Monday, June 28, 2021

Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi

Source of book: Audiobook from the library


My wife and I listened to this together on our recent anniversary getaway trip. A few years ago, we both read Homegoing, by Gyasi, and had been eager to read her second book when it came out. It worked out to listen to it as a downloaded audiobook from the LA County Library. I should also note that the audiobook is narrated by Bahni Turpin, who won a well-deserved award for her work on The Hate U Give, which we listened to last year. (I mean, that book was a command performance. One of the best audiobooks we have experienced.) She was also excellent on this book: my wife has Ghanaian immigrant coworkers, and noted that Turpin nailed the different accents (yes there are more than one) of the characters. 

Transcendent Kingdom is a totally different book from Homegoing. Rather than a sweep of several hundred years of history across two continents, this book is far more personal (although it does not appear to be exactly autobiographical from what I can determine.) It is the story of Gifty and her family. Her parents meet and marry at a relatively older age, in Ghana. After her brother Nana is born, they immigrate to Alabama, seeking a better life. Gifty is an unexpected and unwanted child born a few years after that. Gifty’s dad moves back to Ghana, and starts another family. Nana, a brilliant kid and gifted athlete, is injured in a high school basketball game, and becomes addicted to the opiates he is prescribed. Gifty is 11 when Nana dies of an overdose after a failed rehab stint. This causes what is left of the family to fall apart. Her mother suffers from major depression, and attempts suicide. Gifty loses her faith in God, and is also sent to live for a summer in Ghana. 


As we pick up the story later, Gifty has poured herself into science, and is now a PhD candidate at Stanford, researching addiction in mice. Her mother has another major depressive episode, and refuses help for months. As the book switches back and forth between the present and the past, the book shows more and more of the trauma that both Gifty and her mother have undergone, and the challenges of overcoming them. 


That’s essentially the plot, but that undersells how good the book is. Gyasi is a superb writer, and tackles quite a bit of metaphysics along the way, from the nature of mental illness, addiction, religion, racism and prejudice, the experience of being an immigrant and a minority in the South - and later in the northeast and in California. Although Gyasi does not have a background in neuroscience, she did her research for this book, and came up with a lot of amazing passages about the philosophical, religious, and metaphysical overlaps with neuroscience - things that I have myself thought about a lot (although not in the scientific depth that Gifty would be thinking) lately.


One of the things that I really loved about the book is that Gyasi is neither an apologist for religion nor opposed to it. The book is fairly friendly to religious experience and faith and practice, despite being all too accurate about fundamentalist belief systems and racist subcultures. The clergyman who is a significant secondary character, Pastor John, is a decent, kind man at heart. In his own way, he tries to make Gifty and her family welcome in his overwhelmingly white Pentecostal church. Not all of his parishioners are the same, unfortunately, and John is limited in what he can see because of his dogmas. Like many well-meaning pastors of our own time, doctrines get in the way of understanding, and limit one’s ability to see clearly. The same old religious platitudes are enlisted for every situation, and mental illness becomes merely a spiritual problem, solvable by prayer. In a sense, I recognized a lot of my own upbringing in this book, including some things from our sojourn in Pentecostalism when I was a teen. (I have fewer scars from that than from Gothardism, which came afterward.) Like Gifty, I have struggled with my faith for decades, in part because of the toxic version I imbibed for so long. And yet, like Gifty, at the end of the day (or the book), I still believe, because I have lived it. As much as Gifty feels that God (and meaning itself) have betrayed her, she still feels some connection, just a very different sort of faith and experience than she grew up with. 


I remembered a number of quotes I liked, but obviously didn’t write them down while driving. Goodreads has a bunch of them, and they sound accurate, but I cannot be entirely sure without the book itself. Anyway, here are the ones that I liked the best: 


It took me many years to realize that it’s hard to live in this world. I don’t mean the mechanics of living, because for most of us, our hearts will beat, our lungs will take in oxygen, without us doing anything at all to tell them to. For most of us, mechanically, physically, it’s harder to die than it is to live. But still we try to die. We drive too fast down winding roads, we have sex with strangers without wearing protection, we drink, we use drugs. We try to squeeze a little more life out of our lives. It’s natural to want to do that. But to be alive in the world, every day, as we are given more and more and more, as the nature of “what we can handle” changes and our methods for how we handle it change, too, that’s something of a miracle.


We humans are reckless with our bodies, reckless with our lives, for no other reason than that we want to know what would happen, what it might feel like to brush up against death, to run right up to the edge of our lives, which is, in some ways, to live fully.


There is something very true about all of that. There is something about humans and their embrace of risk and danger that doesn’t seem to apply to other animals. We don’t take risks to get food, or to escape predators, so much as we take risks for the thrill of the risk. Roller coasters are big business for a reason. 


This next bit really resonated with me because of my similar religious background. My parents were more open than true fundies, at least when I was a kid. It seems that things have gone backwards since Gothard, alas. Mrs. Pasternack was Gifty’s biology teacher, and, while a Christian like literally everyone else she knew (this WAS Alabama…), she embraced science and uncertainty and doubt and what I would call flexibility - the understanding that our current knowledge is incomplete as was that of the past. And that as a result, belief had to be flexible, to change to fit new knowledge and new circumstances. 


Mrs. Pasternack said something else that year that I never forgot. She said, “The truth is we don’t know what we don’t know. We don’t even know the questions we need to ask in order to find out, but when we learn one tiny little thing, a dim light comes on in a dark hallway, and suddenly a new question appears. We spend decades, centuries, millennia, trying to answer that one question so that another dim light will come on. That’s science, but that’s also everything else, isn’t it? Try. Experiment. Ask a ton of questions.”


Another fascinating quote was this one, from Gifty about her father. 


My memories of him, though few, are mostly pleasant, but memories of people you hardly know are often permitted a kind of pleasantness in their absence. It's those who stay who are judged the harshest, simply by virtue of being around to be judged.


The family dynamics in this book are painful, particularly from the point of view of Gifty - but also from that of Nana, who ultimately succumbs not just to addiction but to the combination of the pressure of being the favorite and the horror of abandonment by his father. Again, there are some great quotes. 


“There is no living thing on God's green earth that doesn't come to know pain sometime.” 


“Nana was the first miracle, the true miracle, and the glory of his birth cast a long shadow. I was born into the darkness that shadow left behind. I understood that, even as a child.” 


“It seems to me that this itself was the disaster I foresaw, a common enough disaster for most infants these days: that I was a baby, born cute, loud, needy, wild, but the conditions of the wilderness have changed.” 


As in every family, dynamics tend to start early, and feed off of unchangeable realities. Gifty was a difficult baby. But was she difficult because she just was, or did she sense that she was unwanted? Was she unwanted because unplanned, or also because she was difficult? 


These are questions I ask myself too. I was a sickly, needy, unhappy infant. I was sick a lot of my childhood. My neediness led to my mom giving up her career. Which in turn led to her rejecting my wife who didn’t give up her career. My siblings were much easier babies, particularly my sister. Did that in turn lead to the favoritism that would define our family dynamics as adults? 


Questions about religion permeate the story, and there are some profound observations. 


“[N]ot all churches in America are created equal, not in practice and not in politics. And, for me, the damage of going to a church where people whispered disparaging words about “my kind” was itself a spiritual wound—so deep and so hidden that it has taken me years to find and address it.” 


It is difficult to explain to those outside the tribe just how painful and debilitating a spiritual wound like this can be. Belonging is a hell of a drug, and the withdrawal is horrible. And if you are forced out for daring to speak out against the Orange Messiah and those who follow him, it is quitting cold turkey. It was astonishing how fast you go from in to out when you go after a sacred cow you didn’t realize existed. 


Two quotes also touch on the problem that fundamentalist religion finds itself in during cultural change. 


“We read the Bible how we want to read it. It doesn't change, but we do.”


“Literalism is helpful in the fight against change.” 


These definitely go together. Modern American Fundies mostly spend their time defending 19th Century beliefs about the meaning of the Bible, from Young Earth Creationism to sexism to white supremacy. And, of course, as any historically informed person is aware, these beliefs about the meaning of the Bible have changed dramatically over the last 2000 years, as ancient texts are reinterpreted and reinterpreted to make them meaningful in circumstances and cultures far removed from the ones they were written in. This is how every faith functions - it used to be that flexibility and change were considered to be positive in a religion. But with an Enlightenment belief in empiricism overlaid on an ancient text, things became rigid, literal, and inflexible. Unable to adapt to change, and thus transformed into a weapon against any and all positive change. Literalism is a means to that end - it is an assertion of a single meaning, an unanswerable argument, a Bible for thumping, not contemplation. 


Later, Gifty discovers a healthier Christianity - not coincidentally, from a tradition that embraces female leadership. I wonder how my life – and my family – would have turned out different had my parents’ spiritual journey led them in this direction rather than to Gothardism.


“The reverend's sermon that day was beautiful. She approached the Bible with extraordinary acuity, and her interpretation of it was so humane, so thoughtful, that I became ashamed of the fact that I very rarely associated those two things with religion. My entire life would have been different if I'd grown up in this woman's church instead of in a church that seemed to shun intellectualism as a trap of the secular world, designed to shun intellectualism as a trap of the secular world, designed to undermine one's faith.” 


At the same time, Gifty wrestles with the question of meaning. This is another facet of the “problem of evil” - and the problem with the problem is that so much of life does not have a “meaning” in the Fundie sense. “Your kid died of cancer as part of some great divine plan” is as nonsensical as it is cruel. 


“What’s the point of all of this?” is a question that separates humans from other animals. Our curiosity around this issue has sparked everything from science to literature to philosophy to religion. When the answer to this question is “Because God deemed it so,” we might feel comforted. But what if the answer to this question is “I don’t know,” or worse still, “Nothing”?”


But this randomness of the universe isn’t the only reality for many of us. While I am quite certain that God isn’t the white supremacist, misogynist, sociopathic sort that Fundies believe in, I am also not an atheist - I have experienced moments of transcendence, and whatever name you give to that is something that I believe is real. Gifty notes the same thing. 


“When it came to God, I could not give a straight answer. I had not been able to give a straight answer since the day Nana died. God failed me then, so utterly and completely that it had shaken my capacity to believe in him. And yet. How to explain every quiver? How to explain that once sure-footed knowledge of his presence in my heart?”


Gifty explores this further in my favorite passage of the book: 


“Here is a separation. Your heart, the part of you that feels. Your mind, the part of you that thinks. Your soul, the part of you that is. I almost never hear neuroscientists speak about the soul. Because of our work, we are often given to thinking about the part of humans that is the vital, inexplicable essence of ourselves, as the workings of our brain-- mysterious, elegant, essential. Everything we don't understand about what makes a person a person can be uncovered once we understand this organ. There is no separation. Our brains are our hearts that feel and our minds that think and our souls that are. But when I was a child I called this essence a soul and I believed in its supremacy over the mind and the heart, its immutability and connection to Christ himself.” 


And this one. 


“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 robe 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 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's 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.”


I am in a similar place, honestly. Neither scientific materialism nor religion fully satisfies. But I also do not believe they are in conflict. This is a false idea, created by fundamentalists terrified about change and uncertainty. Rather than embrace that change, and the uncertainty which defines our existence, they took refuge in lies, in untruths that were elevated to the level of unchallengeable dogma, and any beauty that once resided in religious belief was extinguished. Plowshares were beaten into swords, to fight against the rest of humanity, and indeed reality itself. 


Gifty’s observation that the scientific reduction of our humanity to “the brain” is convenient for scientific purposes - and indeed, that is how science is constrained to act, given it’s method and goals. But for purposes of the human experience, we do have those three parts, so to speak. The intellect/mind, feelings/emotions, and soul - the essence of being who we are. I believe that in some way, the “we” that we are uses the body, including the brain, and that we are in some sense, more than a brain. This isn’t in the realm of empirical science, obviously, but in experiential metaphysics. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t, at some level, true. To deny that is to some degree to deny the reality of music and poetry. And indeed, I also believe that the denial of music and poetry is one of the key failings of fundamentalism. By reducing religion to assent to mental beliefs, and a treatment of scripture as a rule book and weapon, it has stripped all the poetry and music and power from faith. It becomes empiricism of a different kind - the literalist approach to the words of holy men of millennia past and the words of men of the more recent past applying those older words in ways calculated to support the cultural status quo and all that meant: slavery, subordination of women, panic about sex, and so on. 


So yes, this book made me think. The poetry of Gyasi’s writing is a big part of that. She engages the mind, of course, the heart, very much so, and also the soul. 


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