A Scientist Feels The Pull Of Faith In 'Transcendent Kingdom'

Aug 29, 2020
Originally published on August 29, 2020 1:31 pm

Gifty tells first dates her job is to get mice hooked on cocaine. She's joking — she actually gets mice addicted to a nutrition drink, which is cheaper. Her mother, from Ghana, lives with her, but mostly under the covers.

Gifty is the star of Yaa Gyasi's new novel Transcendent Kingdom. She's 28, and six years into her PhD in neuroscience at Stanford. A woman of science, who still feels a pull from the evangelical faith of her youth in Alabama. If she can find, in her mice, the neural circuits that lead to addiction and depression, maybe she can grasp the death of her older brother.

Gyasi says she had an advantage when researching the science in her book. "I was very fortunate in that my best friend from Alabama is herself in neuroscience, and she studies specifically the neural pathways of reward-seeking. And I got the inside track. She took me to her lab, and she answered all my questions. So really, this this book had a great primary source."


Interview Highlights

On the impact of Gifty's brother's death

Well, it drives all of her actions. Though she's a character who's incredibly contradictory and is often compartmentalizing and protesting the idea that her brother's death has anything to do at all with the choices that she's made career-wise. And yet we see continually that she is striving for something like a cure for the disease that killed her brother.

On her feelings about faith

You know, similarly to Gifty, I grew up Pentecostal. I was raised in the church, as they say, but I haven't continued to attend, and have kind of lost a lot of that early grounding that I had as I grew older and started to feel kind of politically differently than some of the teachings that I learned when I was younger. And yet I think when you spend that much time in a place — and so it really was such a huge part of my life. And it's something I found that even as I've grown distant from that, I can't completely disentangle who I am from this early period.

On herself as a young bookworm

I loved reading more than just about anything else in my life at that point. My family moved around a lot when I was a child. I was born in Ghana, but then we lived in Ohio, Illinois, Tennessee, Alabama. And the kind of one constant was the fact that I could go to the library with my library card and check out books. And in these books I could start to kind of encounter people, understand people and have that stability that I was seeking throughout all of these moves. So I was a person who who just found herself in literature quite young.

On whether it's hard to write now

It's been really difficult, in these times, to write — that kind of sustained attention that you need in order to write, but to read, to do a lot of the things that I'm so used to doing, I've been finding hard to do ... the anxiety of this moment certainly kind of flows out into all the other aspects of my life. But I'm happy to be in, I guess, what I think of as a fallow period, and just trying to take all of this moment, and hopefully some seed will emerge from that eventually.

This story was produced for radio by Peter Breslow and Martha Ann Overland, and adapted for the Web by Petra Mayer.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Gifty tells first dates her job is to get mice hooked on cocaine. She's joking and actually gets mice addicted to a nutrition drink, which is cheaper. Her mother from Ghana lives with her but mostly under the covers. Gifty is 28 and six years towards her Ph.D. in neuroscience at Stanford, a woman of science who still feels a pull from the evangelical faith of her youth in Alabama. If she can find in her mice the neural circuits that lead to addiction and depression, maybe she can grasp the death of her older brother. Yaa Gyasi, author of the award-winning debut novel "Homegoing," joins us now from Brooklyn. Thank you so much for being with us.

YAA GYASI: It's my pleasure. Thank you for having me.

SIMON: Among so many other things, this novel is so beautifully detailed about the science. Did you essentially return to school to get that so right?

GYASI: (Laughter) That would have been helpful, but no, I didn't. I was very fortunate in that my best friend from Alabama is herself in neuroscience, and she studies specifically the neural pathways of reward seeking. And I got the inside track. She took me to her lab, and she answered all my questions. So, really, this book had a great primary source.

SIMON: And there's no simple minded answer for this, I'm sure, but how does the loss of her older brother, Nana, to addiction drive your narrator?

GYASI: Well, it drives all of her actions, though she's a character who's incredibly contradictory and is often compartmentalizing and protesting the idea that her brother's death has anything to do at all with the choices that she's made career wise. And yet we see continually that she is striving for something like a cure for the disease that killed her brother.

SIMON: And could I - I'd like you to read a section that kind of bears on that, a rumination from Gifty if you could.

GYASI: Sure. (Reading) I was such a self-righteous child, first in the days of my Christianity when I said things like I'll pray for you to my classmates who were reading books about witches and wizards, then in those first few years of college when I became dismissive of anyone who cried about break-ups, who spent money frivolously, who complained about small things. By that time, my mother had already healed through prayer, as Pastor John put it, healed but in the way a broken bone that's healed still aches at the first signs of rain. There were always first signs of rain - atmospheric, quiet. She was always aching.

SIMON: You write so beautifully and so fairly about faith in this book. I wonder what your feelings are now. I mean, to quote you again, Gifty says I'm looking for new names for old feelings. My soul is still my soul, even if I rarely call it that.

GYASI: Yeah. I feel that to be true for myself as well. You know, similarly to Gifty, I grew up Pentecostal. I was raised in the church, as they say, but I haven't continued to attend and have kind of lost a lot of that early grounding that I had as I grew older and started to feel kind of politically differently than some of the teachings that I learned when I was younger. And yet I think when you spend that much time in a place - and so it really was such a huge part of my life. And it's something I found that even as I've grown distant from it, I can't completely disentangle who I am from this early period.

SIMON: Do you mind - can you tell us about the young woman you were at Grissom High School, I guess, in Huntsville, Ala., who read Toni Morrison and won a "Reading Rainbow" certificate from LeVar Burton?

GYASI: (Laughter) Sure. I loved reading more than just about anything else in my life at that point. My family moved around a lot when I was a child. I was born in Ghana, but then we lived in Ohio, Illinois, Tennessee, Alabama, and the kind of one constant was the fact that I could go to the library with my library card and check out books. And in these books, I could start to kind of encounter people, understand people and have that stability that I was seeking throughout all of these moves. So I was a person who just found herself in literature quite young.

SIMON: May I ask, are you writing now, or is it difficult in these involving times?

GYASI: It's been really difficult in these times to write. That kind of sustained attention that you need in order to write but to read to do a lot of the things that I'm so used to doing, I've been finding hard to do. Yeah. The anxiety of this moment certainly kind of flows out into all the other aspects of my life. But I'm happy to be in I guess what I think of as a fallow period. I'm just trying to take all of this moment, and hopefully some seed will emerge from that eventually.

SIMON: Yaa Gyasi - her novel, "Transcendent Kingdom." Thank you so much for being with us.

GYASI: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.