F "Transcendent Kingdom" by Yaa Gyasi (Ghana) - Beyond Achebe: Reading the Continent

"Transcendent Kingdom" by Yaa Gyasi (Ghana)

I first encountered Ghanaian-American author Yaa Gyasi’s writing in 2019 when I read her multiple awards winning debut novel Homegoing (I reviewed it here).  Her latest novel Transcendent Kingdom may not rise to the same level of jaw-dropping narrative arc and grandiose themes but it’s still powerful in its attention to the personal.  

Whereas Homegoing covered multiple generations across the Atlantic (from the slave trade to the present), in Transcendent Kingdom, the author chooses to focus on the life of one brilliant young scientist and her life as a daughter of Ghanaian immigrants who struggles with her identity as a black woman and as the daughter of a mother struggling with depression and sister of a brother battling addiction. Her identity quest is all filtered through her charismatic religious upbringing–which she left behind following her brother’s tragic overdose. To her credit, Gyasi refrains from both Christian and anti-religious stereotypes and treats both sides with a compassionate eye for detail and nuance.  

Key Quotes:

  • she chided us for becoming too American, by which she meant we didn’t believe in anything.
  • My father’s heart was a lightbulb, dimming with age
  • I mean progress in the sense of the natural way in which learning something new requires getting rid of something old

For another excellent Ghanaian writer, check out Taiye Selasi’s 2013 novel Ghana Must Go. She writes beautifully and similarly crafts a tale focused on a mother--in her case, a mother's love--I reviewed it here six years ago. 

Lastly, one of my favorite poems is from Ghanaian poet Atukwei Okai–in “Kperterkple Serenade” he brilliantly captures the spectrum of mixed feelings and longing concerning emmigration to the United States–the last line has stayed with me since I first read it 12 years ago: “America, you’re a funny girl, everybody dreams of kissing you.”

This is of my Reading Around the Continent books--the full list is here.

Looking for book ideas? Check out our 20222021202020192018201720162015 and 2014 reading lists!


Location: 246

My father’s heart was a lightbulb, dimming with age. Nana was pure light.


Location: 455

somewhere, just below the surface of me, I blamed her. I blamed myself too. Guilt and doubt and fear had already settled into my young body like ghosts haunting a house. I trembled, and in the one second it took for the tremble to move through my body, I stopped believing in God. It happened that quickly, a tremble-length reckoning. One minute there was a God with the whole world in his hands; the next minute the world was plummeting, ceaselessly, toward an ever-shifting bottom.


Location: 514

Ama Ata Aidoo’s book Changes, in which the character Esi says, “you cannot go around claiming that an idea or an item was imported into a given society unless you could also conclude that to the best of your knowledge, there is not, and never was any word or phrase in that society’s indigenous language which describes that idea or item.            

Location: 844

the lesson I have never quite been able to shake: that I would always have something to prove and that nothing but blazing brilliance would be enough to prove it.            

Location: 1,013

am looking for new names for old feelings. My soul is still my soul, even if I rarely call it that.


Location: 1,231

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.


Location: 1,528

He said, “Do you want a hug?” My eyes were still adjusting to that patch of dark. I couldn’t see his face, couldn’t tell if he was serious or just making fun of me, but I considered the question carefully anyway. “No, not really,” I said. Nana started laughing. He walked those last couple of blocks unhurriedly, at my pace so that I could walk beside him.


Location: 1,595

she chided us for becoming too American, by which she meant we didn’t believe in anything.


Location: 1,676

I mean progress in the sense of the natural way in which learning something new requires getting rid of something old,


Location: 1,895

Nana sighed and said, “It feels amazing, like everything inside my head just empties out and then there’s nothing left—in a good way.”


Location: 1,918

ask myself, “What came over you?” I say, “Be specific.” I had never felt anything like it before, and I have never felt anything like it since. Sometimes I tell myself that I made it all up, the feeling of my heart full to bursting, the desire to know God and be known by him, but that is not true either. What I felt that night was real. It was as real as anything a person can feel, and insofar as we know anything at all, I knew what I needed to do.


Location: 2,074

wish it was cancer, not for his sake but for mine. Not because the nature of his suffering would change significantly but because the nature of my suffering would.


Location: 2,468

On Ambien, her words were always slow, slurred, like each one was dipped in the shocked sleep of that drug before it escaped her lips.


Location: 2,580

but, at a certain point, science fails. Questions become guesses become philosophical ideas about how something should probably, maybe, be. I grew up around people who were distrustful of science, who thought of it as a cunning trick to rob them of their faith, and I have been educated around scientists and laypeople alike who talk about religion as though it were a comfort blanket for the dumb and the weak, a way to extol the virtues of a God more improbable than our own human existence. But this tension, this idea that one must necessarily choose between science and religion, is false. I used to see the world through a God lens, and when that lens clouded, I turned to science. Both became, for me, valuable ways of seeing, but ultimately both have failed to fully satisfy in their aim: to make clear, to make meaning.


Location: 2,741

“Anhedonia” is the psychiatric term for the inability to derive pleasure from things that are normally pleasurable. It’s the characterizing symptom in major depressive disorder, but it can also be a symptom of substance abuse, schizophrenia, Parkinson’s disease. I learned the term in a university lecture hall and immediately felt a shock of recognition. Anhedonia was the feeling of “nothing,” the thing that kept my mother in her bed.


Location: 2,762

What I can say for certain is that there is no case study in the world that could capture the whole animal of my brother, that could show how smart and kind and generous he was, how much he wanted to get better, how much he wanted to live. 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.


Location: 2,860

She spent more of her days with Mrs. Palmer than she had ever spent with us. And so I recognized, for perhaps the first time, that my mother wasn’t mine.


Location: 3,295

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.


Location: 3,398

“Mama, I beg you,” I said in Twi, but I didn’t know enough Twi to finish the sentence. I wasn’t sure how I would have finished it, anyway: I beg you to stop. I beg you to wake up. I beg you to live.



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