Transcendent Kingdom

by

Yaa Gyasi

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Self-Discovery, Identity, and Individuality Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
Science and Religion Theme Icon
Self-Discovery, Identity, and Individuality Theme Icon
Addiction, Depression, and Control Theme Icon
Trauma, Caretaking, and Intimacy  Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Transcendent Kingdom, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Self-Discovery, Identity, and Individuality Theme Icon

Years after her brother Nana’s accidental death of a heroin overdose, 28-year-old Gifty thinks that she’s abandoned her religious upbringing and youthful belief in God for a life of science. But as she cares for her deeply depressed mother, it gradually becomes apparent that she is still stuck in childish patterns. Thus, Transcendent Kingdom traces Gifty’s final steps towards self-acceptance and maturity. The novel suggests that to complete the process of accepting herself and becoming an adult, Gifty needs to finish the process of developing her identity separate from her mother.

When Gifty left Alabama for college, she wrote in her journal that she was going to invent a new Gifty to take with her. Yet, the novel shows that despite this vow, she’s still stuck in her childhood roles and patterns. Importantly, even as an adult, she overidentifies with her mother and what she believes her mother wants or needs. This keeps Gifty from feeling like she can or should ask other trustworthy adults in her life for help, as when 11-year-old Gifty chose not to tell anyone, even the kind and sympathetic school librarian, about her mother’s depression or how much Gifty herself needed love and support. Gifty repeats the same pattern later in life, initially concealing her mother’s visit and illness from Katherine, Han, and her other graduate colleagues.

But though Gifty thinks she alone knows what her mother needs and how to care for her, there are signs that perhaps Gifty doesn’t know her mother that well after all. The most notable sign is that Gifty’s mother calmly accepts Gifty’s career in science, despite the fact that by choosing science, Gifty essentially rejects her mother’s deeply held faith. While caring for her mother as an adult, Gifty ultimately comes to understand her overidentification with her mother through a psychoanalytic theory of child development, in which the final phase of an infant’s development occurs when the infant realizes—and accepts—that she and her mother are separate people. Gifty’s mother seems to have already done this work; she long ago accepted Gifty’s turn from religion to science. But for Gifty to make this leap herself requires an act of long-delayed teenage rebellion, in which she sneaks of the apartment while her mother sleeps to confront her own fears and insecurities. Gifty can only complete the coming-of-age process and discover who she is as an adult when she also accepts the many ways in which she differs from her mother (such as in her inability to find the answers she needs in religion) as well as their similarities.

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Self-Discovery, Identity, and Individuality Quotes in Transcendent Kingdom

Below you will find the important quotes in Transcendent Kingdom related to the theme of Self-Discovery, Identity, and Individuality.
Chapter 2  Quotes

I was determined not to let that happen again. I’d bought a Ghanian cookbook online to make up for the years I’d spent avoiding my mother’s kitchen, and I’d practiced a few of the dishes in the days leading up to my mother’s arrival, hoping to perfect them before I saw her. I’d bought a deep fryer, even though my grad student stipend left little room for extravagances like bofrot or plantains. Fried food was my mother’s favorite. Her mother had made fried food from a cart on the side of the road in Kumasi. My grandmother was a Fante woman from Abandze, a sea town, and she was notorious for despising Asantes, so much so that she refused to speak Twi, even after twenty years of living in the Asante capital. If you bought her food, you had to listen to her language.

Related Characters: Gifty (speaker), Mother
Related Symbols: Food
Page Number: 8
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 6 Quotes

“Gifty,” she said as I set the bowl of koko down. “Do you still pray?”

It would have been kinder to lie, but I wasn’t kind anymore. Maybe I never had been. I vaguely remembered a childhood kindness, but maybe I was conflating innocence and kindness. I felt so little continuity between who I was as a young child and who I was now that it seemed pointless to even consider showing my mother something like mercy. Would I have been merciful when I was a child?

“No,” I answered.

Related Characters: Gifty (speaker), Mother
Related Symbols: Food
Page Number: 17-18
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 8 Quotes

I think … people … assumed that I had gone into neuroscience out of a sense of duty to him, but the truth is I’d started this work not because I wanted to help people but because it seemed like the hardest thing you could do, and I wanted to do the hardest thing. I wanted to flay any mental weakness off my body … I never touched a drop of alcohol because I lived in fear that addiction was like a man in a dark trench coat, stalking me, waiting for me to get off the well-lit sidewalk and step into an alley. I had seen the alley. I had watched Nana walk into the alley and I had watched my mother go in after him, and I was so angry at them for not being strong enough to stay in the light. And so I did the hard thing.

Related Characters: Gifty (speaker), Mother , Nana
Page Number: 38
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 10 Quotes

Back then, I approached my piety the same way I approached my studies: fastidiously. I spent the summer after my eighth birthday reading my Bible cover to cover, a feat that even my mother admitted she had never done. I wanted, above all else, to be good. And I wanted the path to that goodness to be clear. I suspect that this is why I excelled at math and science, where the rules are laid out step by step, where if you did something exactly the way it was supposed to be done, the result would be exactly what it was expected to be.

Related Characters: Gifty (speaker), Mother
Page Number: 54-55
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 14 Quotes

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.

Related Characters: Gifty (speaker), Mother , Father/The Chin Chin Man
Page Number: 72-73
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 19 Quotes

I felt a strange sense of kinship with Hopkins every time I read about his personal life, his difficulty reconciling his religion with his desires and thoughts, his repressed sexuality. I enjoyed reading his letters and, inspired to some romantic ideal of the nineteenth century, tried writing letters of my own to my mother. Letters in which I hoped to tell her about my complicated feelings about God…all of which could have been a different petal on the flower of my belief: “I believe in God, I do not believe in God.” Neither of these sentiments felt true to what I actually felt.

Related Characters: Gifty (speaker), Mother
Page Number: 99
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 26 Quotes

In class that day, I stared at the diagram in wonder, the secret world, an inner world, revealed. I looked around at my classmates and could see in their business-as-usual faces that they already knew all of this. Their bodies had not been kept from them. It was neither the first nor the last time at Harvard that I would feel as though I was starting from behind, trying to make up for an early education that had been full of holes. I went back to my dorm room and tentatively, furtively pulled out a hand mirror and examined myself, wondering all the while how, if I hadn’t left my town, if I hadn’t continued my education, this particular hole, the question of anatomy, of sex, would have been filled. I was tired of learning things the hard way.

Related Characters: Gifty (speaker)
Page Number: 140-141
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 29 Quotes

I didn’t move at all. Something came over me. Something came over me, filled me and took hold. I had heard that altar call hundreds of times and felt absolutely nothing. I had prayed my prayers, written my journal entries, and heard only the faintest whisper of Christ. And that whisper was one I distrusted, because maybe it was the whisper of my mother or of my own desperate need to be good, to please. I hadn’t expected to hear the loud knocking on my heart’s door, but that night I heard it. I heard it. These days, because I have been trained to ask questions, I find myself questioning that moment. I ask myself, “What came over you?” I say, “Be specific.”

Related Characters: Gifty (speaker)
Page Number: 155
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 31 Quotes

I couldn’t make myself look away. I felt like I was watching some major natural event—newly hatched sea turtles heading toward the lip of the ocean, bears coming out of hibernation. I was waiting for Nana to emerge, new, reborn.

In the church I grew up in, people cared about rebirth. For months on end, all across the South, all over the world, revival tents are erected. Preachers stand at pulpits promising people that they can rise from the ashes of their lives. “Revival fire fall,” I used to sing along with the choir, jubilantly asking that God raze everything to the ground. I stole glances at Nana at the end of our pew, and I thought, Surely the fire has fallen?

Related Characters: Gifty (speaker), Nana
Page Number: 166
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 36 Quotes

I thought that Nana was proving everyone right about us, and I wanted him to get better, to be better, because I thought that being good was what it would take to prove everyone wrong. I walked around those places, pious child that I was, thinking that my goodness was proof negative. “Look at me!” I wanted to shout. I wanted to be a living theorem, a Logos. Science and math had already taught me that if there were too many exceptions to a rule, then the rule was not a rule. Look at me.

This was all so wrongheaded, so backward, but I didn’t know how to think any differently. The rule was never a rule, but I had mistaken it for one. It took me years of questioning and seeking to see more than my little piece, and even now I don’t always see it.

Related Characters: Gifty (speaker), Nana
Page Number: 185
Explanation and Analysis:

I didn’t want everybody staring at us, making their judgments. I didn’t want further proof of God’s failure to heal my brother, a failure that I saw as unbelievably cruel, despite a lifetime of hearing that God works in mysterious ways. I wasn’t interested in mystery. I wanted reason, and it was becoming increasingly clear to me that I would get none of it in that place where I had spent so much of my life. If I could have stopped going to the First Assemblies altogether, I would have.

Related Characters: Gifty (speaker), Nana
Page Number: 188
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 46 Quotes

I started writing my own fairy tale, wherein my mother, the beauty of Abandze, who grew sleepier and sleepier each year that she was away until she finally became unrousable, is carried on her golden bed by four gorgeous, strong men. She is carried all the way from my apartment in California to the coast of Ghana, where she is laid on the sand. And as the tide comes in, licking first the soles of her feet, then her ankles, to calf, then knee, she slowly starts to wake. By the time the water swallows the golden bed, stealing her out to sea, she has come alive again. The sea creatures take bits of her bed, and with it, they fashion a mermaid’s tail. They slip it onto her. They teach her how to swim with it. They live with her there forever.

Related Characters: Gifty (speaker), Mother
Page Number: 241-242
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 50 Quotes

It took me many years to realize that it’s hard to live in this world. I don’t mean the mechanics of living, because for most of us, our hearts will beat, our lungs will take in oxygen, without us doing anything at all to tell them to. For most of us, mechanically, physically, it’s harder to die than it is to live. But still we try to die. We drive too fast down winding roads, we have sex with strangers without wearing protection, we drink, we use drugs. We try to squeeze a little more out of our lives. It’s natural to want to do that. But to be alive in the world, every day, as we are given more and more and more, as the nature of “what we can handle” changes and our methods for how we handle it change, too, that’s something of a miracle.

Related Characters: Gifty (speaker), Mother , Anne, Raymond, Katherine, Han
Page Number: 261
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 53 Quotes

I started reading my way through every entry I’d ever written, reading my way through what was essentially my entire conscious lifetime. I was so embarrassed by the early entries that I read them all, cringing and squinting my eyes in an attempt to hide from my former self. By the time I got to the years of Nana’s addiction, I was undone. I couldn’t proceed. I decided then and there that I would build a new Gifty from scratch. She would be the person I took along with me to Cambridge—confident, poised, smart. She would be strong and unafraid. I opened up a blank page and wrote a new entry that began with these words: I will figure out a way to be myself, whatever that means, and I won’t talk about Nana or my mom all the time. It’s too depressing.

Related Characters: Gifty (speaker), Mother , Nana
Page Number: 275-276
Explanation and Analysis: