Podcast 297: Happier Podcast Book Club: Author Yaa Gyasi Talks about Family, Faith, Science, and Belonging in “Transcendent Kingdom.”


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Happier Podcast Book Club: Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi

Last year, we launched our Happier Podcast Book Club, and today’s conversation is about the brilliant novel Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi (AmazonBookshop).

Here’s Yaa Gyasi’s official biography:

Yaa Gyasi was born in Ghana and raised in Huntsville, Alabama. She holds a B.A. in English from Stanford University and an M.F.A. from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where she held a Dean’s Graduate Research Fellowship. She lives in Brooklyn.

Transcendent Kingdom has generated a huge amount of buzz. It was an instant New York Times bestseller and has met with rave reviews.

Yaa Gyasi’s stunning follow-up to her acclaimed national best seller Homegoing is a powerful, raw, intimate, deeply layered novel about a Ghanaian family in Alabama.

Gifty is a sixth-year PhD candidate in neuroscience at the Stanford University School of Medicine studying reward-seeking behavior in mice and the neural circuits of depression and addiction. Her brother, Nana, was a gifted high school athlete who died of a heroin overdose after an ankle injury left him hooked on OxyContin. Her suicidal mother is living in her bed. Gifty is determined to discover the scientific basis for the suffering she sees all around her. But even as she turns to the hard sciences to unlock the mystery of her family’s loss, she finds herself hungering for her childhood faith and grappling with the evangelical church in which she was raised, whose promise of salvation remains as tantalizing as it is elusive. Transcendent Kingdom is a deeply moving portrait of a family of Ghanaian immigrants ravaged by depression and addiction and grief–a novel about faith, science, religion, love. Exquisitely written, emotionally searing, this is an exceptionally powerful follow-up to Gyasi’s phenomenal debut.

As mentioned in that description, Yaa Gyasi’s debut novel Homegoing (AmazonBookshop) is also terrific. I loved it, and it’s interesting to compare the two novels. They’re very different.

Of course, we recorded this episode virtually. 

In the course of our wide-ranging conversation, we covered questions and topics such as:

  • The meaning of the title
  • The novel’s memoir-ish quality
  • The points of similarity between Gifty’s life and Yaa’s life; Yaa wanted to write about growing up in the Pentecostal church and about Alabama
  • Gifty’s feeling of rejection by her childhood church, and her general isolation
  • The “what-ifs” that Gifty reflects on—the crossroads of Gifty’s life
  • The choices made by the ending, the leap forward to Gifty’s future
  • Gifty’s attempt to reconcile science and faith
  • The choices, sacrifices, and trade-offs demanded by the immigrant experience
  • How Yaa Gyasi did her research
  • Why Yaa’s first and second novels are so structurally different

Some particularly interesting comments from Yaa:

  • “I grew up quite similarly to Gifty, in the Pentecostal church in Alabama. It’s a space that I’m drawn to in my writing quite often, but I’d never gone as in-depth as in Transcendent Kingdom.”
  • “I wanted to set it in my hometown, mostly because I don’t read a lot of books that are set in Alabama, or particularly in Huntsville, Alabama, which is a really interesting city.”
  • “You have to weigh these losses against the gains…I can’t imagine that Gifty, sitting there in the church, contemplating her life and what it has become, is not aware of the kind of wreckage, this trauma that she has had to carry with her, because of the choices that other people have made for her.”
  • “She herself believed as a child, so fervently, and she’s not really willing to abandon the child that she was, just because she’s turned to science.”
  • “Belief, faith, is a kind of love language between Gifty and her mother, and the way that they relate to each other.”
  • “Gifty comes to a place where she understands that she’s not going to answer all the questions that she wants to answer. The pursuit of the answers has become satisfying enough to her.”
  • “There’s so much she can’t say because she won’t look at herself; she won’t look within to see what is true about what she’s feeling and experiencing.”
  • “In her head…she’s understanding the trials of her mice as being connected to the trials of her brother.”
  • “Part of what made me comfortable with writing Transcendent Kingdom after the huge success of Homegoing was that it had such new concerns. I couldn’t even compare the books for myself. It gave me a kind of freedom to experiment.”

Yaa mentions a book: Drug Dealer, MD: How Doctors Were Duped, Patients Got Hooked, and Why It’s So Hard to Stop by Dr. Anna Lembke (AmazonBookshop). 

Yaa’s Try This at Home: Try clicker-training if you have a new dog. Yaa mentions a resource: Kikopup videos on YouTube. Here’s an intro: “What is clicker training?” 

Remember: Whenever it is and wherever you are, there’s always a book waiting for you. 


  • Halloween—even this strange Halloween—can be a major source of temptation for children and adults alike. If you’d like more information about saying no to sugar, click here to download my interview with Gary Taubes about sugar. 
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