Transcendent Kingdom | A Letter to Gifty

Transcendent Kingdom is one of the buzz books in the last few months. It’s also on the Women’s Prize for Fiction shortlist this year. Last year’s shortlist was somewhat disappointing and hyped-up books have a tendency to disappoint so I was wary about Transcendent Kingdom. But I needn’t have been. I put so many tabs on the pages it’s hard to know where to start this blog post.

This book is about family relationships, about mother and daughter, about finding meaning and purpose in life, being a neuroscientist and being a Christian. I worry my pale description will make the book sound dull. It’s not a plot driven book. It’s the fantastic reflection of life that shines. A very insecure and vulnerable young woman had bravely opened up her heart and her wounds to show us how she has grind her teeth while navigating through storms of life. I haven’t just read somebody’s story, I have got to know Gifty.

What would I say to her if I could step into her world or if she could come into mine?

Dear Gifty,

Thank you for writing the book and sharing the story.

You have been incredibly brave. Though you might say, well I didn’t choose to be, the situation didn’t give me an option, I’d rather be part of a normal family and grow up as a protected and carefree girl, I couldn’t, could I? I know. But like your aunt Joyce said, “you are a very wonderful child” and you have made all your family and friends proud, including me, a stranger.

You have been so tender with your mother. When you and your brother were young and he stopped going to church, it was you who sat beside her in church because you couldn’t bear to think how lonely she would be. You remembered small little things to please your sick unresponsive mother: buying Ghanaian cookbooks and practising home dishes, filling the cupboard with food, putting on music she liked, cleaning with bleach, rubbing her skin, reading John’s Gospel to her. You waited patiently, persevered with good grace.

I loved your childhood journal full of conversation with God. Growing up as a Christian sounds like a confusing process. I would have loved a mother who taught me to recite Bible verses and quizzed me constantly. The episodes about rescuing rogue dogs and DIY baptism made me laugh out loud. But it must have been hard when a church did not welcome logical thinking and reasoning. I hope you know by now that the answer to your brother’s totally legit question deserved a more considered answer, and the answer is nothing like what P.T. gave that day. His answer was unkind, self-righteous. And it must have been painful when church members started to isolate your family because of your brother’s addiction. People didn’t understand and they judged. But Pastor John kept coming and praying and looking out for you, didn’t he? You see people are so mixed up. If I remember correctly you were not resentful towards those alienating people, but you were grateful to Pastor John. You have a gracious big heart.

You said many things out loud, some for Christianity, some against it, division and racism inside church for one. But thank you for being honest. Church has always been a mess throughout history, a work in progress, but please Gifty don’t lose sight of Christ himself.

I loved your ‘large’ understanding of science and faith, you explicitly said “this tension, this idea that one must necessarily choose between science and religion, is false”. Many would agree or disagree. But thank you for saying that out loud as well.

You have been brilliant at your research. I’m sure there are many brilliant neuroscientists. You want to find out “could optogenetics be used to identify the neural mechanisms involved in psychiatric illnesses where there are issues with reward seeking, like in depression, where there is too much restraint in seeking pleasure, or drug addiction, where there is not enough”. But you’re different. It’s not just academic or scientific. It’s personal to you, “Could it get a brother to set down a needle? Could it get a mother out of bed?” It’s too late for them, but one day, it will heal someone’s brother or mother and they will have their family back. And all your effort will be worthwhile.

I’m really glad to hear you’re now happy with Han. It must be such a relief to have someone who knows everything and understands. I hope you’re still in touch with Katherine. She sounds like such a good friend. Lastly, may you hear the knock and have the full assurance of God’s presence once again.

Love Nicole

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