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Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah on Redemption, Unlearning Things, and the Patience of Working Retail

by on October 23, 2018

Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah’s Friday Black is sure to be one of 2018’s most significant books. This stunning collection of short stories thrusts the reader into bizarre and frightening territories, from an all-too-real theme park that commercializes racism to a big box superstore in the throes of Black Friday madness. In each story, Adjei-Brenyah compassionately examines his characters’ plights, fully exploring their humanity with wit and precision. Friday Black has already been longlisted for the Carnegie Medal of Excellence in Fiction, and The New York Times Book Review hailed it as “an unbelievable debut, one that announces a new and necessary American voice.” Brendan Dowling spoke to Adjei-Brenyah on October 16th, 2018. Photo courtesy Limitless Imprint Entertainment.

Your work has already been compared to George Saunders and Colson Whitehead, and I was wondering who were the writers who were influential to you growing up?

George Saunders, Colson Whitehead. (laughs) Once I decided I was going to try to become a writer, George was very important. That’s why I came to Syracuse to work, because I wanted to be around someone like him. Before that, obviously Toni Morrison is  a god among us. Alice Walker’s The Third Life of Grange Copeland was huge for me. Denis Johnson is big for me. Those were some writers who shaped what I ended up trying to do as a writer. When I was younger, I read a lot of YA serialized fiction that was very plot heavy and crazy. I did the Animorphs thing big, The Seventh Tower. My friends and I did the Pendragon series, that kind of stuff.

I loved your interview with Lithub, where you described your book in part as a couch that’s “made of corpses.” Can you talk about why that is such an apt description for your book?

I said that because people ask me a lot to describe the book and it’s this collection of short stories, so it’s hard. The couch is comfortable, but it’s on the backs of a whole bunch of horror and death, like America. I think that description gets at that. We’re letting a lot of things slide because we’re comfortable, but I think if we really paid attention to what we’re letting slide, I don’t know if it would be so easy.

In each of the stories the characters have to confront this horror, but there’s still so much humor in your work. How do you balance humor without trivializing the horror of the worlds you’re exploring?

It’s an important balance to reach, but I’m more afraid of looking over the thing than trivializing it. In that couch question, I set it up like a joke, but I think that joke is the most sufficient way for me to get us to think about the thing itself, so it’s a risk I take. Some people won’t tune in if you give them the sad version. Sometimes you set them up for a joke and then at the end of the day, you realize the punchline’s not that funny. I try to speak about things I am genuinely concerned with. I try not to be flippant, even if I’m being funny. I try to have characters that I love and care about, and that helps me to keep from trivializing anything about them. I try to be honest and write with my heart and revise and work hard because for me, just because it’s funny doesn’t mean it’s less serious. For me it’s a way of keeping people engaged and getting them to listen. When I say that couch is made of corpses, the reader might laugh, but then it’s also like, “You’re right.” Whereas if I just started lecturing about the number of casualties of this, that, or the other, people start to tune out more quickly.

What is your revision process like? What are the things you pay attention to in each subsequent draft?

I’m hardcore into revision. I think it’s the biggest part of writing. You’ve got to really revise. When I do, I try to get myself—and I tell my students this as well—to really see it again, re-vision it, and see it anew. I try to think about where my line of sight is limited and how I can potentially either acknowledge that or improve it. I try to make sure, almost morally, that I implicate myself and don’t ever present as if I know the answers and I’m preaching down to anyone else. I try to figure out the questions I’m asking. Sometimes when I’m later in the process, I’ll literally ask questions of the stories, like, “Where is your heart? Why do you think you’re funny? Why does this matter?” I’ll ask each story as if they’re a person and get some sort of direction.

When you talked about your line of sight being limited, are you talking about character?

I’m talking about the things I don’t know. There’s a lot that I don’t know in general, about any of these subjects or any of these situations. I try to acknowledge that and know that I’m not all knowing.  I don’t want my lack of knowledge to make the story worse, so how can I either learn more or find a way to make that a knowing and purposeful power?

I’d imagine that implicating yourself is an uncomfortable process as a writer.

I’d feel more uncomfortable not doing it. It’s not the most comfortable thing, but for me, to be an active, critical, and smart participant in society and to work towards the best version of society, you have to unlearn a lot of things. If I’m in this world as a straight man, there are so many things I have to unlearn. To be able to see it and call it out, whether it’s myself or other men, there are so many things in that particular arena, so I try my best to implicate myself whenever I can. I sort of lean into it. It isn’t always super comfortable, but I think it’s not only part of being a good writer, but also being a good person.

I saw the video of your MFA Graduation speech where you talked about how you once asked George Saunders, “How are you able to be so mean to your characters without being condescending or cruel?” While I didn’t feel like you’re mean to your characters, they go through so many horrific experiences but yet still retain their humanity, so I wanted to ask you, “How are you able to be so mean to your characters without being condescending and cruel?”

Thank you. Wow, that’s a full circle moment. I try my best to look at them with love. I really try my best to engage them with just as much love as I can. It hurts me to have bad things happen to them. I try to instill them with power when I can. I try to make the pain they go through a product of goodness that can also maybe be something they can potentially triumph over. If they can’t, I try to make it so that their process feels purposeful. I don’t want to trivially have someone murdered ever. Even if the point I’m making is about how trivially or how flippantly we talk about people getting trampled in the mall, I try to be reverent of them. I try to look at them with love.

That shines through in all your stories, but especially in Light Spitter, where we find ourselves being compassionate for a school shooter. At least for me, I was rooting for his redemption.

I’m happy to hear you say that, because I’m being very unfair to the Deirdra character, his victim, in that story by giving us an avenue for his redemption. It’s that hard choice, “Can this person be redeemed and can we be fully respectful and reverent of his victim?” I hope so. If the world is going to have hope, I hope so. To bring it back to the question you were asking before, I had to make Deirdra almost above human to get her to a place where she could be working towards forgiving him.  In the story she’s transcending into something that is above human. I don’t think human Deirdra should have to do that. So that’s one small way of trying to be kind to her. Also, I stopped short of her saying, “I forgive you.” He asks for forgiveness and—is this a spoiler alert? well, whatever—instead of saying, “You’re forgiven,” she says, “I’m an angel now.” I didn’t want her to say, “Yeah, you’re good,” because that’s not fair either.  So trying to have both is important to me.

You mentioned in that same speech that you approach each story with the prompt your professor once gave you, “write a story that can save the world.” Can you talk about how that prompt affects your writing process?

It’s not something that I think of explicitly every single time, but it is my prompt generally. What I mean by that is I have a lot of stories that are maybe overtly political, but the story I wrote literally in response to that prompt was the second story in the book, which is me saying, “I love you” to my mom. I think even that can be saving the world, reminding people that love is a thing. I think saying your truth honestly can save the world. If we do the work of art in the realm of your highest truth, that is saving the world. I try to write just the most honest thing I can, and that also means the stakes are big. I try not to take it for granted that this is something that could be of great power. When I think about saving the world, it’s not so much, “Stop that comet from hitting the planet,” even though hopefully I can write a story that would make people rethink the way they harm others, for sure. But there are a lot of problems in this world, and there are a lot of things that matter, and just you as an individual, you being the reader, also matter. I want you to see that, and there are all these different ways that people forget that others matter.

For me that’s my way. I like to write about things that I think are important and things that matter, but also I think that existing powerfully in your truth, or trying your best to, is something like saving the world. There’s a quote that’s like, “It’s okay if you only save one person, and it’s okay if that one person is you.” That’s how it exists for me.

I was struck in your stories that everyone is allowed their humanity, no matter how awful or racist their actions are. I’m thinking about the dad at the end of Zimmer Land, he seems like a real person even though what he’s doing is monstrous.

The hard thing to remember is, sometimes we call people monsters because they are monstrous. Donald Trump became a monster (laughs). But we have to remember that at one point, there was a time before he became what he is now. It’s easy to dismiss them as monsters. The scary thing is to remember that all these people who do these horrific things are human. Thus far, none of them were created in a lab. Those were people born, they had hearts, and then what happened to them? What’s in this water that allowed them to become what they’ve become?

This is switching gears, but I was listening to a podcast where you talked about how you worked through seven Black Fridays. I was wondering how your experience in the retail world affected your writing process?

I think there’s a big patience that comes with the retail world. I think that connects to my writing in the sense that—in terms of the process of writing—I can sit around and wait for something and be very very comfortable just being in my mind, which is something you do in retail. I also think it exposes you to a lot of characters. I don’t know what it is about shopping, but some weird version of people often pops out. They’re sometimes really funny, if you’re watching from the outside. When you’re the one getting screamed at, it’s not that funny.

Finally, what role has the public library played in your life?

Huge. The Finkelstein Five is called that because of the Finkelstein Library in Spring Valley county. My parents were the kind of parents who dropped you off when it opened and picked you up when it closed. Books were kind of a sanctuary for me early on. I was very comfortable to be surrounded by them. I loved that they were free because of the public library, which was huge for me. I identified with writing as a craft that I could get behind because it’s something that no one can take from me, and the library’s a huge part of that.

Public Libraries, again specifically those libraries from where I’m from, Spring Valley and Rockland County, were huge for me. Even when we were in Queens there was a library attached to our apartment in LeFrak City. I love what they represent. They saved my life in a lot of ways, to be honest, just getting me to understand that I can be anywhere at any time. I remember even when I was very young, books were a thing of power. I felt that very early on and libraries made me feel that. When I think back about that prompt about how to save the world, I want something powerful to be in the library.

This interview has been edited and condensed.