Transcendent Kingdom


Yaa Gyasi

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Transcendent Kingdom: Chapter 16 Summary & Analysis

Gifty asks Katherine to lunch. Gifty arrives early and takes her food to sit outside in the sunshine. It reminds her (by contrast) of her undergrad years at Harvard, where she hated the cold weather and had to get a UV lamp (to combat Seasonal Affective Disorder) from mental health services. While she waits, she watches two undergraduates fighting. One storms off and the other notices Gifty staring, but Gifty refuses to look away or give her privacy for her embarrassment. She wants to say her life is worse than whatever drama just unfolded between them.
Food continues to symbolize the intimacy of relationships, so as she tentatively forges a friendship with Katherine, Gifty asks her to share a meal. But, when Katherine is running a little late, Gifty eats her meal alone, which shows how unready she still is to form truly intimate connections with other people. Sitting in the sunshine reminds Gifty of her own brush with depression, which she refuses to admit amounted to more than seasonal affective disorder after moving from the South to cold and cloudy Massachusetts. And, as she watches the undergraduates argue, she again demonstrates the mercilessness she’s learned to show in adulthood. It’s clear that she sees others’ drama as a sign of their own weak wills and lack of self-control. She believes that her problems are much worse, but she isn’t making a scene about them.
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Katherine is 30 minutes late. There aren’t very many women in their department, and Gifty hasn’t felt the need to connect with them. She doesn’t understand Katherine’s commitment to being a woman in STEM. Gifty doesn’t want to be thought of as a Black or female scientist, but just as a scientist. She feels that womanhood is a millstone around her neck. She doesn’t want to talk with Katherine about their work, anyway; she wants to talk about her mother’s depression, which isn’t improving.
Gifty learned in childhood that she couldn’t show any weaknesses, so she doesn’t want to lean into her female or Black identities, preferring to be simply a genderless, raceless "scientist.” Anything else feels like a needless burden. The proverbial idea of the millstone around the neck—the faster to drown a person—comes from the Bible, Matthew 18:6. Katherine, on the other hand, is comfortable enough with her own identity that she wears cheeky tee-shirts about being a “STEMINIST” or STEM-feminist hybrid.
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Gifty doesn’t know what to do. In desperation, she had Pastor John pray for her mother over the phone. She can’t commit her. But Gifty can’t bring herself to open up to Katherine. Instead, she says that she’s stressed about finishing her article, and Katherine reminds her to take good care of herself. Gifty doesn’t even know what that would look like. She’s doing the best she can for her mice, her mother, and herself. It reminds her of being offered counseling at Harvard. She felt sad but assured herself that it was just the weather. She had wanted challenge and rigor and she hadn’t wanted help.
Gifty’s concern about her mother’s ongoing depression has reached such a level that she’s caved to religion and asked Pastor John to pray for her mother and that she wants to talk to Katherine about it. But she’s not yet ready to make that second leap, so she deflects the conversation on to her own struggles. This follows a pattern that she learned in childhood, to keep family troubles within the family. When the larger community found out about Nana’s addiction, they abandoned and judged the family rather than trying to help, damaging Gifty’s ability to trust others. Katherine’s hope that Gifty is taking care of herself reminds Gifty that she doesn’t know what self-care looks like, because she has spent so much of her life worrying about and caring for others. She has, instead, prided herself on not needing help, even when she was sad and lonely at Harvard.
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