Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi

Gifty was born in the American South, the second of two children. Her parents are Ghanaian immigrants, whose move to the US was not quite a shared dream. The family’s first reduced to three when her father abandons them and returns to Ghana, and later reduced to two. A father who left. A dead brother. A broken mother.

Transcendent Kingdom is an intelligently crafted novel, where the protagonist seeks to understand her family’s tragedy through science. While studying the neural circuits of reward-seeking behaviour in mice at Stanford, Gifty is also trying to understand her late brother’s addiction and behaviour.

Gyasi digs into mental illness deeper than most novels do. The story also analyses the dynamics of a disintegrated family, and the relationship between parent and child. Through the mother’s devotions, and Gifty’s questioning we see the play around faith and science.

Transcendent Kingdom is her second novel, following the critically acclaimed Homegoing (which sat at the top of my favourites for years). The two are completely different stories but share Gyasi’s undeniable talent to make us see the world in a different or new way, on a deep and personal level.  

A Walk ‘Down Second Avenue’ with Es’kia Mphahlele

I’ve been wanting to read this book for years, as Es’kia Mphahlele is well known as one of the most prolific figures in African writing and this particular title is a highly recommend classic. I finally got my hands on a copy and as a South African, knew from the beginning that I would enjoy this praised autobiography. The book made me long for a reread of Mark Mathabane’s Kaffir Boy. Although the two books are twenty-seven publication years apart, each is a story about growing up in South Africa during the apartheid regime.

Mphahlele and his siblings are taken to the country at the age of five to go live with their paternal grandmother. (Remember Maya and her brother off to Stamps?) Later on his mother fetches them and they end up in Second Avenue, Marabastad in Pretoria.

The life in Maupaneng village is filled with stories of walking seven miles to school, bare-fist river fights, livestock, hare-hunting, story-telling at the communal fire, and the white sands of Leshoana River. In Marabastad they were in the slums. The people who had left the village for work in the city had described it as a glamorous place but where they lived was place far from glamorous, where there were long queues at the communal tap, thick smoke clouds from coal braziers in the yards, dirty yards, one room for a large family to sleep in, leaking iron roofs, and many other grim living conditions.

The marrow of the story, however, is the hideous face of apartheid and the lives of black people during that time through his lens, as a boy, throughout his growing up and as a man. The many characters in the book each give a picture of the various struggles of black people during those times, the violence, and the poverty, the hard work that didn’t have much reward, the sacrifices and most of all the fear of the white man. Mphahlele details his fears, his anxieties, and anger towards the system and the way white people had set it for their sole benefit.

There are children rummaging backyards for food, police officers who didn’t think twice when it came to violence towards young and old, the mothers who worked so hard washing clothes for white people and looking after their needs to make little money that went into the education of their children, and the hierarchy of who was better off than the other amongst blacks, Chinese, Coloureds and Indians, all under the whites. He also takes us through his literary journey and activism.

As a black South African, I was frustrated because of the familiarity of the events he shares, but I couldn’t stop reading it because even through the horrors and setbacks there is something encouraging about the way he kept on going. And it’s not just him but how Blacks at the time fought through those hard times, and still are.

The Social and Political Tensions in South Africa, in ‘Disgrace’ by JM Coetzee

A look into post-apartheid South Africa.

The South African Flag

Fifty-two-year-old David Lurie has an affair with one of his university students, jeopardising his reputation and his job. He leaves Cape Town to stay with his daughter on a farm in the Eastern Cape. His stay turns out to be longer than he had planned and things are hurled into chaos when there’s a violent attack on the farm and father and daughter are left wounded in many ways.

Disgrace is set in post-apartheid South Africa and shows a shift in power among the races, and it explores these social and political tensions through compelling storytelling. The protagonist, David, illustrates this shift in status. He goes from being this snobbish university professor in the city to a peasant.

Violence is also woven into the story and plays an important role in setting the direction in which the story goes. It is also shown in its different forms, not just the assault which takes place on the farm but also with his affair with a young student as well as the way he justifies it as desire.

South African history and cultural interactions are adequately portrayed, and you love and hate the characters, and go on a rollercoaster of feeling towards them. It is interesting and broadens your understanding of some of the crucial bits of South Africa.

Disgrace – J. M. Coetzee