The JRB presents an excerpt from Transcendent Kingdom, the new novel by Yaa Gyasi.
Read the excerpt:
My parents started fighting every day. They fought about money, how there was never enough. They fought about time, about displays of affection, about the minivan, about the height of the grass in the lawn, about Scripture. But at the beginning of creation God made them male and female. For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh. So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.
The Chin Chin Man hadn’t just left his father and his mother; he’d left his country as well, and he wouldn’t let my mother forget it.
‘In my country, neighbours will greet you instead of turning their heads away like they don’t know you.’
‘In my country, you can eat food fresh from the ground. Corn, hard on its cob, not soft like the spirits of these people.’
‘In my country, there is no word for half-sibling, step-sibling, aunt, or uncle. There is only sister, brother, mother, father. We are not divided.’
‘In my country, people may not have money, but they have happiness in abundance. In abundance. No one in America is enjoying.’
These mini-lectures on Ghana were delivered to the three of us with increasing frequency. My mother would gently remind my father that Ghana was her country too, our country. She nodded and agreed. America is a difficult place, but look at what we’ve been able to build here. Sometimes Nana would come into my room and pretend to be him. ‘In my country, we do not eat the red M&Ms,’ he’d say, throwing the red M&Ms at me.
It was hard for Nana and me to see America the way our father saw it. Nana couldn’t remember Ghana, and I had never been. Southeast Huntsville, northern Alabama, was all we knew, the physical location of our entire conscious lives. Were there places in the world where neighbours would have greeted us instead of turning away? Places where my classmates wouldn’t have made fun of my name—called me charcoal, called me monkey, called me worse? I couldn’t imagine it. I couldn’t let myself imagine it, because if I did, if I saw it—that other world—I would have wanted to go.
It should have been obvious to us. We should have seen it coming, but we didn’t see what we didn’t want to see.
‘I’m going home to visit my brother,’ the Chin Chin Man said, and then he never came back.
In those first few weeks, he called every once in a while. ‘I wish you could see how brilliant the sun is here, Nana. Do you remember? Do you remember it?’ Nana ran home from school every Tuesday in order to make their 3.30 telephone calls.
‘When are you coming back?’ Nana asked.
‘Soon, soon, soon.’
If my mother knew that soon, soon, soon was a lie, she didn’t let on. I suppose if it was a lie, it was one she wanted to believe. She spent most of her mornings on the phone with him, speaking in hushed tones as I prattled on to my favourite doll. I was four, oblivious to the lurch my father had left us in and to the deep pain my mother must have been feeling.
If I’ve thought of my mother as callous, and many times I have, then it is important to remind myself what a callus is: the hardened tissue that forms over a wound. And what a wound my father leaving was. On those phone calls with the Chin Chin Man, my mother was always so tender, drawing from a wellspring of patience that I never would have had if I were in her shoes. To think of the situation now still makes me furious. That this man, my father, went back to Ghana in such a cowardly way, leaving his two children and wife alone to navigate a difficult country, a punishing state. That he let us, let her, believe that he might return.
My mother never spoke an ill word about him. Not once. Even after soon, soon, soon turned into maybe, turned into never.
‘I hate him,’ Nana said years later, after the Chin Chin Man had cancelled yet another visit.
‘You don’t,’ my mother said. ‘He hasn’t come back because he is ashamed, but it doesn’t mean he doesn’t care about you. And how could you hate him when he cares so much? He cares about you, he cares about me and Gifty. He cares about Ghana. How could you hate a man like that?’
- Yaa Gyasi was born in Mampong, Ghana and raised in Huntsville, Alabama. Her first novel, Homegoing, was a Sunday Times bestseller, won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Best First Novel and was shortlisted for the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Fiction. In 2017 she was selected as one of Granta’s Best of Young American Novelists and in 2019 the BBC selected her debut as one of the 100 Novels that Shaped Our World.
From the bestselling author of Homegoing comes an epic novel from the heart of contemporary America.
As a child Gifty would ask her parents to tell the story of their journey from Ghana to Alabama, seeking escape in myths of heroism and romance. When her father and brother succumb to the hard reality of immigrant life in the American South, their family of four becomes two—and the life Gifty dreamed of slips away.
Years later, desperate to understand the opioid addiction that destroyed her brother’s life, she turns to science for answers. But when her mother comes to stay, Gifty soon learns that the roots of their tangled traumas reach farther than she ever thought. Tracing her family’s story through continents and generations will take her deep into the dark heart of modern America.
Transcendent Kingdom is a searing story of love, loss and redemption, and the myriad ways we try to rebuild our lives from the rubble of our collective pasts.