“The young African immigrant [in America] must locate herself along three divides: the first between blackness and whiteness; the second within blackness, between native and foreign; the third between African and American.” These are the words of Nigerian-Ghanaian writer Taiye Selasi, and they offer us some insight into the life of Gifty, the protagonist at the pulsing center of Yaa Gyasi’s much anticipated second novel, “Transcendent Kingdom.”
Born to Ghanaian immigrants in Huntsville, Ala., Gifty does indeed straddle these divides, fraught as they are with issues of race and belonging. However, she is more than the sum of these delineated parts in Gyasi’s superbly written novel. She is allowed all her preoccupations, small and big; she is a Black immigrant-type character who contains multitudes — and in today’s world, this remains a very good and relevant thing.
We first meet Gifty through an unnerving memory of her own. “Whenever I think of my mother,” she narrates, “I picture a queen-sized 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 again when I was a graduate student.”
All has not gone well in America for Gifty’s immigrant family — it has suffered indignities (racism), betrayals (a mostly absent father) and tragedy. In fact, its affairs have reached a kind of impasse (yet again) when Gifty’s mother, a deeply religious woman who has lapsed into a depression so severe she sleeps all day, comes to stay in Gifty’s apartment.
By day, Gifty is a graduate student at Stanford University, researching “the neural circuits of reward-seeking behavior.” She works with mice in a cold lab alongside Han, a graduate student easily prone to embarrassment. Outside of lab hours, Gifty tries to help her mother, who “lay underneath a cloud of covers … a sound like a purr [floating] out her lips.”
There are clever parallels in Gifty’s lab work and her life. By observing her mice’s addictive behavior to the nutritional drink Ensure, she hopes to understand not only her mother, who she tries to coax out of inertia, but also her brother Nana, who died from an opioid overdose.
Progress on all fronts is slow, at times nonexistent, giving Gifty plenty of time to reflect on her life and her beliefs, specifically the Pentecostal faith she adopted as a child. The narrative toggles back and forth in time and place, a style reminiscent of Gyasi’s bestselling debut novel, “Homegoing,” with its epic, familial span on the lives of two Ghanaian half-sisters. Some might find the effect dizzying, but Gyasi’s mastery at storytelling — cool, calculated, and confident like her rising neuroscientist narrator — holds our interest, drawing us into the eye of the psychological storm.
By the end of the novel, the reader — like Gifty — is left a little wiser and smarter but also no less attuned to the complexities of human life on this Earth. “I’ve seen enough in a mouse to understand transcendence, holiness, redemption. In people I’ve seen even more,” Gifty concludes, as her life inches toward some normalcy.
Angela Ajayi is a Minneapolis-based writer.
By: Yaa Gyasi.
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf, 264 pages, $27.95.
Read our interview with Yaa Gyasi in Monday’s Star Tribune.