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Yaa Gyasi's TRANSCENDENT KINGDOM - A Close Examination of Addiction and Its Impact on Family

by Ashley Dickson-Ellison (@teachingtheapocalypse)

Book Cover of Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi with Flowering Tree in Background

I was so excited to see Yaa Gyasi's Transcendent Kingdom on this fall and am thankful that I was able to listen to an ALC of the audio. Yaa Gyasi's Homegoing is one of my favorite books, and I plan to read everything Gyasi writes because her work is brilliant. Although Homegoing and Transcendent Kingdom have some similarities including gorgeous writing, complex characters, and complicated relationships, where Homegoing is global, multi-generational, and epic in scope, in Transcendent Kingdom, Gyasi drills down to the intimate individual level, showing the profound impact of a major social issue, addiction, primarily on a single person.

In Transcendent Kingdom, we meet Gifty, who is a scientist working in a research lab. She pursues an in-depth study of addiction using mice, and she's measuring the ways that the mice react to exposure to Ensure, which triggers addictive behaviors in some mice. Ultimately, Gifty seeks a way to curb those addictions for the animals in her study. Her pursuit is courageous, and she faces the tasks with determination, but Gifty also recognizes the limitations of scientific study.

Gifty's mother came to America from Ghana with a desire to find a better life for Gifty and her brother, Nana, but life in America proved grueling, and the hardships they faced grew increasingly more challenging. During her childhood, Gifty and her mother both sought refuge in the Alabama church where they worshiped. However, as an adult, Gifty questions many of the beliefs of her childhood and finds more comfort in the study of science. However, she continues to do her best to care for her mother who is in the midst of a mental breakdown.

Gifty's perspective is clear-eyed and poignant, and she examines addiction, religion, and science with a desire to find answers. In this complex novel, Gyasi shows how challenging addiction is for everyone involved and the ways that our culture shames everyone connected to an addicted person despite the scientific proof that addiction is a disease. I especially appreciated Gifty's reflections on her own attitudes toward addiction and how those hindered her relationships and the precious time she had with her beloved brother.

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.

At once empathetic and unflinching, Gyasi shows through Gifty that the effects of addiction are profound and that the pathway toward healing is neither simple nor short. This was a five-star read for me, and I'll be looking forward to Gyasi's next work.

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