Yaa Gyasi’s Family Chronicle

Mothers and Daughters

Yaa Gyasi’s novel of faith and family.


Yaa Gyasi always intended to write about mothers and daughters. In a 2016 profile, the now 31-year-old Ghanaian American writer said that after her sophomore year at Stanford, she traveled to Ghana to research a story about maternal bonds set in her mother’s home region. But after Gyasi visited Cape Coast Castle, a commercial fort that held enslaved people bound for the Americas, and learned more about the relationships between some Ghanaian women and British soldiers, her interests shifted, and she decided to write a novel about the “fullness of slavery, both as it was in the 18th century and what is left behind today.”

The result was Homegoing, an ambitious debut that attempted to map more than 300 years of history. It spans continents, with the first two chapters introducing Effia and Esi, two half-sisters (unaware of the other’s existence) whose lives take dramatically different turns. Effia grows up in a village near Cape Coast Castle and is married off to a white British officer by her vengeful stepmother, while Esi, who grows up in the heart of Asanteland, is captured before her 15th birthday and thrown in the dungeons of the slave fort. The experiences of Effia’s and Esi’s descendants form the rest of the novel as readers follow the bifurcating and occasionally intersecting paths of their respective fates.

Homegoing demonstrates Gyasi’s command of language and keen eye, signaling a long and promising career. It is hard to overestimate the novel’s ambition, sense of history, and geographic scope. But its epic mission comes at a cost: Characters in each chapter sometimes feel too of their decade, their individuality subsumed into their era.

In her second novel, Transcendent Kingdom, Gyasi returns more forthrightly to her original subject of mothers and daughters, using that relationship to explore the intersection of faith, culture, and science. Set in Alabama and California, the novel follows Gifty, a 28-year-old neuroscience graduate student, as she grapples with how her mother’s depression, her brother’s death, and her Pentecostal upbringing not only shaped her life’s purpose but also left her emotionally avoidant.

Transcendent Kingdom combines Gyasi’s interest in large, complex themes with a tighter structure and even sharper character study, resulting in a sensitive and propulsive story that reveals how differently individuals, even those in the same family, seek salvation.

Transcendent Kingdom begins with a phone call. Gifty receives word from her childhood pastor that her mother is having another depressive episode. “She hasn’t been to church in nearly a month,” Pastor John says. “I think it’s happening again.” The “it” refers to the despondent mood swings she began experiencing after Gifty’s brother, Nana, died from a heroin overdose. Gifty tells Pastor John to fly her mother from Alabama to California to stay with her.

In preparation for her mother’s arrival, Gifty cleans her small apartment and buys a Ghanaian cookbook “to make up for the years I’d spent avoiding my mother’s kitchen.” Like many daughters of West African immigrants, Gifty nurtures a low-grade anxiety about what her mother will think of her lifestyle choices. But it soon becomes clear that Gifty’s mother isn’t particularly interested in her daughter’s cooking or cleaning skills. Deeply depressed, she heads to Gifty’s bedroom upon arrival and spends most of the novel sleeping.

Before her mother’s stay, Gifty lived a mostly ordered life at Stanford. She split her time between her lab, where she studies reward-seeking behavior in mice, and her office, writing her graduate paper. She did not think about her past, having decided in college to build a new version of herself, a person who did not talk so much about her family. Her mother’s arrival forces her to change: Not only must Gifty negotiate her relationship to the woman who raised her, but she must also confront tender parts of her past and grieve unrealized versions of her childhood. She tries to adapt to her new circumstances by establishing a different routine that involves caring for her mother, checking her lab mice, and making small talk with her lab partner, Han. But her mother’s presence precipitates an unavoidable flood of memories from her childhood in Alabama.

Gifty’s parents met in Kumasi, Ghana, when her mother—who remains unnamed throughout the novel—was 30 and “an old maid by Ghanaian standards.” Her father, whom her mother called the Chin Chin Man, after a popular snack, was tall and beloved. They had Nana, and their little boy became the light of their lives. They wanted to give him the whole world, which prompted Gifty’s mother to enter the US green card lottery. She was selected, and the decision to leave for America with Nana ahead of the Chin Chin Man would become the first of many fissures in their relationship.

In the United States, Gifty’s mother and Nana struggle to call this new land home. Her mother finds a job as a home health aide to a xenophobic octogenarian who repeatedly screams, “Do you speak English?” at her. She works 12-hour night shifts and, unable to afford child care, frequently leaves Nana with family or takes him to work.

These moments tread familiar territory in immigrant narratives—the culture shock of a new place, the economic hardships, the prevalent racism, and the slow, numbing realization that the American dream is nothing more than a myth. But what separates Gyasi’s narrative from others is its sympathetic examination of how faith helps Gifty and her family find their footing in the United States. Joining a church provides hope and a haven in her new world. For Gifty’s mother, the First Assemblies of God Church is the first place where “she thought she might get used to living in America.”

The church is predominately white, and its pastor and other congregants fail to cope with how racism affects their Black immigrant parishioners. After the Chin Chin Man arrives, Gifty enters the picture, but her birth only adds pressures on the now family of four as they struggle to survive in this new country. Eventually the Chin Chin Man, depressed by the reality of being a Black man in America (few job prospects, harassment, and racism), travels back to Ghana. His short trip turns into an extended stay, until he all but disappears from his family’s life.

With the Chin Chin Man’s departure, the church plays an even more prominent role in the lives of the remaining three in their pursuit of hope and salvation. Gifty’s mother works more and more hours to support the family, and she, too, mostly becomes a specter in her children’s lives. As he enters his teenage years, Nana turns away from the church and closer to sports, playing soccer to connect with his father and then finding a home on the basketball court. After injuring his ankle, he becomes addicted to prescription opioids, and soon his drug addiction, characterized by frequent benders and emotional promises to get clean, takes over his life.

Gifty, meanwhile, desperately wants to be good and seeks some kind of respite, first through the church and then through excelling in school.

After Nana dies of an overdose, the fragile threads holding Gifty’s life together disintegrate. Her mother falls into a deep depression, and she sends Gifty to Ghana for a summer so that she can heal on her own in Alabama. In Ghana, Gifty uncovers more about her family: She meets the Chin Chin Man’s new wife and learns about the shame that has kept him from reconnecting with his children in America. “Did you know I was here?” Gifty scolds her father upon their reunion, before recounting the difficulties of their lives—in particular her mother’s—in the United States. “She tried to kill herself, did you know that? She almost died and then she made me come here and you knew I was here this whole time, didn’t you?” Before he can answer, the Chin Chin Man’s new wife swoops in with food and drinks, but nothing can salvage their relationship.

Upon her return to the United States, Gifty confronts her life with a new resolve. Having reckoned with the reality of her father’s abandonment, she realizes that there is no one coming to save her family and fashions her life around rescuing herself and her mother. “I was bringing her food before walking to school, I was cleaning the house so that when she finally woke up she wouldn’t be upset with me for letting the place turn to filth,” she recalls of her mother’s first depressive episode. “We were doing okay.”

As Gifty moves through high school and college, she throws herself into studying to avoid sifting through her feelings. By the time she enters graduate school at Stanford, she has mastered a fragile and orderly existence. But her mother’s presence in her apartment destabilizes this, and like a beach ball held underwater too long, Gifty’s emotions forcefully resurface. She realizes that she can’t forsake her humanity for a vague mission to be good and struggles to reckon with the gulf between what America promises and what America provides. Her lost faith is not only in the church and in her parents; it is also in her country.

At times, Transcendent Kingdom leans heavily on expository writing, not fully trusting its readers to connect the details in Gifty’s life to the novel’s themes. Explanations creep up unnecessarily: When Gifty is talking about baptism and the subject of her hair comes up, she tells readers awkwardly, “Black girl sin number one: getting your hair wet when it wasn’t wash day.” When meditating on her brother’s final years, she relies on prefatory notes. “Now I want to write about Nana’s addiction from inside it.”

One wishes the space lost to these narrative tics were devoted to more closely observing the less obviously complicated parts of Gifty’s relationship with her mother. The novel is most rewarding when it examines this timorous mother-daughter relationship alongside the heartbreak of losing faith in God and the world. Those understated moments—shared over a meal or passing between rooms in a house—create an affecting and dynamic story about two people trying to understand and forgive each other.

The novel encouraged, at least for me, a personal reckoning. Parts of Gifty’s story prompted me to recall what I would rather forget. Like her, I was raised by Ghanaian immigrants, and when I was younger, my mother’s depression seemed to haunt every room in our apartment. No one told me she was depressed, but through the years, as she spent most days in bed drifting in and out of sleep while Channel 7 news and Lee Goldberg’s forecasts ran in the background, I sensed something was off.

We referred to my mother’s condition as “the sickness.” “Wo maame wo yare,” my father would say in those days when he clumsily took on the role of caretaker. When she left for Ghana, he told us she was going to be healed. Neither the healing nor the sickness was defined, and it would be another decade before I realized there was a name for what my mother had.

Once armed with this knowledge, I tried to evangelize to my family about mental health. I wanted to clear up what was once so shrouded in mystery, but our Ashanti culture, so rooted in faith, so committed to avoidance, was stronger, and my family routinely rejected my attempted proselytizing. They had their beliefs; I had mine.

My mother and I have never really talked about how depression contorted our relationship, shaping how we got to know each other around unspoken words and sentiments, and I thought about this a lot while reading Transcendent Kingdom. Above all else, the novel attempts to capture what often proves as ineffable as faith: How do we find a path toward forgiveness and compassion when faced with less than ideal versions of ourselves and others?

Gyasi does not offer answers to this question, and she doesn’t really need to. Sometimes the strength of a novel is found in more than just its artful execution or its formalist experiment; it’s found in how it helps you articulate a feeling that you’ve held in your chest for years—and that feels like a kind of transcendence.

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