After reading and loving Yaa Gyasi's first novel, "Homegoing," several years ago, Jenna Bush Hager was thrilled to discover the author was writing a second book, "Transcendent Kingdom."
When she was able to acquire a copy, she said she "could not imagine a better book" for Read With Jenna book club members.
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The September 2020 book club pick is about a Ghanian family after they immigrate to Alabama. We meet Gifty while she pursues her Ph.D. at Stanford University, researching the human brain. Her brother, Nana, has previously passed away from a heroin overdose after he was prescribed OxyContin for an ankle injury that led to an opioid addiction. Meanwhile, her gravely depressed mother is living in her bed. Gifty turns to science in a quest to understand the suffering she has experienced in her life. In her search for answers, she also finds herself pulled toward the evangelical faith in which she was raised.
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"Transcendent Kingdom" considers how we make sense of senseless tragedy in life and what it means to suffer from mental illness. It also explores the complex relationship between an unwell mother and her adult daughter.
When talking about the character of Gifty in the book, Gyasi told TODAY, "She's kind of been formed by the traumas of her childhood. She's a character who is reticent, brilliant, grieving still, and often times kind of hesitant to look at herself even as she questions and examines everything around her."
The book is also the story of immigrants in the United States. It asks readers to consider if the American dream is real and at what cost it is accomplished.
"We hear Gifty’s story of moving from Ghana to Alabama. We walk in her shoes and we know what it feels like to be an immigrant and to feel like you are different or other," said Jenna.
Gyasi, who immigrated to Alabama from Ghana herself, shared that Gifty's story was inspired by the research of one of her best friends in Alabama, who was studying neuroscience too.
"She used to explain it to me in layman's terms, of addiction and depression, so I wondered if it would be possible to fashion a novel around this question of a woman who is doing this research while experiencing the things that she researches in her own life," said Gyasi.
She shared that she hopes the book will shed a light on the humanity of mental health and reduce stigma.
Similarly, Jenna wants this book to be a conversation starter on important issues.
"The fact that this book tackles the themes of mental health and race at this moment in our culture, I think will lead our book club to have some really important conversations," she said.
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