Writing in Earnest: Talking with Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah
On one hand, Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah’s short stories in his debut collection Friday Black portray the multifarious experiences of coming-of-age while Black in the United States, and on the other, they are a startling examination of the fiction genre. In some stories, Adjei-Brenyah dissolves the boundaries that demarcate fantasy from science-fiction from everyday life, whereas others dwell in the margins between realism and surrealism. Although these stories span multiple universes and dimensions, they are united through the characters pushing themselves to their limits as they begin to question their sense of identity and belonging within oppressive situations.
By pursuing this human need to belong (and also resist), Adjei-Brenyah gives us stories that are covered in dystopian gloom but also imbued with an illuminating hope. Whether his characters are on the bus, at a fortune teller’s, or in a hospital room, Adjei-Brenyah’s stories convey the wide range of human experience and the endless limits of imagination.
We conducted our interview via Skype in late August and discussed identity politics, writing earnestly, and what makes a great short story.
The Rumpus: The stories in Friday Black are truly diverse in scope. Several can be considered social commentary and sci-fi, whereas others are set in fantastical and surreal worlds. There’s a flash fiction piece and the other stories vary in length. How did you determine their arrangement?
Nana K. Adjei-Brenyah: I had gotten this thing from Mary Karr where you write down the story’s title, first sentence, and last sentence on a notecard, which then allows you to arrange and re-arrange all of them, almost like a playlist. It’s what I’d do when I wanted to procrastinate on writing—I spent a lot of time on it.
In terms of the ordering, my feeling is that for some readers, you only get one story. If there’s ever one thing anyone reads from me, I wanted it to be “The Finkelstein 5,” so I started with that. And if there’s two things they’ll ever read from me, then I wanted the second story to be “Things My Mother Said.” I wanted one to be really important and the other one to be, “I love you, Mom.”
Rumpus: I love that!
Adjei-Brenyah: Or, like, “This is real.” In these stories, I am not hiding. I mean, I am still hiding behind the art of it, by communicating through fiction, but I am not hiding how I feel. I am showing what’s important to me.
My favorite transition in Friday Black is the end of “Things My Mother Said” to the third story, “The Era.” The second story ends on the line, “I hope you can be proud of me” and then the very next story begins with “Suck one and die.”
Rumpus: “The Era” was actually one of my favorites. In a previous interview, you say you are inspired by writers and artists like Kendrick Lamar who have a “foot in the English language’s ass,” and I definitely get that sense through the vocabulary in “The Era.” Characters are drugged out on Good and are categorized as optiselected, clearborn, or shoelookers, which reminded me of the novels Brave New World and A Clockwork Orange put together. How did you distill this dystopian essence in the space of a short story?
Adjei-Brenyah: Part of the pleasure of writing a short story is getting the reader to buy into its world really, really quickly. It’s a fun problem to have, and it’s tough, but I like to create a vivid world from the get-go, to give the reader a clear idea of what flavor this dystopia is even if we don’t have the space for all the exposition a novel might allow.
And I think one of the ways this particular story accomplishes that is through the specialized language. The character Scotty says “Suck one and die” to his teacher in this classroom space right at the beginning, and I think this dialogue and the rest of the first scene cues the reader to think, “Okay, this is different.”
People talk to me about George Saunders a lot because he is my mentor and that’s one thing I get from him. He goes right into the weird thing and you just have to get it or don’t—you have to take the story where it’s at. And, for me, the pleasure of reading stories like Saunders’s, that start off strange, is that you’re reading it and trying to figure it out and then [clap] there’s the moment you do.
Rumpus: Even though your stories are so different from each other, there are still some running motifs, such as fire, that provide cohesion throughout the collection. For example, we read “the fire ate itself dead” in “The Finkelstein 5,” and the protagonist in “The Hospital Where” is frequently described as “burning.” Several people and items are often described with red, orange, and yellow imagery. Are these motifs callbacks to James Baldwin, or what does fire represent to you?
Adjei-Brenyah: I like that you picked up on that. It’s still so new to me that people have read the book, so it’s cool to hear what you noticed. I wasn’t thinking of Baldwin at the time, but I was thinking about how fire can warm you but it can also eat you; it can help you or it can hurt you; it’s survival or it’s death. There’s a duality there that I found interesting.
Rumpus: Another running thread I noticed was freedom, but that this freedom manifested itself differently in each story.
Adjei-Brenyah: I think freedom is something the characters want and they are negotiating what it means to be free. They are also actively aware that freedom is something that is denied to them. For example, in “Zimmer Land,” the narrator wears this suit that “felt like freedom,” but it’s connected to this problematic context where he’s wearing the suit because he is working in an amusement park where people can simulate shooting him. But then Emmanuel from the first story feels free because he is finally doing something he is not supposed to do.
Rumpus: Can we talk about “The Finkelstein 5” for a bit? The story is partly organized by Emmanuel ranking and then regulating his Blackness on a ten-point scale. On one level, it felt like a brilliant way to manage the story’s pacing as he hits different points, but on another level, I wonder if the Blackness scale also serves to critique identity politics? Like, individuals who belong to these identity groups possess so many nuances of difference within themselves, so how can we use Blackness or woman-ness or any other monolithic marker to shape politics?
Adjei-Brenyah: This story is certainly concerned and aware that there is no monolithic experience of any particular identity because of the overwhelming nature of patriarchal white supremacy. And what this homogenizing valuing of white, straight maleness does is reduce these other categories, these quote-unquote minority groups, to tropes and ideas and these other obviously ridiculous reductions like clothes. We all know Trayvon Martin was wearing a hoodie when he died; we all see this and understand this, together. So, I think the story is interested in identity politics but specifically in how it becomes shaped by the pressure of being a minority.
Rumpus: One strength of literature is that it can generate empathy, but something I’m struggling with is that the audience seeking out literature may already be empathetic, so how does it create impact? It’s like, I wish George Zimmerman would read your short story collection, but I believe he won’t.
Adjei-Brenyah: I think about that a lot because, more often than not, you’re preaching to the choir. But I guess I have two answers. The first and main one would be: Fuck those people.
The art is not just to fix them. It’s there because I want some other Black kid to read this book and feel seen by it. I want to impart that I understand the joke of the criminal justice system, too, and the joke is that it’s not funny, but that it’s absurd and crazy.
But that being said, I can’t pretend I don’t care. I do want George Zimmerman before he’s George Zimmerman to read this, or Jesmyn Ward’s work or Toni Morrison’s work, and be changed by it, so I think you have to make the work in earnest and tell the truth to the best of your ability.
By creating the work in earnest, you put it into the world and you allow the chance for something. So my second answer is that you can’t be too afraid of the inevitability of preaching to the choir, because that will happen, but let the work do what it needs to do. There’s a lot of different ways the work can engage with people. If it’s made into a movie, then it’s harder to avoid. Or, someone reads the book and then recommends it to another person. Maybe that person is on the precipice of becoming a neo-Nazi or is just a kid who says racist things because he’s hurt and wants to be heard. Maybe someone like that might read this book or other work by Black writers and it could affect change.
I want my stories to be something people enjoy, but I do hope they might also do something. I care about the state of the world and I hope my work can improve it.
Rumpus: This reminds me that you mentioned “Things My Mother Said” came from a prompt to “write a story that can save the world.” Do all your stories come from prompts?
Adjei-Brenyah: In some ways, I am always working from that prompt, which Arthur Flowers gave our class. But usually, I don’t write from any one thing. It’s like I get an idea and I try to get some words down. Or I get a voice and I try to see if I can capture it and see what comes from it. My writer mind is always trying to translate my real heart, so it’s not so much a prompt as it is a compass.
Rumpus: What makes a good short story?
Adjei-Brenyah: That’s a question I ask my students. For me, it’s whether it makes me feel something, which is not easy to do in a short amount of time. It can be through associating strongly with the characters or some other means, but it should make me feel something deeply.
But a great story will transcend its original plane. For instance, let’s talk about surreal stories. There’s a lot of fun in creating a surreal premise and I use David Blaine as an example for my students. So, David Blaine says, “Do you want to see a card trick?” which establishes a magical premise. Then he says, “Pick a card,” and people are into it and they’re buying it. He shuffles the cards and then shows you the card you picked. But then, you realize the deck is glowing or you’re flying now. The card trick already possessed a magical premise, but it still jumped the bounds of what was expected. I like stories that can transcend like that.
Rumpus: One of your stories that did that for me was “The Hospital Where.” It’s a meta story about a writer writing a story while he’s in the hospital with his father. So, I thought I knew what it was about, but then it utterly surprised me by the end.
Adjei-Brenyah: I’m glad you liked it because it almost wasn’t in the book. I fought to keep that story and my editor made some really great changes to it.
When I first wrote that story, my dad wasn’t that sick, but he was getting sicker and sicker as I was writing it. I was getting frustrated with my writer self trying to glean details out of this serious situation and I wanted it to just shut up. It’s like a thing you can’t turn off; it’s a hard relationship between trying to make art or make something meaningful and just being a person. This balance is going to cost you something and I tried to get at the meta-weirdness of it in the last couple passages.
Rumpus: It’s meta in another way, too, because the narrator is describing these overarching writing rules, but then the story itself operates by resisting those rules.
Adjei-Brenyah: Or tries to. I wish I had the power to fully resist that, but it’s still a part of what I do. I try to be very intentional and aware about what I’m allowing and creating, especially in the more violent stories. By writing what I have written, I am in a way participating in this violence or in this space that allows people to engage with the violence against Black people.
Rumpus: There’s always the chance it can be misinterpreted or someone misses the point.
Adjei-Brenyah: And it will happen.
Rumpus: What do you think is the future of fiction?
Adjei-Brenyah: There is such a dope wave of people making crazy-amazing content: Angela Flournoy, Kaitlyn Greenidge, Jamel Brinkley, Nafissa Thompson-Spires. I’m happy I’m coming up now.
Rumpus: In terms of your past, what books inspired you to become a writer today?
Adjei-Brenyah: I don’t know if they necessarily made me want to be a writer because maybe I didn’t understand that was possible at the time, but there are some big books I remember reading and saying, “I like what this is making me think. I think this is changing me.” I read The Third Life of Grange Copeland by Alice Walker as a freshman in high school and it really affected me. I’m from that Harry Potter generation, so that’s obviously a big one in terms of seeing that books are a thing to be excited about, to wait in the mall until midnight.
Rumpus: I have to know: What Harry Potter house would you be in?
Adjei-Brenyah: I mean, I have my official Pottermore house. Do you have yours?
Rumpus: One time I was a Ravenclaw and another time I was a Hufflepuff, so not so sure…
Adjei-Brenyah: I’m a Gryffindor.
Rumpus: Oh, I can see that for sure. I wish I were cool enough to be a Slytherin.
Adjei-Brenyah: I don’t think I’m cool enough to be a Slytherin either. I’m a little too… earnest or something.
Author photograph © Limitless Imprint Entertainment.