Transcendent Kingdom: A novel

by Yaa Gyasi

Hardcover, 2020




Knopf (2020), 288 pages


"A novel about faith, science, religion, and family that tells the deeply moving portrait of a family of Ghanaian immigrants ravaged by depression and addiction and grief, narrated by a fifth year candidate in neuroscience at Stanford school of medicine studying the neural circuits of reward seeking behavior in mice"--

User reviews

LibraryThing member kidzdoc
Gifty, the narrator of Yaa Gyasi’s second published novel, is a 27 year old PhD candidate in neurosciences at Stanford, who conducts experiments on mice to elucidate the neural pathways involved in addiction and reward seeking behavior. On the surface she checks all the boxes for a modern
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immigrant success story: she is the daughter of two Ghanaians who emigrated to the United States to seek better opportunities for themselves and their two children, Gifty and her older brother Nana; she overcame a troubled and impoverished childhood in Alabama to achieve academic success, including a bachelor’s degree from Harvard; and she is devoted to her family, particularly her mother, a devout Christian who worked in menial jobs to provide for her children.

However, there is a darker underside to Gifty’s story. She is motivated to study addiction because Nana, a promising but troubled athlete, became hooked on opioids after a physician gave him a prescription for OxyContin after a sports injury and ultimately died of a heroin overdose when she was young, and the loss of her closest companion and most devoted supporter devastated both her and her mother, who has suffered from severe depression and suicidal behaviors since the death of her son. Gifty, because of her sheltered upbringing, family tragedy, and struggles as an immigrant, an outsider in her home town in Alabama and as a Black woman scientist, keeps her personal life and experiences to herself, and, in many ways, views her mother, late brother and herself from the standpoint of a scientist, as an apparent coping mechanism and because she has yet to learn who she truly is, and this lack of self-awareness greatly impacts and impedes her relationships with friends and lovers.

My impression of "Transcendent Kingdom" was a mixed one immediately after I finished reading it, as I was frustrated with Gifty and her mother, both of whom I found to be inscrutable and, in many ways, unlikable. However, after giving it some thought and watching an interview with the author about the book, I realized that this characterization was entirely intentional on Yaa Gyasi’s part, which made me appreciate what she was doing considerably more. I’ve upped my initial 3½ star rating to 4½ stars, and although "Transcendent Kingdom" is a very different novel than her début, "Homegoing", I would recommend it just as highly.
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LibraryThing member RidgewayGirl
This is a complex look at the many ways one can be an outsider; by being an immigrant, by being Black in white spaces, by religion, by education, by income, by having mental health issues, by addiction. This is the story of Gifty, her girlhood in Alabama through her work to complete her Ph.D in
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neuroscience at Stanford University.

I don't want to give anything away, although the plot is very much not the point of Gyasi's second novel. There's a lot of heart and honesty here, without a single wasted word. Parts of this novel made me uncomfortable, teaching me about lives far removed from my own, while other parts felt so familiar. Gushing in a review is tiresome, so I'll stop here.
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LibraryThing member mcelhra
Gifty is the daughter of Ghanaian immigrants. She’s a neuroscience PhD candidate at Stanford where her research centers on addiction and depression. She longs to understand why her brother, who died of a heroin overdose, became addicted to opiates in the first place. Her mother comes to live with
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her while suffering from severe depression. Gifty can’t get her out of bed. She can’t even make her roll over away from the all and face her.

As Gifty performs her research and cares for her mother, she recalls her childhood in Alabama, where she was raised in an all-white evangelical church. The racism all around her family took its toll. Her father came from Ghana a proud man but was soon demoralized after things like being followed around by security while shopping at Walmart kept happening. He eventually couldn’t take it anymore and went back to Ghana. Gifty’s mom worked for people who called her the n-word on a regular basis. And when Gifty’s brother became addicted to OxyContin, church “friends” remarked it was no surprise because “those people” seem to have a taste for drugs. When Gifty goes away to college, her fellow students are mostly atheists. Gifty become disillusioned with religion but its impact on her life is profound and she thinks about it and God a lot.

There is no sophomore slump for Yaa Gyasi. Transcendent Kingdom is about as different as it could be from her first novel Homegoing. While Homegoing spans centuries and generations, Transcendent Kingdom focuses on one woman and her family. And they are both brilliant. Gyasi is truly a gifted writer with an incredible range. I can’t wait to see what she does next.
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LibraryThing member Jthierer
The writing was beautiful...but I didn't feel an emotional connection to Gifty. Since the book isn't really about plot but about the connection the reader feels with the protagonist, that made this one fall short for me.
LibraryThing member brangwinn
“I don’t want to be thought of as a woman in science, a Black woman in science,” Gifty says early in the book. She has been raised Christian in Huntsville Alabama by her mother, an immigrant from Ghana. In this novel, Gyasi explores the differences between the home in which Gifty grew up what
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she finds outside. Her big brother, Nana, who Gifty admires dies of an overdose and this leads Gifty to research what happens to the brain when addiction takes hold. She did her undergraduate study at Harvard and her post graduate neurology study at Stanford. Moving back and forth from her childhood experiences to her adult experiences, Gifty also explores her evangelical religious beliefs with what she believes as a scientist. And along with that Gifty has created a beautiful portrait of her mother who she referred to as “The Black Mamba” in her childhood journal.
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LibraryThing member Narshkite
A moving, engrossing, challenging immigrant's story. This book feels so completely American, more so than if I had just read the history of Plymouth Rock or a biography of Custer. The crisis and cruelty of faith, the rejection of science as an article of faith, the impact of addiction, the scourge
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of mental illness, the way in which poverty is turned from a simple current lack of funds into an identifier synonymous with eternal shame, what it means to be a parent and what it means to be a child, and what it is to believe in possibility. This immigrant story is filled with grief and loss as well as accomplishment and endless possibility and roots less deep but no less secure than those that have burrowed into the earth for generations.

Gifty is so smart and resilient and independent, so eager to be identified only as herself - not as a woman or a black woman or a black Ghanaian woman, just as a brilliant scientist. She got there through so much much none of us would have ever wished upon her, and her disassociation from any tribe is perhaps something to lament a bit, but the end is something one can't help but admire. But Gifty is also so closed off, so self-protective, so very alone as a result of her experiences that she keeps herself distant from most everything she needs. I rooted so hard (as opposed to praying) for her to heal enough to get what she really needed.

This is such an intimate story, so different from Homegoing (which I liked very much) but if anything its impact is more powerful. Yaa Gyasi is no one trick pony, this is a prodigiously talented writer with a distinct and surprisingly mature voice. I can't wait to see what is next.
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LibraryThing member booklove2
After the fantastic 'Homegoing', here is Yaa Gyasi's second. More straightforward than the more lyrical 'Homegoing', but this is completely understandable as the main character is Gifty, a neuroscientist writing in the first person. Gifty would write matter-of-fact. (I love poetic prose more, but I
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can also see why a writer might use another style. Sometimes a point needs to be made.) I loved the dichotomy and the struggle between the two within Gifty of religion and science, and really this is the only way I might want to read about religion. If only science or religion were here on their own, this would have been a worse book. But Gifty is a character you can't help but have a bleeding heart for. Her strength and her struggle, basically on her own at a young age, among her mom's depression and her brother's early heroin overdose. These struggles push her to become a neuroscientist. More lady scientist fiction please! All of the book is hard. Life is hard. This book is a necessary one.
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LibraryThing member forsanolim
I'm really not sure how well summarizing this novel's plot (such that it is) is really helpful here. At any rate, though, the story centers on Gifty, a neuroscience grad student at Stanford working on addiction and reward-seeking behavior in mice. Her family are Ghanaian immigrants living in
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Alabama; she grew up mostly with her mother and brother, and her brother died of an overdose in high school. In a lot of ways, the story is centered around grief, and I feel like it's fair to describe it as a meditation on grief and addiction and love and faith and science.

I really liked this. I can definitely see why people might not love it--the story's completely nonlinear, assembling episodes from Gifty's life with absolutely no chronological ordering; and there's really not that much of a traditional plot--but I found it hard-hitting and lovely. Though I guess that I haven't really read that many, I think of myself as generally really liking books that discuss themes of faith and science, and this one was no exception.
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LibraryThing member Beamis12
3.5 A much slower, understated book than her first. Told in the first person it is also more personal, centering on one family that had come to Alabama from Ghana. Gifty is our narrator and she is now grown, working in Stanford's labs. It goes back and forth from a time when her family was
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complete, to the present where it is just Fifty and he mother. A mother who suffers from major depression.

The themes are many, touching on subjects both common and relatable. Mental illness, addiction, love, loss, and race. Never feeling as if she fits anywhere, she turns to religion and science. As we see both of these have limitations that Gifty must navigate, find her own answers, her own place.

I had a hard time rating this book, it was told in such an unemotional voice it was difficult for me to connect to Gifty. Her challenges though, did draw me in as a few of the subjects are one that have affected a person close to myself. It also had much more about religion than I am used to reading or even feel comfortable with. Despite those reservations, this is a good book and one that is well worth reading. It does take patience though as the pace is very slow.
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LibraryThing member Beth.Clarke
I loved Homegoing which made me excited for Gyasi's 2nd novel. Although the two novels are very different both are outstanding. Following the main character, Gifty, as she handles the many challenges (the passing of her brother to addiction, her mother's depression, Gifty's work/education ambition)
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felt like a memoir. It's beautiful.
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LibraryThing member thewanderingjew
Transcendent Kingdom, Yaa Gyasi, Bonnie Turpin, narrator
The book is written almost as if it is a real memoir, and at times, it is hard to believe that the main character, Gifty, has been created by the author. This brilliant young woman, who studied molecular science, tells her story, to the
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reader, but unfortunately, it sometimes feels like too long a monologue. Gifty is experimenting with mice. She wants desperately to find a cure for addiction. The reader learns of her childhood and witnesses her painful journey to maturity and contentment. At first, she failed to appreciate what she had in life, apart and aside from her family, to whom she was devoted. As she loses her brother to drug addiction, her mother to mental illness, her father to another woman, her mice to her experiments, she seems consumed with grief. The book seems overly preoccupied with loss, until the very end.
Gifty’s were from Ghana, where her brother Nana was born. They moved to Alabama where Gifty was born. Gifty is black in a white world, but doesn’t want to be identified that way. She wants to be recognized as a woman who is successful, not as a woman of color who is successful. She challenges herself to the fullest to prove her qualifications. Identity politics is not her thing, and I agree with her philosophy. Color does not determine our ability to succeed or how we feel. It only determines what we see, visually, at first, not our prospects or our character.
This novel deals with racism, mental illness, religion and addiction. It also lightly brushes superstition and politics. I found it really hard to get into the book and to stay interested, so to say I was disappointed, would be putting it mildly. It is a good book though, which highlights the mundane activities of Gifty’s daily life, interspersed with her traumas, but it is not what I expected. The use of her mother’s language from Ghana was often difficult to understand in the audio version of the book, since the words were unknown to me and unrecognizable. However, the narrator did a very good job of interpreting the characters with their accents and personalities, using an appropriate tone and emphasis for each. Although I did not enjoy this book as much as “Homegoing” which I presented to my book group, there are many subjects introduced in this novel that would make for a good discussion. discussion.
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LibraryThing member bookczuk
Pandemic read. Beautifully told tale and interesting glimpses into minds and cultures that differ from my own.
LibraryThing member jmoncton
This book touches on many fascinating themes - drug use, loss, addiction, adapting to a new country, and racism - and all of them are handled very well. But for me, the thoughts that have stayed with me long after finishing this book, is how Gyasi treated religion. The main character, Gifty, grows
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up in the Deep South. Her parents have immigrated from Ghana and are deeply religious, and her church probably falls into my stereotype of born again Christian, complete with experiences of rapture, speaking in tongues and devout worship. Gifty studies at Harvard and then does a doctoral program at Stanford in Neurobiology where her cohorts are the epitome of science based atheists and she is torn by the choice between her childhood religion and her new environment. It's definitely two extremes and there are a lot of gradations in between, but for the two extremes, there is only one 'right' answer. It's such a perfect example of another way our society has become divided -- either you believe or you don't and you're a heathen or an idiot if you don't follow the stereotype.

Beautifully written and definitely a lot to ponder.
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LibraryThing member DrFuriosa
WOW. I'm genuinely in awe of Yaa Gyasi's talent. Transcendent Kingdom is VERY different from Homegoing, but equally its very difference. It's gut-punching and uplifting all at once. As a person of faith and academic, it felt poignant and just very genuine. I don't the appeal may be
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quite as broad, but it REALLY spoke to me.
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LibraryThing member akblanchard
Ghanaian immigrant and neuroscience grad student Gifty has a lot on her plate. She's dealing with the death of her brother, the desertion of her father, and her mother's clinical depression. Moreover, despite her scientific orientation, she feels the evangelical religious sensibility she grew up
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with stirring inside her. How can she reconcile all these elements and finish her degree?

This book contains beautiful writing in service to a rather slight story. Well worth reading for the writing alone.
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LibraryThing member bookwyrmm
Amazing character-driven story of family binds, addiction, science, and religion.
LibraryThing member novelcommentary
I would always have something to prove and that nothing but blazing brilliance would be enough to prove it. " The narrator of this second novel by talented author Yaa Gyasi , works in a lab at Stanford University's School of Medicine studying reward-seeking behaviour in mice and the neural circuits
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of depression and addiction. Gifty, the child of Ghana immigrants who moved to Alabama, finds herself using her remarkable intelligence to find answers to the major events of her life, her brother's tragic addiction to drugs and her mother's bouts of depression. As she wrestles with the data collection of daily scientific testing, we are revealed glimpses of her childhood, growing up black in Alabama, going to a white Pentecostal church, taking care of her mother when both her father and brother are no longer around. The novel does a nice job of depicting her struggle, balancing her religious upbringing with her current atheistic world of science. This part of the story is true for Gyasi herself, "And yet I think when you spend that much time in a place — and so it really was such a huge part of my life. And it's something I found that even as I've grown distant from that, I can't completely disentangle who I am from this early period." In an interview with the author, she explains how a visit to her friend's lab was the genesis for the character of Gifty. It's interesting how Gyasi absorbed that experience to so as to juxtapose the narrator's struggle with religious vs. scientific issues. In the end both are lacking, "This tension, this idea that one must necessarily choose between science and religion, is false,” Gifty says. “Both became, for me, valuable ways of seeing, but ultimately both have failed to fully satisfy in their aim: to make clear, to make meaning.”
This was a fascinating, well written novel that explores many themes. I will definitely look to read her first novel, Homegoing, as well.

Billy Graham, who said things like “A real Christian is the one who can give his pet parrot to the town gossip.”

My mother used to say, “You should have seen the way the Chin Chin Man smiled at Nana.” His entire face was in on it. His eyes brightened, his lips spread back until they were touching his ears, his ears lifted. Nana’s face returned the compliment, smiling in kind. My father’s heart was a lightbulb, dimming with age. Nana was pure light.

I had gone into neuroscience out of a sense of duty to him, but the truth is I’d started this work not because I wanted to help people but because it seemed like the hardest thing you could do, and I wanted to do the hardest thing.

I loved this old woman, whose name I have since forgotten. She smelled like fresh ginger and hibiscus, and for years any whiff of those things would conjure up an image of her.

According to a 2015 study by T. M. Luhrmann, R. Padmavati, H. Tharoor, and A. Osei, schizophrenics in India and Ghana hear voices that are kinder, more benevolent than the voices heard by schizophrenics in America.

Remember that the Bible says that marriage is a covenant and when you sleep with your husband on your wedding night and your hymen breaks, that blood is what is sealing your covenant. If you’ve already had sex with other men, you’ve already made promises you can’t keep.”
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LibraryThing member froxgirl
The author and her narrator both came from Ghana and immigrated to Huntsville, Alabama. Gifty, the fictional character, is an uneasy mashup of scientist and evangelical. After her homesick father returns to Ghana, Gifty, her mother, and her brother Nana struggle to thrive, with Gifty finding
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salvation in academics, Nana in sports, and their mother, in church and in everlastingly difficult work as a home health aide. The father remarries, Nana is lost in Huntsville without him, and the resulting tragedy seems unstoppable. After Nana's death, a first time trip to Ghana, and meeting her unknown family, makes Gifty’s home life and her mother's mental illness even more unbearable. Her longing for Nana and her exasperation with her distant mother lead to the meltdown of the family and to Gifty's unceasing pondering of the role of religion and Jesus in her life. As she becomes immersed in her scientific work as a postdoc, Gifty still cannot connect with those who attempt to befriend or help her, but she bonds with her lab mice as she works to uncover a cure for addiction. This is a novel with many beautifully written passages, and a strong exploration of a complex character who somehow never succumbs to despair.

Quotes: “I started to feel like I didn’t have a self to get ahold of, or rather that I had a million selves, too many to gather.”

“The boys rounded some invisible corner in the summer and returned to school the next year twice our size, with voices that crackled like car radios being tuned, searching for the right, the clearest, sound.”

“I would always have something to prove and that nothing but blazing brilliance would be enough to prove it.”

“There are so many things I wish I could forget, but maybe “forget” isn’t quite right. There are so many things I wish I never knew.”

“We humans want to know what it might feel like to brush up against death, to run right up to the edge of our lives, which is, in some ways, to live fully.”
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LibraryThing member NCDonnas
Beautifully narrated poignant story about family, loss, addiction, and discovery.
LibraryThing member Citizenjoyce
I read Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi and was quite disappointed. Ugh, all the talk about religion, but last night I was thinking about it and wondered if it was far more insightful than I had realized. I'm many years away from college literature classes and in-depth analysis of symbology.
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Pretty much now when I read I just pick up what's on the surface. The main character was raised Alabama evangelical (white Alabama evangelical even though she's from Ghana) with all the attendant speaking in tongues and fire and brimstone. I'm kind of surprised I finished the book because I hate that kind of nonsense. Somehow the girl grows up to be a scientist, the jump between the two is not well explained except that her mother who is completely enthralled with her church is so depressed and self-absorbed that when she says she wants to be a scientist Mom just says ok. This neuroscientist goes through her day treating her mother's depression with religious talks with her pastor as the mother wants. She's obsessed with the idea of whether or not there is a soul or is the brain the center of humanity. As I have no interest in religion, I also have little interest in philosophy. What difference does it make if it's soul or brain, just get on with your life. This scientist spends her days tormenting mice in experiments about addiction leading, of course, in the end, to their murder and dissection. At one point she is talking about the oneness of all things in the glory of life. She says "holy the mouse." Holy the mouse my eye, she is tormenting it. Then it popped into my little brain - as the god of her mice she could be saying that if there is a god, it values its mice humans but doesn't take all that much interest in their welfare. God is working towards its own ends, and day to day existence of the mice is unimportant. Ok, then. That's a pretty clever statement and a pretty clever way to demonstrate it. So, I guess the book is better than I thought.
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LibraryThing member nivramkoorb
2nd books by authors who have brilliant debuts sometimes suffer by comparison. For me that is the case with Transcendent Kingdom. "Homegoing" Gyasi's debut novel at age 26 was a five star book for me. I totally recommend it for its creativity and historical view on slavery etc. So I was expecting a
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lot from this book. I was disappointed. Although the story of a Ghanian family that immigrates to Huntsville Alabama was on the surface a worthwhile topic, the book came across like a memoir. Gifty the main character tells that story and it deals with religion, science, addiction and depression as she describes her family experience while dealing with her present day life as a research student at Stanford medical school. The problem is that the characters never really came alive for me. Even though the book dealt with topics that should elicit emotional response from the reader, I never connected emotionally and view this as a book report as opposed to a novel that made me feel the pain that is described in this book. I strongly recommend "Homegoing" but although this is a well written book that touches on many topics it does not compare to her first novel.
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LibraryThing member Perednia
A luminous story of love and loss, of family and belonging, of reason and faith.
LibraryThing member Lib-reen
This book is truly transcendent. Gifty is the child of immigrant parents from Ghana. She is a PhD candidate in neuroscience at Stanford University researching the brain cells that trigger addiction after her brother dies of an overdose. Gifty struggles to make sense of a childhood where her mother
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withholds her love and fills the void with religion.
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LibraryThing member bblum
Beautifully written the story is an internal monologue of Gifty. Gifty was born in Huntsville of Ghanese parents who had immigrated to the US. She is incredibly bright, has long internal conversations about knowing god etc. Her mother belongs to a Pentecostal Church. Well, this was too much fir me
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and I finally skipped to the end. Gifty tells this story as an over stressed PhD student in neuroscience at Stanford.
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LibraryThing member msf59
Gifty is a neuroscientist, working for the Stanford School of Medicine. Her family are Ghanaian immigrants. Her evangelical mother is living with her, struggling deeply with depression. Gifty's brother died from a heroin overdose, while he was still in his teens. Her research into addiction, is a
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way for Gifty to deal with these challenging issues and her family's troubled past.
I absolutely adored Gyasi's debut, Homegoing. This does not reach those lofty heights but it is well-written and feels like a story she is quite familiar with since her own Ghanian family immigrated to Alabama and she went to school at Stanford. It is not a smooth or easy read but I will still recommend it.
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Women's Prize for Fiction (Longlist — 2021)
Dublin Literary Award (Longlist — 2022)
Aspen Words Literary Prize (Longlist — 2021)
PEN/Faulkner Award (Longlist — 2021)
Alabama Author Award (Fiction — 2021)
Chautauqua Prize (Shortlist)
BookTube Prize (Octofinalist — Fiction — 2021)
Read with Jenna (2020-09 — 2020)
All Connecticut Reads (Primary Title — 2022)


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