Last Updated on February 17, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1119
The narrator, Gifty, explains that there have been two times in her life when her mother refused to leave her bed. One time was when Gifty was a child, and the second is now, when she is a graduate student. The first time, Gifty was sent to Ghana so that her aunt could care for her. She describes how her aunt pointed out a man on the street who was dirty and mumbling to himself, calling him a crazy person. Young Gifty mentally compared the man to her mother. Her mother also suffers from mental illness, which is why she goes through episodes of staying in bed all the time.
Gifty describes the second time her mother started refusing to leave her bed, which is the time in which the story takes place. After observing a bloody fight between two of the mice she is studying, Gifty receives a call from her mother’s pastor in Alabama, who puts her mother on a plane and sends her to Gifty. Driving her mother to her apartment, Gifty thinks about the landscape, which is so different from where she grew up in Alabama, and notices that her mother is not reacting to the dramatic difference. She offers her mother food, which she has made from a Ghanaian cookbook she bought, but her mother refuses. Turning food down would be unusual in her mother’s healthy state, as would the fact that she does not comment on the state of Gifty’s apartment. She just goes to bed.
Gifty goes back to her lab to check on her mice. She cries out of sympathy for a badly wounded one. Her labmate, Han, finds her crying and reacts awkwardly, so she goes to the bathroom and cries, but that doesn’t feel right either. When she returns to her apartment, her mother is still asleep. Gifty thinks about how she and her mother do not really fit together as people, perhaps because they are the two people still living out of what was once a family of four. After her mother dies, she reflects, she will be the only one left.
An excerpt from Gifty’s childhood diary entry asks God where he is. The next entry, also addressed to God, describes two people, referred to as the Black Mamba and Buzz. The Black Mamba, Gifty writes, is loud most of the time, but quiet, slow, and sudden when she is angry. Gifty adds that Buzz does a funny impression of the Black Mamba. He does not, however, want to do an impression he used to do of someone called the Chin Chin Man. In the third entry, the child asks God how he can see the people on earth and what he looks like. If God is in space, Gifty says, she will go to see him, even though she does not want to be an astronaut like Buzz does.
Gifty tells the story of what her family was like before she was born. Her father, to whom she refers as the Chin Chin Man, could not impregnate her mother for years. After her mother fasted and prayed for three days, she finally became pregnant with Gifty’s older brother, Nana. He was a popular and delightful child, and his mother believed he needed a wider scope than was available to him in Ghana. So, she entered the United States green card lottery and was selected to move to Alabama. She and Nana moved, with the arrangement being that the Chin Chin Man would follow later.
The narration returns to the current era, in which Gifty’s mother has been sleeping in the apartment for days. She refuses to eat what Gifty cooks and always has her back turned when her daughter enters the room. One day, Gifty enters and her mother is facing her. They have a brief exchange about whether Gifty prays, which she does not. Describing her Christian faith when she was a child, Gifty mentions that she believed in punishment as a form of salvation. She talks about her childhood diary entries and quotes some of them. Nana was her hero for years, but as they grew older, he became so violent that she and her mother had to hide from him. In the present, her mother tells her she should pray and eats two bites of food before turning her back again.
Gifty goes to her lab and operates on the brains of her mice, reflecting on the miracle of the human brain and how her fascination with it has become a new religion for her. Her thoughts turn to her love life and her habit of sleeping with numerous men without really communicating with them. This approach helps her feel the power of her sexuality, which is new to her. She works on her research but has difficulty focusing, so she reads an old diary entry. It is about Nana going to prom, seeming like his old self again. The adult Gifty tells the reader that her brother died of a heroin overdose only a few months later.
This section establishes several of the key characters, provides backstory for Gifty and her family, and introduces the way the book moves through different time periods. We learn about Gifty’s family and her relationships with them. The book presents her mother’s depression right away, then gradually begins to weave in its possible causes: moving to a different continent from her ancestral family, the departure of her husband when Gifty was very young, and her son’s fatal drug overdose. We also see how Gifty has reacted to these events, moving away from the intense religion of her childhood to focus on studying neuroscience and exploring the miracle of the brain. The diary entries help the reader understand who Gifty once was and the way her family used to be. Through this technique, the author creates a contrast that makes it clear how Gifty has changed in response to her trauma.
What Gifty says about her past also establishes the role of African culture and immigrant identity in her life and the lives of her family members. America provides educational and personal opportunity for Gifty, but for her mother, only the language and food of Ghana create a sense of home. Yet when Gifty tries to cook Ghanaian food to make her mother feel comfortable and motivate her to eat, her effort fails. The failed attempt suggests that Gifty’s mother is too deep in depression to find this sense of connection, especially given the loss of the home and family she once had in Ghana and again in Alabama.
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