Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi
Transcendent Kingdom is a book that makes writers jealous. The complexity of the issues and the multi-layering and playing with time... It's all in there. I too was raised evangelical and went on to study neuroscience and have asked many of the same questions Gifty wrestles with in this text, and yet, wow, if I could only be so brilliant to churn out such a book! I hope you get a chance to try it. And if you didn't like it, please come and share why! Suggested discussion questions are below.
Hope to see you there!
1. What did you like / dislike?
2. What does the title mean? Also see question #20. ("Though I had done this millions of times, it still awed me to see a brain. To know that if I could only understand this little organ inside this one tiny mouse, that understanding still wouldn't speak to the full intricacy of the comparable organ inside my own head. And yet I had to try to understand, to extrapolate from that limited understanding in order to apply it to those of us who made up the species Homo sapiens, the most complex animal, the only animal who believed he had transcended his Kingdom, as one of my high school biology teachers used to say. That belief, that transcendence, was held within this organ itself. Infinite, unknowable, soulful, perhaps even magical. I had traded the Pentecostalism of my childhood for this new religion, this new quest, knowing that I would never fully know." p.20-21)
3. What do you make of Gifty? Her backstory is layered into the chapters. Did you need to know more upfront to know why this last experiment in grad school was the turning point for her? (See p.246 where she recalls that it was the mouse fight that unlocked her box of tears: "Like my mother, I had a locked box where I kept all my tears. My mother had only opened hers the day that Nana died and she had locked it again soon thereafter. A mouse fight had opened mine, but I was trying to close it back up again.") Or did you appreciate how her character unfolded over the course of the book?
4. What did you make of Gifty's mother? Why does she go to America? Why doesn't she go back to Ghana? (see p.243) Does she love her children? How does she show that love? ("We stared at ourselves in the mirror...until my mother's work alarm went off, the one that told her it was time to leave one job in order to get to the other. She finished putting her lipstick on, kissed her reflection in the mirror, and rushed off. I kept staring at myself after she left, kissing my own reflection back." p.23)
5. What is the meaning of image in this book -- regarding how Gifty looks at herself in the mirror as a young child, regarding the dreadlocks she gives herself in grad school... Does Gifty give herself dreadlocks in memory of the "dreadlocked man" from the market in Ghana, the one her Aunt Joyce said was crazy? Gifty opens the book with this story and returns to it over and over again. She comments on schizophrenia occasionally -- was the dreadlocked man supposed to have that?
6. What does it mean to be hungry? ("And if our story couldn't be a fairy tale, then I was willing to accept a tale like the kind I saw on television, back when the only images I ever saw of Africa were those of people stricken by warfare and famine. But there was no war in my mother's stories, and if there was hunger, it was of a different kind, the simple hunger of those who had been fed one thing but wanted another. A simple hunger, impossible to satisfy. I had a hunger too, and the stories my mother filled me with were never enough to provide me with the ammunition I felt I needed in order to battle Geoffrey, his slug of snot, my kindergarten teacher, and that seat in the very back." p.26)
7. How does Gyasi write so effortlessly about current social issues even though Gifty doesn't want to talk about issues like that? (i.e. portrayal of racism against the Chin Chin Man on p.27, or the heckler parent at Nana's soccer game...i.e. stigma of mental health: "I don't believe in mental illness." She claimed that it, along with everything else she disapproved of, was an invention of the West." p.35...i.e. crisis and stigma of opioid addiction...i.e. purpose of protests -- last one from Raymond, the guy she dated during her first year of grad school, p.42) (Gifty's thoughts: "What is the point of all this talk? What problems do we solve by identifying problems, circling them?" p.72)
8. Did you need more "action" in this book? Or did you like the balance of scene to narrative?
9. How does this fit into or serve the story that the only photo of the four of them is from Mr. Thomas's funeral? (p.56)
10. How does Gifty protect herself? ("I, too, have spent years creating my little moat of good deeds in an attempt to protect the castle of myself. I don't want to be dismissed the way that Nana was once dismissed." p.211)
11. Did Gifty's wish to be known as "a scientist, full stop" as opposed to a "woman in science, a black woman in science," resonate with you? Can you separate womanhood from career? (p.83)
12. What is Gifty saying by telling her group "Opioids are the opiates of the masses"? (p.88) And how does speaking up serve her? What do her subsequent thoughts show about her hope for her relationship with her mother? ("And, though I hadn't worked out how I felt about the Christianity of my childhood, I did know how I felt about my mother. Her devotion, her faith, they moved me. I was protective of her right to find comfort in whatever ways she saw fit. Didn't she deserve at least that much? We have to get through this life somehow." p.89; Central inquiry: Are we going to be okay?)
13. In what ways does Gifty live "in between" worlds -- scientist vs. Christian, American vs. Ghanian, and others? For example, with regard to how she feels toward the mice: "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." (p.92)
14. How did your childhood or an event in your life influence your career path or other major life choice?
15. How did Gyasi weave so many threads together?! Will Gifty's relationship with her mother be okay? Will Gifty rediscover her faith in God? Will science give her any answers? Will time heal her shame? Will society and science ever find solutions for addiction and racism and xenophobia?
16. Was work Gifty's addiction? ("I took pleasure in my restraint, a sick pleasure that felt like a hangover, life surviving an avalanche only to lose your limbs to frostbite. That restraint, that control at any cost, made me horrible at a lot of things, but it made me brilliant at my work." AND "Whenever I shone blue light on the protein, it would glow green in the neuron that expressed it. The intensity of that green changed based on whether or not the neuron was firing or inactive. I never tired of this process, the holiness of it, of shining light and getting light in return. The first time I saw it happen, I wanted to call everyone in the building to gather round. In my lab, this sanctuary, something divine. Light is sweet and it pleases the eye to see the sun. / Now I've seen it so many times, my eyes have adjusted. I can't go back to that initial state of wonder, so I work, not to recapture it, but to break through it." p.240)
17. Did reading about how Han kept setting the thermostat too low in the lab remind you of Randy and Isabel in "The Necessary Changes Have Been Made" from Heads of the Colored People? And given such a beginning for a relationship, were you surprised to read of Han and Gifty getting together at the end? Did that relationship make sense or not? (I have to confess that I think I fell in love with him a bit when he tells Gifty, "Okay, but how are you at eating dinner?" p.240)
18. What it is about humans that we are the "only animal in the known world that is willing to try something new, fun, pointless, dangerous, thrilling, stupid, even if we might die in the trying"? (p.225)
19. What do you make of the ending? What do the candles represent?
20. How does Gifty's work with mice allow her to "transcend her kingdom"? "I've seen enough in a mouse to understand transcendence, holiness, redemption. In people, I've seen even more." (p.264) Also see p.92 reverie on the holiness of mice and p.252: "When I watched the limping mouse refuse the lever, I was reminded yet again of what it means to be reborn, made new, saved, which is just another way of saying, of needing those outstretched hands of your fellows and the grace of God. That saving grace, amazing grace, is a hand and a touch, a fiber-optic implant and a lever and a refusal, and how sweet, how sweet it is."
Thank you so much for coming to our birthday party and discussion last week. We decided that overall we really liked Yaa Gyasi's Transcendent Kingdom but realized that it's not the book we expected when we cracked the cover. The non-linear structure made us work to understand the narrative thread...in the same way that perhaps we ourselves actively try to make sense of our own memories.
Besides the book discussion, we also had fun looking over past titles, voting on our favorites, and thinking about which characters we would or would not want to be. Pachinko stood out in our memories as a fantastic read, and there were several of us who would change places with Rachel Chu from Crazy Rich Asians in a heartbeat.
We also took a look at who we have been reading. I have always given myself and our group snaps for branching out and reading different perspectives. I have tended to think that we are doing a good job with that. And we really have read some diverse literature. However, when we broke it down by author, I discovered that of the 36 books we have read, 23 were by white authors, 10 by Black authors, 2 by Asian authors and 1 by a Native American. We noticed that certain voices were completely missing -- Latinx and Indian, to name two.
While book club has always been a place to relax, socialize and share parenting stories and advice, from around the time we read Debby Irving's Waking Up White in 2017, it has been Corinne's and my hope that we can challenge ourselves to broaden our horizons, examine our prejudices and educate ourselves on histories that were missing from our upbringing. Still, at times, especially when I read books on racial reconciliation like Be the Bridge by LaTasha Morrison and Beyond Colorblind by Sarah Shin, I wonder: what's the point? Or, as Gifty from Transcendent Kingdom put it: "What is the point of all this talk? What problems do we solve by identifying problems, circling them?" p.72
LaTasha Morrison challenges her readers to leverage their spheres of influence to form bridges, to amplify marginalized voices. And I respond with: What influence? I am an unemployed stay at home mom with increasing agoraphobia and cut off from my community due to a pandemic. Then I hear Ms. Morrison say: No excuses.
Perhaps for someone like myself the only reparation I can offer is the sharing of stories. And if that education goes no further than this book club, then so be it for now. If you have any words or perspective of encouragement on this, I'm all ears.
In the meantime, let's continue to broaden our horizons and follow our interest at the same time. For November, let's read Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer. I think this will appeal to the scientists in the group, as well as those interested in combating climate change, those who participate in farm shares, those who garden, and those who aspire to it even though they have the blackest thumbs in the world (like me...although perhaps I shouldn't use the term "black thumb" anymore to avoid being misunderstood or suggesting racial undertones). After I read the synopsis of this book, forgive me, but suddenly my head was filled with a soothing yet urgent message calling me to learn to paint with all the colors of the wind, and I was reminded of playing Disney Monopoly this past summer. Did you know that on the game board it costs hundreds of dollars to buy Cinderella's castle but only six dollars to purchase Pocahontas's riverbend? I suggested to my family that perhaps reparations needed to be made there. They retorted that developed land was worth more and besides, Pocahontas didn't believe you could own property anyway. I said that there must be a better answer than that. (I don't think my parents are racist; they like to argue for fun -- they are lawyers -- but still, you can see the discussion points.) I look forward to hearing Ms. Kimmerer's take on how we can learn from nature. This is a long book with many holds at the library, but it is available on Hoopla!
Hope to see you there!
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The Tipsy Mamas' Book Club is co-hosted by Corinne Foster and myself, though the spirit of our discussions is flavored by many readers.