At the same time that Yaa Gyasi was working on her first novel, her best friend Christina Kim was working on her doctoral thesis in neuroscience.
“I remember reading — or trying to read — this paper she had gotten published and I didn’t understand a word of it,” Gyasi (pronounced “Jessie”) said by phone recently from her home in Brooklyn.
“And that struck me as odd because she was so supportive and encouraging with my work, but yet I felt I didn’t have the same access point to her work.”
(Kim’s paper, published in the journal Cell, was titled “Molecular and Circuit-Dynamical Identification of Top-Down Neural Mechanisms for Restraint of Reward Seeking.” There are reasons why it might not be instantly comprehensible.)
So Gyasi asked Kim if she could visit her Stanford University lab. That visit — as Gyasi watched Kim perform delicate surgery on mice brains in order to fathom the brain’s response to addiction and depression — eventually became the inspiration for her just-published second novel, “Transcendent Kingdom.”
It’s the story of Gifty, a Ghanaian-American scientist at Stanford whose family has suffered immense trauma. Gifty’s father has abandoned his family and returned to Ghana. Her brother became addicted to opioids after a sports injury and has died of an overdose. Her mother has sunk into a deep depression, and Gifty has become her caretaker.
Raised Pentecostal — and a passionate believer as a child — Gifty has turned away from faith to devote her life to science. Her research into addiction and depression, she insists, has nothing to do with having a depressed mother and an addicted brother. She has left the church, but its influence still colors most things she does.
“I think Gifty is a character who often contradicts herself in that way,” Gyasi said. “I think that’s really partly a trauma response. She can’t look at or touch the place that hurts. She kind of sees around it or uses code names to avoid that trauma of her brother’s death.”
The book has gotten rave reviews, including starred reviews in the trade journals Kirkus and Publishers Weekly. Kirkus called it “wise,” “astute” and “quietly poignant,” and Publishers Weekly said it depicted “a vivid evocation of the immigrant experience.”
It is a very different book from Gyasi’s 2016 debut, “Homegoing,” which rocketed her to fame at age 26. An epic tale that spanned eight generations, “Homegoing” was a New York Times best book of the year, winner of the National Book Critics Circle John Leonard Prize for best first book, winner of a PEN/Hemingway Award and a finalist for the Dayton Literary Peace Prize.
“Transcendent Kingdom” is a much more compressed book, covering just a few months in the life of the first-person narrator. Writing it proved to be a very different experience for Gyasi.
“Particularly writing in the first person for such a sustained amount of time,” she said. “I find that really tricky, mostly because you have to find a way to see around what the character is seeing.
“ ‘Homegoing’ was nice in that the structure allowed for each chapter to be contained in a way that made it really clear for me what the structure was and what it looked like.”
The new novel “felt a lot looser, a lot more nebulous, which had its pleasures. It had its challenges, as well.”
A peripatetic childhood
Like Gifty, Gyasi was born in Ghana and came to the United States as a child with her family. And like Gifty, Gyasi grew up in Alabama and attended the Pentecostal Church. But the similarities between author and character end there.
Gyasi’s family first settled in Columbus, Ohio, where her father worked on a doctorate in French, and then moved to Illinois and Tennessee. She was 10 when they settled in Huntsville, Ala. Her father teaches French language and Francophone literature at the University of Alabama; her mother is a nurse.
“Alabama is the place that I think of when I am asked to talk about home,” Gyasi said. “It’s the only place I have really keen, strong, developed memories of, and it’s the place that I return to for holidays and to see my family. It’s home for me.”
In all of the many places they lived, her family always sought out others in the Ghanaian-American and West African communities, and Gyasi grew up deeply familiar with the languages, food and traditions of her native country.
She was 7 when she wrote her first story.
“And I’ve been pretty consistently writing fiction since then,” she said. “I get a lot of pleasure out of it. Sometimes I have that feeling some writers talk about — ‘I don’t like writing, I like having written.’ Sometimes I feel that. But I also just enjoy writing. I feel that sense of — what is it that Flannery O’Connor says? — that feeling of being plunged into the world. I really enjoy that feeling.”
Gyasi earned a bachelor’s degree from Stanford University and an MFA from the Iowa Writers Workshop. While still at Stanford, she won a fellowship that took her to Ghana. There, the idea for “Homegoing” hit her “like a lightning bolt” when she visited a dungeon under a fortress on the coast, a place where captured Africans had once been shackled before being shipped to America to be sold.
She drew on the memories of that trip for “Transcendent Kingdom,” which features several scenes set in the bustling, noisy and crowded Ghanaian city of Kumasi, a shock of humanity and color that contrasts strongly with Gifty’s isolated life in her chilly California lab.
At the heart of “Transcendent Kingdom,” though, is love. More specifically, “care and attentiveness,” Gyasi said. “All of these people who have experienced their own various traumas are attempting as best they can to love and care for the people around them, even within their own brokenness and their own limitations.
“I find that really hopeful.”