Last Updated on February 17, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1369
In college, Gifty took a class on the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins. Reading his letters, she discovered that he shared her religious doubts. This experience inspired her to start writing letters to her mother about her feelings on religion, but she never sent them. Going back to memories of her childhood, Gifty discusses Nana’s skepticism about religion. One incident had a strong impact on both Nana and Gifty: a youth pastor answered a question of Nana’s by telling him that the inhabitants of a hypothetical African village who had never heard of Jesus would be damned if they never learned about him. Adult Gifty sees this belief as part of an American cultural tendency to dehumanize Black and Brown people, both abroad and at home. The youth pastor’s statement drove Nana away from going to services and set young Gifty on the path to questioning her faith.
A diary entry quotes Nana as saying that Christianity is a cult of the past and that people now are too smart for cults. Young Gifty asks God if this is true. In the second diary entry, she asks God for proof of his existence.
In the present day, Gifty arrives at her apartment to find her mother cooking traditional Ghanaian foods. She is thrilled. The smell of hot oil, however, reminds her of a childhood incident in which her mother put hot oil on Nana’s foot, which her mother heatedly denies when she brings it up. The narration then shifts to Gifty’s memory of the incident. Gifty’s mother had thrown a party at their house for other Ghanaian immigrants. During a children’s game, their old couch fell apart, and Nana stepped on a nail sticking up from a board that fell out of it. The adults debated what to do: whether to use traditional folk remedies or have a doctor give Nana a tetanus shot. Their mother chose the former, dipping a spoon in hot oil and applying it to the wound. Nana was angry and confused about her choice. In the present, Gifty eats with her mother and wonders whether her mother could really have forgotten the incident. When Gifty leaves for the lab the next morning, her mother is still in bed.
Performing surgery to attach a fiber-optic implant to one of her mice, Gifty discusses cyborg technology with her labmate, Han. Gifty accidentally brings up her brother and ends up revealing that he died. Han discreetly does not ask how, which leads Gifty to feel shame that she would be embarrassed to tell Han about her brother’s addiction. She changes the subject.
The narration returns to Gifty’s childhood, to the time when Nana started to play basketball. He excelled at the sport, and other parents told their mother that Nana had a future as a basketball player. Her mother was indignant because she did not want people to think that Nana’s future potential was limited to sports. Yet, Gifty reflects, her mother was not a stereotypical immigrant in that she did not put special pressure on her children to succeed academically. She simply trusted them to do the right thing. One evening after Nana started playing basketball, he and Gifty were shooting baskets outside when Gifty asked him whether he thought the Chin Chin Man would have liked basketball if he had played it in his youth instead of soccer, which was the culturally central sport in Ghana. Nana bitterly declared that he did not care what their father thought, which, Gifty says, was a lie to himself.
In a study that adult Gifty describes, it was shown that basketball players who chose to think positive thoughts about their performance could improve. She theorizes that Nana’s active mind made it difficult for him to change the way he thought about himself to be more positive. Perhaps, she thinks, it would have helped if their family had been more affectionate, saying “I love you” or hugging each other. She describes walking home with Nana one night after a game, which was something she hated doing because people yelled racial slurs at them. When they reached a patch of darkness, Nana offered her a hug, but she did not want one.
Adult Gifty begins to spend more time in the lab because being at home with her sleeping mother all the time is too upsetting. However, working in the lab so much is not good for her health, as she is allergic to the mice. She remembers when Raymond, her boyfriend from earlier in graduate school, told her not to scratch the itchy patches that her allergies caused. She refused to go to the doctor about it. Remembering this incident leads Gifty to think about another conversation she had with Raymond. For some pain she was experiencing, she had been prescribed opioid medications, but she flushed them down the toilet. Raymond did not understand. In that conversation, he referred to the medications as “the good stuff.” She left his apartment sobbing. Now she is more careful about her allergy, but spending all her time with the mice still wears her down physically. She has one mouse who is particularly persistent about pulling the lever that provides either an addictive substance or a shock, which makes her wonder what the point of her work is. She reflects that humans are unlike other animals in that we wonder about the purpose of our lives and actions.
Gifty describes a study that found that schizophrenia patients in India and Ghana heard friendlier voices than those in the United States. The former patients heard the pleasant voices of their family or friends, or of God, while the latter described the voices they heard as angry and hateful. Gifty thinks back to her experience with the man in Ghana that her aunt pointed out as “crazy.” No one in the crowd shied away from him, as they would in the United States. As she contemplates this cultural contrast, Gifty remembers a ghost whose presence her mother experienced during her early days in Alabama. Her mother liked having the ghost around because it kept her company in her husband’s absence.
In the present, Gifty ponders whether the Indian and Ghanaian patients had a more positive experience of the voices because they accepted them as real. After her mother has been sleeping for most of a week and a half in her apartment, Gifty takes to rubbing her mother’s back. Her mother tells Gifty that she has grown soft, like an American, and that she works too much. Gifty invites her mother to visit the lab. Her mother's answer of “maybe” satisfies Gifty for the present.
This section explores Gifty’s and Nana’s evolving relationship with their parents’ culture and beliefs as they grow up. Both children’s dismissal of the idea that their mother encountered a ghost symbolizes this divide.
Nana starts to reject the religion he is being raised in because he feels the impact of the youth pastor’s racist judgment against him. In declaring that he does not care what the Chin Chin Man would think of his playing basketball, an American sport, he turns his back both on his father specifically and Ghanaian culture generally. He also reacts angrily to his mother’s choice to use a Ghanaian folk remedy when he is injured rather than seeking help from Western medicine.
The incident with the youth pastor also troubles Gifty, who begins to think more critically about her religion after that. As an adult, Gifty is not religious in the traditional sense, nor does her day-to-day life particularly reflect a Ghanaian identity. She enjoys the trappings of Ghanaian culture in the form of her mother’s cooking, but she dismisses her mother’s criticism that Americans are “soft.” Her private thoughts, however, do show respect for certain aspects of Ghanaian culture. In particular, she implies that it speaks well for Ghanaians that people with schizophrenia in their country hear positive voices and that in Ghana, people do not turn away from the mentally ill on the street as Americans would.
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