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Book club questions for Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi examines all the key themes in this moving novel. There will be spoilers so for more context about the story, check out my spoiler-free review first.
So it’s interesting, I read this novel immediately after I finished The Last Story of Mina Lee and despite the differences in the stories and writing style, they share a common theme of looking at the complicated immigrant experience. While Transcendent Kingdom is about Ghanaian immigrants and The Last Story of Mina Lee follows a Korean immigrant, they both show how the American Dream is really more of a myth. And both go so much in depth about the complexity of what it’s like to move to another country. Both are important reads (and I see why the celebrity book clubs picked these two stories).
Transcendent Kingdom is such an impactful story and one of the best books I’ve read this year.
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.
Book Club Questions for Transcendent Kingdom
- What do you think the title means in relation to this story?
- Why did Gifty decide to study reward-seeking behavior? Did the conclusion of her studies give her any answers and insight into depression and addiction?
- Gifty is the daughter of Ghanaian immigrants. Her father never felt comfortable in the U.S. and eventually went back to Ghana and never returned to see his children. Let’s talk about how his absence impacted the entire family.
- Nana first played soccer but eventually moved to basketball. What was behind his decision to change sports?
- Gifty’s mother is very religious and the kids grew up attending an evangelical church. Gifty used to write letters to God when she was a child—why did the author include those letters in the novel? What did it reveal about Gifty’s relationship with religion and also her family?
- The family lives in Huntsville, Alabama and they experience racism and discrimination. Let’s discuss the family’s experience in this small town.
- Gifty’s mother believed that moving her family to the U.S. will give them a better life. It proves to be much more challenging and heartbreaking than she could imagine. Why do you think her mother never went back to Ghana?
- We know from the synopsis that Nana will pass away from an overdose and we slowly learn how he gets to that point. When did it become apparent that Nana had a problem?
- Gifty questions her faith and on page 128 she remarks, “We read the Bible how we want to read it. It doesn’t change, but we do.” What do you think she’s saying here?
- After her brother passes away, Gifty becomes a bit disillusioned with her faith. But she never can quite shake it—not when she’s at Harvard and her classmates are making fun of religion or when she’s an adult working on her research. Do you think that Gifty found a balance between her love for science and that of her faith in the end?
- On Page 160 Gifty says, “Nana is the reason I began this work, but not in a wholesome, made-for-TED Talk kind of way. Instead, this science was a way for me to challenge myself, to do something truly hard, and in so doing to work through all of my misunderstandings about his addiction and all my shame.” Let’s talk about this. Why do you think she experienced so much shame? Do you think she understood her brother more through her research?
- What do you think about the complicated relationship between Gifty and her mother? Do you believe they eventually came to an understanding each other?
- What did you think about the ending?
Hope you enjoyed book club questions for Transcendent Kingdom! Here are some more recommendations along with links to book club questions.
If you haven’t read The Last Story of Mina Lee by Nancy Jooyoun Kim—highly recommend you add it to your list. It’s another story that will stick with you.
Margot Lee’s mother, Mina, isn’t returning her calls. It’s a mystery to twenty-six-year-old Margot, until she visits her childhood apartment in Koreatown, LA, and finds that her mother has suspiciously died. The discovery sends Margot digging through the past, unraveling the tenuous invisible strings that held together her single mother’s life as a Korean War orphan and an undocumented immigrant, only to realize how little she truly knew about her mother.
Interwoven with Margot’s present-day search is Mina’s story of her first year in Los Angeles as she navigates the promises and perils of the American myth of reinvention. While she’s barely earning a living by stocking shelves at a Korean grocery store, the last thing Mina ever expects is to fall in love. But that love story sets in motion a series of events that have consequences for years to come, leading up to the truth of what happened the night of her death.
Told through the intimate lens of a mother and daughter who have struggled all their lives to understand each other, The Last Story of Mina Lee is a powerful and exquisitely woven debut novel that explores identity, family, secrets, and what it truly means to belong.
If you’ve been to this site before, you already know how much I love the story. And if you haven’t read it—order this book now! Best book of the year by far.
The Vignes twin sisters will always be identical. But after growing up together in a small, southern black community and running away at age sixteen, it’s not just the shape of their daily lives that is different as adults, it’s everything: their families, their communities, their racial identities. Many years later, one sister lives with her black daughter in the same southern town she once tried to escape. The other secretly passes for white, and her white husband knows nothing of her past. Still, even separated by so many miles and just as many lies, the fates of the twins remain intertwined. What will happen to the next generation, when their own daughters’ storylines intersect?
Weaving together multiple strands and generations of this family, from the Deep South to California, from the 1950s to the 1990s, Brit Bennett produces a story that is at once a riveting, emotional family story and a brilliant exploration of the American history of passing. Looking well beyond issues of race, The Vanishing Half considers the lasting influence of the past as it shapes a person’s decisions, desires, and expectations, and explores some of the multiple reasons and realms in which people sometimes feel pulled to live as something other than their origins.