is a sense of transcendence. After generations of seeing people beaten down by systems they cannot overcome, these two young people seem like they are able to be themselves. And you feel hopeful because if their ancestors (mostly) survived, even better for these two whose circumstances are finally better.

Which makes even clearer the urgent need currently felt around the world, and especially in America, to end systemic racism. Because what if all the people in this long line down through the generations had been able to be themselves?

I’m excited to read Yaa Gyasi’s forthcoming book — out in September!

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