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- Martel, Rachel
Transcendent Kingdom opens with a reminder that the past rarely stays put. Gifty, a sixth year PhD candidate in neuroscience at Stanford University School of Medicine, is reckoning with a relapse of her mother’s depression. After years of remission, Gifty’s mother is unable to get out of bed, and Gifty decides that she should come stay with her in California. With her mother lying in her bed at home, Gifty’s work in the neuroscience lab is charged with a weight beyond that of a typical student trying to publish papers and make it to graduation. Her study of the neural circuits that underlie reward seeking behavior and addiction in mice not only applies to her mother’s disease, but also to the impetus for her mother’s first depressive episode—her cherished older brother Nana’s long struggle with opioid addiction and death by heroin overdose. As Gifty, long accustomed to keeping her emotions to herself and clutching her past close to the chest struggles to keep her mother afloat, she reflects on how her past continues to hold power and relevance.
The daughter of Ghanaian immigrants, Gifty grew up in the predominantly white community of Huntsville, Alabama. Homesick and miserable amid a climate of overt racism and everyday micro-aggressions, Gifty’s father abandoned the family to return to Ghana, leaving four-year-old Gifty and 10-year-old Nana to be raised by their mother. Wryly referred to as “The Black Mamba” by Gifty, their mother, an enigmatic mix of deep tenderness and removed resolve, works long hours as a home health aide to make ends meet. A deeply religious woman, she finds solace in The First Assemblies of God Church, a Pentecostal congregation that, at times, seems to be the only thing keeping her afloat. Gifty, too, is deeply pious as a child. Continuously striving to be good and consumed by questions about God, she writes to God in her journal in an attempt to find religion in the everyday.
Yet Gifty’s faith starts to fracture in early adolescence. Her brother Nana, a basketball star and hometown hero, becomes addicted to prescription opioids following an injury on the court. The ensuing years of conflict overwhelm Gifty with feelings of shame, and sometimes even hatred towards her brother. This, combined with increasing recognition that her religious community—so reverent of Nana when he was healthy and so quick to give up on him when he became ill—is not the bastion of morality she once idealized it to be, prompts Gifty to reevaluate her upbringing. When Nana dies and her mother sinks into a depression that culminates in a suicide attempt, Gifty gives up on religion altogether.
As a college student at Harvard, Gifty continues to eschew overt religious affiliation. Still, she can’t shake the feeling that there’s more to be understood about the human experience. Call it the soul, call it the mind, call it the sub-conscious, Gifty longs to understand the neurologic underpinnings of the behavioral choices that make us who we are. She ultimately chooses to study neuroscience because its rigor appeals to her—if she can decipher which neurons control the behaviors that led to her brother’s addiction, then maybe those behaviors can be changed and controlled. But the more experiments she conducts the more she is forced to grapple with the fact that science can only take her so far. Reconciling her prior absolute belief in God with her current scientific practice isn’t as easy as switching one for the other. Maybe, transcending to a higher level of understanding requires a merging of the two, a recognition that understanding ourselves takes, and is in it of itself, an act of faith.