Last Updated on February 17, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 792
Transcendent Kingdom explores how cultural and personal traumas shape the lives of those who experience them. The author uses the narrative technique of interweaving different time periods to help the reader understand Gifty’s traumatic experiences and their effects. By juxtaposing several key eras in her life, Gifty can explain her present condition as a result of her past traumas and contextualize those past experiences through her current knowledge of science, human nature, and society.
The book illuminates the traumas particular to a Black woman growing up in a family that immigrated from Ghana to Alabama. (That background is the author’s own, as well as Gifty’s.) Throughout her life, Gifty and her family members struggle to find any community in which they belong. Her mother hopes she will discover a home in her new church, but the church’s other members do not truly accept her, and she never figures out how to be herself in America, “how to translate who she really was into this new language.” As Black people living in the American South, Gifty and her family frequently experience open racism, a blatant rejection by the community they are trying to live in. The adult Gifty understands the concept of internalized racism, in which the person experiencing racist treatment begins to believe that there actually is something wrong with them. This idea, which she only learned about after college, helps the Gifty of the book’s present understand the pain she and her family suffered when she was a child.
Similarly, the adult Gifty’s research into the science of addiction helps her “work through all of [her] misunderstandings about [Nana’s] addiction and all of [her] shame.” Studying the scientific mechanism behind her brother’s actions helps her process the trauma of his death and honor the person her brother really was, leaving aside the addiction he could not break and the way it caused him to behave. Her studies also help her understand her mother, particularly through the psychological concept of anhedonia, a feeling of “nothingness” and inability to experience pleasure. Telling the story from the first-person perspective of a Gifty who understands addiction and internalized racism gives the reader an informed view of the context behind the traumas that Gifty and her family experience. It also helps convey the broader experience of immigrants of color in America, beyond the particulars of Gifty’s unique story.
Three key motifs in the book are animals, mirrors, and food. The author reveals a character’s true nature by how they relate to animals. Gifty has compassion for the mice she studies, but she also has to dismiss her feelings in order to operate on and manipulate them. The tenderness Gifty’s mother has for the mouse she holds in the lab sets up a contrast with her past self, showing how she has changed since the days when Nana and Gifty hid a wounded bird from her because they knew she would kill it. Nana’s ongoing requests for a dog even as he sank deep into his addiction represent the caring person that he remained in spite of his disease. Mirrors, which symbolize self-knowledge, appear whenever Gifty compares herself to her mother. At first, she wants to look like her. Growing older, she both comes to look like her mother and begins to realize what they have in common, which she finds upsetting: “the thing I feared, becoming my mother, was happening, physically, in spite of myself.” Food, meanwhile, is shown as a way of caring for others. When Gifty’s mother comes to stay with her, Gifty buys an African cookbook and tries to tempt her mother with Ghanaian foods. Katherine expresses that she cares about Gifty and her mother through baking treats for them. By making food for others, the characters in the novel show that they want to comfort the people around them and keep them from feeling alone.
In addition to exploring the Black immigrant experience, the book engages with the questions that are central to understanding human life at large, such as whether God exists and why people behave the way they do. As a child, Gifty sought the answer to these questions in religion, but the loss of her brother and the experience of rejection by her church community drove her away from her faith: “The shadow world of my religion came into view. Where was God in all of this?” As an adult, Gifty concludes that answers to the big questions of life cannot be found in religion, philosophy, or science. Yet there is holiness to be found in living things: “Holy is the mouse. Holy is the grain the mouse eats. Holy is the seed. Holy are we.”
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