Tension Between Science and Religion in “Transcendent Kingdom”

Yaa Gyasi’s Transcendent Kingdom is an incredible follow-up and companion to her first novel. While Homegoing (2016) offers a family’s history over generations and across oceans, Transcendent Kingdom settles into the details of one nuclear family’s experience. Both novels are masterfully written, but this novel offers a microscopic perspective to go along with the macroscopic approach of Gyasi’s previous work.

In Transcendent Kingdom, we follow Gifty, a doctoral student in neuroscience, as she studies mice in her attempts to understand reward seeking behavior. Her research interest seems to stem from her past experience of watching her older brother struggle with addiction. While Gifty attempts to pursue her work, her severely-depressed mother comes to visit, causing Gifty to reflect on her family’s past.

The novel explores a wide variety of themes, but the most prominent concern is the tension between science and religion, particularly the Evangelical Christian background that seems to haunt Gifty as she pursues her neuroscience career. She says “At times, my life now feels so at odds with the religious teachings of my childhood that I wonder what the little girl I once was would think of the woman I’ve become […] But the truth is I haven’t much changed. I still have so many of the same questions, like ‘Do we have control over our thoughts?,’ but I am looking for a different way to answer them. I am looking for new names for old feelings. My soul is still my soul, even if I rarely call it that.” Gifty even keeps pages from her childhood journal in her desk at the lab, and those old journal entries are addressed to God. Gifty is intelligent and self-aware, but she is unable to find a resolution for this tension, and the novel does not offer a clear statement on whether or how readers might wish to balance this tension in their own lives.

Gifty’s story also illustrates some of the ways that immigrant experiences can intersect with religion, racism, and addiction. Gifty’s parents and her older brother moved from Ghana to Huntsville, Alabama, before Gifty was born. While Gifty’s mother commits to creating a life in this new place, her father eventually decides to return to Ghana alone. Gifty’s brother, Nana, suffers a sports-related injury for which OxyContin is prescribed, triggering the addiction that will eventually end his life. Members of the community and church quickly turn away from the family, and a young Gifty overhears racist comments about her brother’s addiction. But as an adult Gifty asks us to “Forget for a moment what he looked like on paper, and instead see him as he was in all of his glory, in all of his beauty. It’s true that for years before he died, I would look at his face and think, What a pity, what a waste. But the waste was my own, the waste was what I missed out on whenever I looked at him and saw just his addiction.”

Transcendent Kingdom calls readers to complicate our thinking about the people around us. The characters and their experiences are layered, complex, and diverse. After all, we are “Homo sapiens […] the only animal who believed he had transcended his Kingdom.” Gifty seems to understand this while also calling attention to the human tendency to want straightforward, simple concepts of people. She says, “I didn’t want to be thought of as a woman in science, a black woman in science. I wanted to be thought of as a scientist, full stop.” Being a scientist does not erase the ways in which her Blackness, her womanhood, and her religious background have shaped Gifty’s experience, and she knows that, but still desires to be “a scientist, full stop.” The novel suggests that we do not need to ignore aspects of a person to allow them a label like “scientist;” instead, we need to expand our definition of a scientist to better include everyone who may take on such a role. 

Transcendent Kingdom: A Novel
By Yaa Gyasi
Vintage Books
Published September 1, 2020
Paperback July 6, 2021