A Scientist Tries to Understand Her Family Problems Through Mice
Yaa Gyasi, author of “Transcendent Kingdom,” on addiction, depression, and finding salvation
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Yaa Gyasi’s debut novel Homegoing told the story of two branches of a Ghanaian family, one descended from a woman who marries a white slave trader and whose line stays in Ghana, another descended from her half-sister who is captured and sent to America in bondage.
Gyasi’s second novel Transcendent Kingdom follows Gifty, a Ghanaian-American doctoral student at Stanford studying the neuroscience of addiction and depression in mice. Gifty’s mother immigrated to Alabama, her father reluctantly in tow. When the Chin Chin Man, as Gifty and her older brother Nana call him, finds the racism and joylessness of life in Huntsville too much to endure, he returns to Kumasi and the family is never quite the same. Nana, a talented rising star on the basketball court, is prescribed opioids after an injury and ends up a heroin addict. After his death, her mother falls into a deep depression, often not leaving her bed for weeks on end. Though a pious member of her family’s otherwise all-white church as a child, Gifty struggles with a loss of faith, efforts to coax her mother back to life, and the alienation she finds in even her closest relationships as she attends Harvard and moves on to graduate school.
I spoke with Gyasi about writing a novel inspired by neuroscience, the unique challenges faced by Black immigrants to America, and the meaning of transcendence and salvation.
Preety Sidhu: Her mother’s depression is a major issue that Gifty grapples with throughout this book, and it comes about in part because Gifty’s father abandons their family, but more significantly in the wake of Gifty’s brother’s death from a heroin overdose. In Gifty’s research, there is a really interesting neural twinning between depression and addiction: “in depression, where there is too much restraint in seeking pleasure, or in drug addiction, where there is not enough.” To what extent do you see Nana’s addiction and Gifty’s mother’s depression as two sides of the same coin? Possibly as different responses to similar pressures?
Yaa Gyasi: In terms of me personally, I don’t think I actually thought about the fact that addiction and depression existed on this same continuum. That wasn’t something that was really on my mind until I started researching the neuroscience aspect of the novel, particularly the research that one of my close friends from childhood does. Right now she’s a postdoc at Stanford but when I started the novel she was a Ph.D. candidate in neuroscience. She researches the neural pathways of reward-seeking behavior. The way she always explained it to me, in lay terms so that I could understand it, was that she studied addiction and depression. I didn’t really think too deeply about what that meant until I started digging further into her work. That was when I started to see the connections—there’s the reward-seeking that mice do where they don’t care about risk and then there is the reward-seeking that the mice do not do even though there is a chance of pleasure. And I liked that. I liked that doubling and I felt like it would be a nice way to explore the relationships in the novel.
PS: But you perfectly set up my next question, which is that you mentioned that Gifty’s research is based on the scholarship of your friend Christina Kim at Stanford University. In a literary sense, Gifty’s research is also so precisely and poetically aligned with the circumstances of her life and family history. How did this alignment come about? Did you have a sense of what Gifty’s family would go through and track down the corresponding science, or dig in farther? Or did you encounter this really compelling science and wonder how these issues might shape the lived experience of a family?
YG: The science really came first. It was my friend’s research that came first. I found it really interesting. I also found it interesting the way that she would talk about it to non-scientists, which felt to me to be this narrative-driven thing about addiction and depression. She would illustrate what the mice were going through and that felt like something that you could quite easily map on to human experience.
This book almost felt like a writing prompt, like: write a novel about a woman who studies addiction and depression. And you could go a million different directions with that kind of a prompt but I thought it would be nice to have a woman working on this research, who is also experiencing the things that she researches in real time in her life. So the aspects of addiction and depression that her mother and her brother go through really were born out of wanting to write about this specific field of neuroscience.
PS: Gifty’s family are the only Black people at their Alabama church, because their immigrant mother doesn’t know any better, and it’s an incredibly isolating experience. After Nana’s death, Gifty and her mother are physically alone at a time when they shouldn’t be, until their white pastor finally decides to show up for them. Before that, her mother might be the lone person at that church still believing God can heal her son. Yet Huntsville is about two-thirds white, it does have a significant Black population who are not recent immigrants. Do you think having a local Black support system might have changed anything for this family? Can you speak more to your decision to not explore this kind of connection or community for them, in this particular story?
YG: Yes, I absolutely think that having a local Black community would have made a world of difference. For Gifty, in particular, perhaps also for her mother. But her mother is such a standoffish and reticent character. There’s a moment later in the book where it talks about how she never goes to the Ghanaian gatherings even. And I’m not sure why that is, but I think for some immigrants—and perhaps we’ll just speak specifically for Gifty’s mother—there can be this sense of, well I’m already isolated within this community in America, what does it matter to be isolated further? There isn’t a desire to assimilate or enmesh with the communities that already exist within the country. I’m thinking of Black immigrants, specifically, but you’re right that Huntsville has a pretty large African American population. I would venture a guess that Gifty’s mother does not really consider herself African American, and wouldn’t feel ease or comfort around that community, but also just doesn’t feel at ease or have any comfort around any community. So her choice to isolate herself has this ripple effect on her children, who would clearly benefit from any kind of engagement with their Blackness. Any kind of engagement with community in general. Her isolation isolates her kids in these really specific ways that I think are damaging both for Nana and Gifty.
PS: Do you think Alabama’s Black community may have embraced them if they pursued that option?
YG: I think they would have been embraced. It might have been hard in the beginning, as they were just learning to fit in with American culture in general. But I think the avenue is open, particularly in a place like Alabama or like Huntsville that doesn’t have a large immigrant population. If you move to somewhere like New York that has plenty of Ghanaian Americans, I think you can settle easily into a Ghanaian American community and keep kind of separate from the African American community.
PS: For me, one incredibly painful moment in the book was learning after his death that Nana’s father wanted to take him back to Ghana as a child, and his mother’s anguish at having said no. The Chin Chin Man does paint a compelling, if perhaps overly simplistic, vision of Ghana as a much happier place than America, where “no one is enjoying” (which also was a very resonant comment at the moment). While Gifty doesn’t connect strongly with Ghanaian culture, she is aware that Ghanaian schizophrenics hear kinder voices than their American counterparts, that the smiles and ease with which her Aunt Joyce moves in the world could have been her mother’s, maybe. Do you think things might have worked out differently for Nana if he’d gone back, or even just known that his father wanted to take him? That he hadn’t been completely abandoned?
YG: Yes, I do think that things might have gone differently for him if he knew that his father wanted to take him or if he hadn’t felt so utterly abandoned. At the same time, I think there’s still a difference between wanting to bring somebody back with you and, after being told or feeling like you can’t do that, giving up entirely on the relationship. So it’s hard to say if the Chin Chin Man was the kind of person who would have the follow-through to go through with that, had he gotten a yes out of their mother, or if Nana would have encountered other related issues because of the nature of this father figure. So, hard to say, though I think probably it would have meant a great deal to him, just to have his father continue to attempt to be in his life in more significant ways. Whether that was bringing him to visit or bringing him to stay, but also following through on his promises to come see them, and keeping the lines of communication open. So yeah, I think it’s a good thought experiment, but hard to know.
PS: And of course it’s only so useful to speculate about the versions that you didn’t write. I think what I’m trying to get at is it felt like there’s this underlying tragic thing that, it’s such a quick moment on the page but you could tell that it was pointing to something so much deeper.
YG: Well I think the mother probably felt that things would have gone differently if she had allowed it and I think she feels a lot of guilt around the fact that she didn’t do it. So yes, I do think there’s that. And there are fewer people suffering from addiction in Ghana, certainly, so the kind of access to that particular way of coping wouldn’t have been present for Nana, necessarily, had he gone back to Ghana. So yes, perhaps.
PS: I love how you claim the word “pioneer” for Gifty’s mother. You first set us up with the more standard cultural image of white American settler colonialists heading west in wagons, before dropping the line: “[t]hough she didn’t ford a river or hike across mountains, she still did what so many pioneers before her had done, traveled recklessly, curiously, into the unknown in the hopes of finding something just a little bit better.” What are your thoughts on the power of the word “pioneer” when used to describe the experience of immigrants of color moving to America?
YG: I liked that reclamation of the word for Gifty. You’re right, the associations with it here, you think of the West, you think of settler colonialism, you think of people killing the indigenous population and building their houses, you think of Laura Ingalls Wilder and Little House on the Prairie. Gifty is able to reclaim that term and say my mother is doing a similar thing, without any support and without much success, but she is also trying to make a space for herself in a hostile territory. If that is what pioneer-ism could be defined as, then she is also doing that.
PS: I find Gifty’s relationship with her college friend Anne quite compelling, especially in how it ends. Anne is one of the closest and most loving—however imperfectly so—relationships Gifty has ever experienced, and yet after Gifty shares how Nana died, her heart hardens and she never speaks to Anne again. Either she doesn’t forgive Anne for extracting this information or for the privileges that allow Anne’s sibling to thrive despite experimenting with drugs. Gifty says “The last text Anne ever sent to me said, ‘I love you. You know that right?’ and it took everything I had not to respond, but I gave it everything I had. I took pleasure in my restraint.” Reading that line, I think of her experimental mice who show restraint and don’t fall into addiction, but Gifty has also established that too much restraint is correlated with depression. Do you feel that it is a healthy choice for Gifty to cut Anne off? Is there anything Anne could or should have done differently to avoid this fate?
YG: I do not think it was a healthy choice to cut Anne off. I think that Gifty suffers from it for many years. That choice to cut off the significant relationship in her life, you see reverberate through how she deals with relationships in general. I think of Gifty as a character who has built all of these walls around this particular part of her that hurts, built so many walls around this wound that is her father’s leaving, her brother’s death, her mother’s depression. Anytime anyone attempts to breach the wall, she cuts them off or distances herself or is just emotionally distant. I do think that the healthier option, the better option, would have been to be honest with Anne and keep her in her life. But I don’t think that college-aged Gifty was at a place in her life where she could recognize that.
PS: So I guess Anne was doomed, that there’s nothing she could have done differently.
YG: Poor Anne.
PS: We get a clue or key to understanding this book’s title early on, as Gifty looks at a mouse’s brain and wonders what it might point to about the “comparable organ inside [her] own head.” She remembers the words of a high school biology teacher, that Homo sapiens are “the most complex animal, the only animal who believed he had transcended his Kingdom.” What does the idea of a person transcending their kingdom mean to you? Is it linked to what one of Gifty’s friends says about her: “You’re like taking the pain from losing your brother and you’re turning it into this incredible research that might actually help people like him one day.” Is there even more to it than that?
YG: I think that’s part of it. I do think there’s more to it. There’s the moment later where Gifty says something like that she had spent her whole life hearing that humans have dominion over animals without ever hearing that she herself was an animal. This idea that humans are somehow set apart in a way that makes them different than other animals is one that Gifty is concerned with, particularly as she does this research that involves the manipulation of another animal in order to hopefully eventually serve the human animal. It’s a combination of things but it’s mostly about this idea of the dominance of the human-animal and does that cut us off from seeing things in a different way—being more charitable, being more attuned to the idea that we are, in Eula Biss’s words, continuous with everything on the earth.
PS: After seeing that she can inhibit reward-seeking behavior in addicted mice, Gifty says, “[t]hat saving grace, amazing grace, is a hand and a touch, a fiber-optic implant and a lever and a refusal, and how sweet, how sweet it is,” linking that church idea and language of salvation with the addicted mouse’s salvation, and by extension what salvation might have looked like for Nana. What does salvation mean to Gifty?
YG: I think for Gifty, in terms of her research and her obsessions, salvation means being able to make choices that change the course of your life. Not being beholden to the faulty workings of this pathway in your brain that has continued to allow you to press the lever, even when you consciously, or on some level, do not want to be pressing the lever. When it comes to her work salvation is about a refusal. For the other aspects of her life, I think it’s about freedom and transcendence—that word again—and an understanding of what she calls in some parts of this book “the whole animal,” the fullness of one’s life, being able to tap into the wholeness of your life.