The Current

Yaa Gyasi hopes her new book 'champions' the science we need to navigate the pandemic

In Transcendent Kingdom, Yaa Gyasi says both religion and science "are attempting to ask really big transcendent questions, attempting to kind of reconcile things that seem irreconcilable."

Religion and science 'attempting to ask really big transcendent questions,' says Gyasi

Author Yaa Gyasi hopes her new book, Transcendent Kingdom, 'champions rigorous, conscientious science' as a way to make sense of the pandemic and find our way safely through it. (Peter Hurley/Vilcek Foundation)

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Originally published on Sept. 21, 2020

Author Yaa Gyasi says the pandemic has highlighted a "longstanding tradition" in the United States of distrusting science — but she hopes her new novel might help readers set that doubt aside.

She says misinformation and mistrust around issues like vaccination and climate change have undermined people's appreciation for the value of science.

"I hope that it is a book that champions rigorous, conscientious science as a thing that we all need in order to kind of make sense of this time that we are in, and in order to get answers to these difficult questions, these difficult problems that we are trying to address right now," she told The Current's Matt Galloway.

Transcendent Kingdom follows a young neuroscientist named Gifty, who explores both science and religion in an effort to understand the impact of addiction, depression, and grief on her family.  (Penguin Random House)

Transcendent Kingdom is set in Huntsville, Ala., where Gyasi grew up after her family immigrated to the U.S. from Ghana.

It tells the story of a young Ghanaian-American neuroscientist named Gifty, who turns to the slow, methodical work of science as she wrestles with the impact of addiction, depression, and grief on her family. 

Gyasi explained that as a neuroscientist, Gifty hopes she can study the brain to better understand grief, but must concede that the brain can perhaps tell her the "what or how or where" of grief, "but it can't tell her why."

Growing up in the church 

Gifty, who has a religious background, also explores questions of faith, and the role it can play in answering questions that science alone cannot.

"When science fails, you have to relinquish the desire for control, the desire for answers," Gyasi said. 

Both religion and science "are attempting to ask really big transcendent questions, attempting to kind of reconcile things that seem irreconcilable and explore the mysteries of the universe," she said.

The author opened up about how growing up in the Pentecostal church in the deep south influenced her own relationship with faith.

"I think I found myself in the church in some sense," she told Galloway. "I was incredibly faithful. I was incredibly pious. I had a deep and abiding belief in God."

But the predominantly white church her family attended in Alabama was also a place where Gyasi felt unwelcome.

It was a place where I felt isolated and judged, though I couldn't put a finger on what or where the judgment was coming from.- Yaa Gyasi

"It was a place where I felt isolated and judged, though I couldn't put a finger on what or where the judgment was coming from at the time. I was so young."

In the end, Gyasi left the church after realizing her political and social beliefs did not align with its teachings, as Pentecostal congregations have historically condemned homosexuality and did not support abortion.

"I still have this kind of, I suppose, interest in the mysteries of the universe, interest in the idea of God — but I haven't stepped in a church in decades," Gyasi said.

It's a curiosity she shares with her protagonist, Gifty, who turns to science to try to understand the opioid addiction of her brother, basketball star Nana, who has suffered a sports injury.

While researching the opioid crisis for the book, Gyasi said she saw the media offer a sensitive portrayal of the epidemic "mostly impacting white, rural and suburban people here," in contrast to coverage of "longstanding epidemics that mostly affected Black people and cities."

A 2017 study of 100 news articles — published in the journal Culture, Medicine, and Psychiatry — identified a "consistent contrast between criminalized urban Black and Latino heroin injectors with sympathetic portrayals of suburban white prescription opioid users." 

Placing a Black character with an opioid addiction at the centre of her story was an attempt to address that imbalance, Gyasi told Galloway. 

"I wanted to give him as much of that nuanced, careful, humanizing attention as I was seeing in the essays around white people who were suffering from opioid use disorder."

Being a Black storyteller in this moment

Transcendent Kingdom is Gyasi's follow-up to her critically-acclaimed debut, Homegoing, a sprawling work of historical fiction that traced the descendants of two sisters from 18th century Ghana to the present-day, and explored the legacy of slavery. Homegoing won the PEN/Hemingway Award for Best First Novel, among other accolades.

Galloway asked Gyasi what it's like to have her highly-anticipated second book published in the midst of a reckoning over systemic racism and anti-Black racism.

"It's an incredibly powerful experience," Gyasi said, adding she hopes the book will help readers gain a deeper understanding of internalized racism.

"I deeply believe that books, that literature … has the capacity to change people's lives." 

Asked whether she feels the urge to write about the massive changes currently underway due to the pandemic and other social movements, Gyasi said not yet.

"It feels too close," she told Galloway. "And also I think as we are still within it … I haven't really fully processed it as no one has I'm sure."

"So I think it will take many years for me to understand what this moment has meant to me in a way that allows me to write about it."

Written and produced by Idella Sturino.

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