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Interview: Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah

Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah has an MFA from Syracuse University. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in numerous publications, including Guernica, Printer’s Row, and the Breakwater Review, where ZZ Packer awarded him the Breakwater Review Fiction Prize. He lives in Syracuse, New York.

Congratulations on your debut collection, Friday Black! What’s it like to have your very first book out in the world?

It is both incredible and terrifying. You work for years and years on a project, and it grows with you and, for the most part, only you. Then, more and more people get to see and live what you’ve created—this thing you’ve had a years’ long relationship with that was exclusive. Suddenly, people you don’t know know the work well, and it is bewildering but also beautiful.

Tell us a bit about your background and upbringing in Spring Valley, NY. Did growing up there influence your writing?

Spring Valley absolutely influenced my person and my writing. I moved there from Queens, NY, when I was seven. I like to claim that loudly everywhere I go, because I love where I’m from. Spring Valley is an immigrant community with a lot of first-generation kids with families from Haiti and other parts of the Caribbean, Ghana, Nigeria, and many African countries. We have a ton of South Americans, and we also have a lot of people from the Philippines, Vietnam, and other Asian countries as well. I think it made me flexible as a person. It gave me an ear/eye for a lot of different ways of being. It’s also small enough that a lot of people know each other. If I take a walk outside, I know I’ll see someone I know and they’ll show love. There is a community. I also think that because there are a lot of economic challenges that come from a number of different factors, there is a feeling of kind of wanting more, of knowing things can improve.

Spring Valley, in its proximity to New York City, is a lot of things, and one of those feelings I’ve noticed is a feeling of longing, of being near but not “there.” I don’t know how that has affected my writing, but I’m sure it has.

When did you know you wanted to become a writer? And who were the authors that got you interested in writing?

I’ve been interested in writing since I was a child. But because I had never been exposed to a writer in the flesh, and because pursuing art wasn’t really presented to me as a viable lifestyle, I didn’t actively allow myself to believe I could be a writer until I was in college. Lynne Tillman was the first author to really take me under her wing, and being around her and in her classes helped get me to see that writers were actual human beings, like me. And as a reader, so many different writers got me interested. I was a Harry Potter kid, so J.K. Rowling is huge for me. Alice Walker’s The Third Life of Grange Copeland affected me deeply as a young person. As I got older, people like Toni Morrison and George Saunders really became special for me.

George Saunders gave you a call saying you’d been accepted into the MFA program at Syracuse University. I can’t imagine what that must’ve been like. What was your reaction?

I was at an internship at the Times Union, an Albany newspaper, when George called. I basically freaked out. This was my favorite writer and the reason I went for the MFA calling my phone. I think I stuttered a bunch of thank yous.

Could you tell us what the experience of your program was like and what sort of reactions your stories got in workshop? I’m especially curious about the reactions to the stories with genre elements.

The program was a huge blessing for me, and my writing grew exponentially during my time as a student in Syracuse. In workshop, fortunately, the stories that had fantasy/speculative elements were received very well. And despite that, I actually resisted writing outside of straight realism for a long time. But my cohorts and professors were encouraging in whatever I was trying to write, and I got lucky in that way. For a long time, I remember trying to get my professors to tell me to be either this or that, to choose between these modes I was sort of oscillating between. They didn’t, and eventually, I realized you can be more than one thing, which is what I consider the strength of this book.

Yes, you definitely have more than one thing going on in this collection: magical realism, fantasy, and science fiction. Horror seems to be a major thread that runs through all the stories. The variety is a lot of fun. What do you enjoy about playing with these genres?

I really like creating rules to fit my purposes. I like that seizing of authority where I can get a reader to buy a man in a hospital gown floating in the air. Or not, maybe. But I really like the work that goes into trying. And with those more magical elements, I think that when you do them right, they can help the story exist on many registers, like well-played chords. Many things can happen at once in harmony. And it’s just fun understanding and creating something that doesn’t actually exist and getting a reader to join you in that fun.

So, speaking of well-played chords and harmony, you begin the book with a quote from Kendrick Lamar: “Anything you imagine you possess.” What meaning does it have for you?

It’s from a song called “Blessed” by Schoolboy Q and it features Kendrick Lamar. For me, the line sort of connects to the general idea of creating, of art and the freedom your imagination might allow you. It’s encouragement, kind of for myself, to remember I have all the things I need already.

How did you decide which stories to put in this collection and the order they’re put in?

I have very specific sequencing ideas that run through the whole book. I think about pace and impact a lot. For example, “The Finkelstein 5” is the first story, because my thought was if this reader only reads one thing from me ever, I want it to be that. The second story, which is the shortest in the book, is like a brief interlude, one that I consider extremely earnest without much separation from my actual life. It ends on an extremely sincere note to my mother. That is immediately followed by a story that begins with a crass/vulgar exclamation that sort of says, “All right, from here on out, we’re on this ride.”

Let’s talk about “The Finkelstein 5.” In this story, a man is acquitted after using a chainsaw to murder five Black children standing outside a library, because he felt threatened by them. Were you drawing from Toni Morrison’s novel Song of Solomon? You’ve mentioned her as an inspiration. And your character Boogie reminds me of her character Guitar, who was a member of Seven Days, the organization that kills white people in retaliation of the racial killings of Blacks. Boogie gets the protagonist, Emmanuel, to join a similar group.

Somehow, I wasn’t thinking of the Seven Days explicitly when I wrote “The Finkelstein 5,” but I am positive it was rattling somewhere in my consciousness. I love that book.

Is “The Finkelstein 5” connected in any way to your satirical YouTube video “Society 101: Why Racism Doesn’t Exist” (bit.ly/2wsUihb)? I was thinking of the Blackness Scale Emmanuel keeps in check, my own daily experiences as a Black man with the scale, and how your professor character in the video becomes Black by putting on a hoodie.

It is connected in the sense that both use a kind of dark reality and poke fun to make a devastating point. I made that video in college, long before I wrote the story, but I think the point is clear: Respectability won’t save you. Trying to “behave” so racists won’t be racist won’t save you. And the idea that people’s value is determined based on their appearance is inherently prejudiced, and that video demonstrates a frustration with just how much we as a society seem to think that’s okay.

One theme I noticed running through some of the stories is displacement. The families in the father-son stories “The Hospital Where” and “The Lion and the Spider” are evicted and forced to live in smaller cramped digs. And I may be pushing it a bit, but I’d also say that “Through the Flash” counts as a displacement story, too, because the characters are unmoored from linear time and trapped in this Groundhog Day-like loop where some of them cope by indulging in extreme acts of violence against others.

This comes up again and again, because personal experience has a way of flavoring everything. My own experience with housing instability and displacement has shaped a great deal of my life, the nature of my personal ambition, my fears, and my hope for the world. So that bleeds a lot into my work. Especially this book.

Ritualistic violence is another theme I picked up on in several of your stories—ritualistic, because through repetition, it becomes social practice. There’s “Through the Flash.” There’s “Zimmer Land,” which takes place in a dystopian future where white people can hunt people of color for sport at a theme park so that people of color won’t be murdered in real life. Zombified shoppers clobber, claw, and kill each other to get that perfect winter coat or TV monitor in “Friday Black.” Do you find that the genre tropes you use help you write about human cruelty and injustice?

Yeah, I think these frames help me on multiple levels. On one level, they let me explore violence and the way it reoccurs. They allow me a kind of distance from the actual world, and that helps me get closer to the heart of my understanding of the cruelty I might be engaging with. These tropes are different ways I can say, “Look at this horror,” and also, “Isn’t this basically what we are doing?”

What’s frightening about “Zimmer Land” is that everyone, including the people of color who work at the titular park, is complicit in this dystopia of gamified white supremacy. And the other frightening thing is that this park really doesn’t solve the problem of preventing violence against people of color.

The park, in that condescending way we often see, thinks it knows the best way to solve the problems of the world. The different park employees justify their participation in several different ways, and I think it’s up to the reader to make something of those justifications.

You also have three stories about retail in the collection, “Friday Black” being one of them. Now, both you and Sorry to Bother You director Boots Riley have backgrounds as salesmen. Your stories are as savagely satirical about capitalism as his film. And both of you have talked about the performance required in making a sale: For Riley, it’s the white voice; for you, it’s what you call projecting sincerity. Would you say that the performative aspect leads to the inner death of the salesman, so to speak, and feeds the capitalist system that dehumanizes consumers?

I think the performance of sincerity certainly can lead to a kind of spiritual dying, and capitalist systems are kind of betting on that happening so that those spirit-crushed cogs might more readily keep the machine working. That said, a more hopeful part of me thinks that the performance of sincerity often becomes a genuine sincerity. When you are pretending to care about someone, it isn’t hard, if you are open enough, to realize that this is a real person with real needs, and maybe you do care about them for real. I guess I think that while capitalism is betting on the inner death, we are often a lot tougher than we give ourselves credit for. There are deep reservoirs of genuine kindness in most people, I think.

What’s coming up after Friday Black? Do you have any new projects you can tell us about?

I can, but I don’t think I’ll say much. I’m working on a novel.

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Christian A. Coleman

Christian A. Coleman

Christian A. Coleman is a 2013 graduate of the Clarion Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers’ Workshop. He lives and writes in the Boston area. He tweets at @coleman_II.