Yaa Gyasi shows the Power of Loss
The immigrant experience is, thankfully enough, something post people on this planet won’t end up having to go through with. After all, what positive outcome could there be from being forced to leave one’s home country in search of not just a better, but a merely decent life? On the flip the side of the coin, this means many people are unfamiliar with immigration, the central topic of Yaa Gyasi’s Transcendent Kingdom.
The story begins by introducing us to a Ghanaian family who make their way all the way to Alabama with the dream of having a better life. When they first arrived, the idea of future prosperity took hold of them, but not for too long; circumstances out of their control begin to pile up on them, as they often tend to.
Our protagonist in this whole affair is Gifty, a young woman in her sixth year of PhD studies in neuroscience at the Stanford University School of Medicine. She used to have an older brother, but in spite of his bright future a sports injury left him addicted to opiates, eventually leading to his death via overdose.
As for her mother, when she got to this land she was forced to endure terrible working conditions, racism and humiliation, all in the hopes of giving her own children a better life, one they could actually be happy with. Now, despair has found its way deep into her heart, and she largely spends her days in bed, in the throes of a severe depression.
With suffering all around her, Gifty is largely kept alive by her studies, attempting to find the scientific basis for the torment which has been haunting her family for far too long. At the same time, she yearns for the comfort faith can often provide, but finds its charms and promises of salvation to be quite elusive. In the end, it seems Gifty must find her own personal path through a life with no easy choices.
Grief is Home in Transcendent Kingdom
To begin with, I think it’s important I mention this work of contemporary fiction is, like many other novels in the genre, more intent on presenting a slice of life, rather than having us follow a concretely structured plot with developments and such. In turn, this implies a generally slower and more meandering pace, and I think as potential readers you ought to be prepared for this.
In any case, I’m sure you’ve surmised by now the specific slice of life we’re exploring is Gifty’s, who seems to be stuck in a situation without any concrete solutions or easy exits to take. I think Gyasi did a fantastic job in creating a strong, believable and multi-dimensional character many people will be able to relate to, regardless of whether or not they’ve undergone the immigrant experience.
There are plenty of moments where we got to witness her internal world, and I found the most prominent and revealing ones to have been those following her work as a scientist working on her PhD. Her work is directly tied with the grief and despair she has experienced time and time again in her life, and I think we can all relate to her desire to find a concrete and scientific source for human suffering.
I thought it was quite interesting to see her trying to work her way through her brother’s tragic demise as well as her mother’s condition, and seeing how she is bound to be shaped by these happenings years down the line, if not for the rest of her life.
The author did an excellent job at conveying and making us feel the heft of the weight Gifty carries on her shoulders, ultimately making her a realistically-inspiring character who never stops trying to find her way, even when at a complete and total loss.
The Roots of an Immigrant
As I’ve been mentioning it time and time again throughout this review, the immigrant experience also has its own very important place at the centre of this novel, affecting Gifty before she was ever even born. Gyasi is herself a Ghanaian immigrant living in Alabama, so I could hardly think of anyone better-placed to relate this specific experience.
While I am certainly not deeply-familiar with the author’s biography, the meticulous nature of the small details she includes about the difficulties faced by immigrant families make me feel as if she’s drawing on either her own, or her family’s concrete experience. These poignant little moments feel much more impactful when we consider their probably veracity and accuracy.
Another aspect of immigration which I believe Gyasi excelled in depicting was the problematic nature of a completely different foreign culture integrating itself into a local, North-American one. Small details in interactions and our character’s interpretations of the world around them keep reminding us just how out of place they are in this country.
For someone like Gifty, born to an immigrant family but already in her country of destination, we witness the problematic nature of trying to preserve her roots versus assimilating into her new environment.
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I think one of the most difficult challenges for any author is to make people care about subjects they have absolutely no relation to. In my opinion, Gyasi achieved just this with Gifty’s character; even if we’re unlike her, we can still relate to her many struggles, and at least understand the seemingly win-less situation she is in, just like countless others in her situation.
The Final Verdict
Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi is a moving and profound work of contemporary fiction dealing with the themes of immigration, grief, loss, love and hope for a better future in one small and life-worn Ghanaian family.
If you’re looking for a layered work of family fiction with true depth and relevance to the world of today, I strongly recommend you give this book a shot.
Yaa Gyasi is a Ghanaian-American writer whose debut novel published in 2016, titled Homegoing, won her the National Book Critics Circle’s John Leonard Award for best first book, the American Book Award, the PEN/Hemingway Award for a first book of fiction, as well as the National Book Foundation’s “5 under 35” honours for the same year. Her additional works include Transcendent Kingdom, No Home, and Sublime Royaume.