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Gifty is a sixth-year PhD candidate in neuroscience at the Stanford University School of Medicine studying reward-seeking behavior in mice and the neural circuits of depression and addiction. Her brother, Nana, was a gifted high school athlete who died of a heroin overdose after an ankle injury left him hooked on OxyContin. Her suicidal mother is living in her bed.
Gifty is determined to discover the scientific basis for the suffering she sees all around her. But even as she turns to the hard sciences to unlock the mystery of her family's loss, she finds herself hungering for her childhood faith and grappling with the evangelical church in which she was raised, whose promise of salvation remains as tantalizing as it is elusive.
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|Publisher:||Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||7.80(w) x 5.10(h) x 0.70(d)|
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Whenever I think of my mother, I picture a queen-sized bed with her lying in it, a practiced stillness filling the room. For months on end, she colonized that bed like a virus, the first time, when I was child and then again when I was a graduate student. The first time, I was sent to Ghana to wait her out. While there, I was walking through Kejetia market with my aunt when she grabbed my arm and pointed. “Look a crazy person,” she said in Twi. “Do you see? A crazy person.”
I was mortified. My aunt was speaking so loudly, and the man, tall with dust caked into his dreadlocks, was within earshot. “I see. I see,” I answered in a low hiss. The man continued past us, mumbling to himself as he waved his hands about in gestures that only he could understand. My aunt nodded, satisfied, and we kept walking past the hordes of people gathered in that agoraphobia-inducing market until we reached the stall where we would spend the rest of the morning attempting to sell knock-off handbags. In my three months there, we sold only four bags.
Even now, I don’t completely understand why my aunt singled the man out to me. Maybe she thought there were no crazy people in America, that I had never seen one before. Or maybe she was thinking about my mother, about the real reason I was stuck in Ghana that summer, sweating in a stall with an aunt I hardly knew while my mother healed at home in Alabama. I was eleven, and I could see that my mother wasn’t sick, not in the ways that I was used to. I didn’t understand what my mother needed healing from. I didn’t understand, but I did. And my embarrassment at my aunt’s loud gesture had as much to do with my understanding as it did with the man who had passed us by. My aunt was saying, “That. That is what crazy looks like.” But instead what I heard was my mother’s name. What I saw was my mother’s face, still as lake water, the pastor’s hand resting gently on her forehead, his prayer a light hum that made the room buzz. I’m not sure I know what crazy looks like, but even today when I hear the word I picture a split screen, the dreadlocked man in Kejetia on one side, my mother lying in bed on the other. I think about how no one at all reacted to that man in the market, not in fear or disgust, nothing, save my aunt who wanted me to look. He was, it seemed to me, at perfect peace, even as he gesticulated wildly, even as he mumbled.
But my mother, in her bed, infinitely still, was wild inside.
Reading Group Guide
The questions, discussion topics, and other material that follow are intended to enhance your group’s conversation of Yaa Gyasi’s Transcendent Kingdom, a powerful coming-of-age story of a young woman on a quest for approval and forgiveness in the wake of the devastating loss of her brother to drug overdose—and for a sense of belonging in a world of unknowns.
1. How do Gifty and her mother use prayer differently throughout their lives, and especially after Nana’s death? What variations of prayer do the two women discover in the novel?
2. How does Gifty approach the moral predicament of running her science experiments on mice? What elements of her faith and sense of connection to God’s creations are evident in how she treats the mice?
3. Consider the stigmas surrounding addiction, especially opioid addiction, the rates of which are exploding in today’s society. What other stigmas and expectations was Nana responding to by not asking for help to deal with his addiction, and others not doing more to help?
4. In what ways does Gifty take on the role of caretaker for those in her life? Who, if anyone, takes care of Gifty?
5. Gifty admits that she values both God and sciences as lenses through which to see the world that both “failed to fully satisfy in their aim: to make clear, to make meaning” (198). Why does she have to lead with the caveat that she “would never say [this] in a lecture or a presentation or, God forbid, a paper”? How does the extreme belief in science mimic the faith of the religious zealots she turned away from?
6. What messages do Gifty and Nana hear about the intersection of race and poverty in their youth church meetings? How do the siblings respond to the conflation of the two—and what does the assumption that African countries are impoverished or need saving by missionaries suggest about the colonial power dynamic engrained in our society?
7. Gifty refers to her relationship with her mother as an "experiment." Are there similarities in the way Gifty approaches her work and her relationship with her mother? How did the separate events of losing the Chin Chin Man and Nana’s death affect their relationship? Throughout the course of their lives, how does Gifty determine whether or not her and her mother are “going to be ok” (33)?
8. Throughout the book, Gifty struggles to find a sense of community in places where people traditionally find it (school, work, family, church, etc.). What life experiences shape her understanding of community? In what ways does this affect her ability to build relationships with the people in her life (Anna, Raymond, Katherine, Han)?
9. Explore the idea of humans as the only animal “who believed he had transcended his Kingdom” (21). How does this idea influence Gifty’s relationship with science? With religion?
10. Describe the difference between Gifty’s connection to Ghana and her connection to Alabama. In what ways does she feel connected to her Ghanaian ancestry?
11. How does Gifty feel when she overhears congregants gossiping about her family? How does this experience influence her relationship with the church? With her family? With God?
12. Gifty privately considers her work in the lab as holy—“if not holy, then at least sacrosanct (p. 92).” Explain her reasoning, and why she chooses not to discuss this feeling with anyone.