NANA KWAME Adjei-Brenyah’s new collection of short stories, Friday Black, has been described as "dystopian" and almost a form of science fiction, a futuristic view of the potential effect of racism and inequity.
However, many African Americans might say these gripping, visceral, often suddenly violent stories are rather a distressingly realistic psychological portrayal of life as a black person in America today, right now.
The book made the New York Times bestseller list – quite an achievement for any author’s debut work.
Many of the stories take place in deceptively commonplace settings, such as theme parks and shopping malls. Indeed, the title of the book is an inversion on the American commercial ritual/orgy called Black Friday.
There are speaking fetuses, beheadings, shooting sprees, and various observations on the phenomenon of “code-switching.”
We spoke to Adjei-Brenyah ahead of his appearance at the Savannah Book Festival this Saturday.
Many reviewers call attention to the “exaggeration” of your writing. But hyperbole is an established literary tradition. Do you accept the characterization of your work as exaggerated for effect, or is it just painfully realistic?
I am using an established device, but more in the manner of something surreal attached to a tradition. For me it’s mostly about finding different ways to describe exactly what I’m seeing. It’s a way to create energy. At first glance things may seem not of this world.
I enjoy your tone. It is immediate and impactful.
I spend a lot of time talking to my students about voice, and about tone and how that branches off. For me, it’s largely about the verbs you choose to use, to create an effect.
Sometimes you use it ironically. You can use dark, harsh language about eating dessert, and it has a comedic effect.
How would you respond if I said your work is much like Flannery O’Connor’s? She often exaggerated some traits of characters, and there is sudden violence in her work too.
I consider it a big honor! She wasn’t afraid to depict violence in lots of different ways, but always in a purposeful manner.
George Saunders is also appearing at the Book Festival. You studied under him at Syracuse, right?
He was my professor before he was my mentor. I came to Syracuse to teach because of him. He was my thesis advisor on the project which eventually became this book.
You are the child of African immigrants. I’m told the worldview of the recent African diaspora can be quite different from the worldview of African-Americans. Is this accurate?
Well, first of all you have to remember that in Africa, people of African descent aren’t in a minority. There is certainly a legacy of colonization and racism, but obviously it’s a bit different because Africans are in the majority in their own countries.
Racism is involved with everything in the United States. It has a profound effect no matter what.
But as far as me personally, I knew my parents viewed the world in a different way from how I ended up viewing it.
I’ve heard writers say the short story is actually more difficult to do well than a novel. Your thoughts?
Luckily I don’t have to choose! I don’t feel short stories are a lesser form, for sure. There are specific challenges with the short form. I do know that in novels sometimes there can be long sections in which I’m not engaged. In a short story that wouldn’t be acceptable. Every word must be purposeful and engaging.
What’s in store for folks who attend your talk here? Do you have a set talk, or do you sort of improvise?
I get the vibe of the room, and take into account the space and the time. Then I’ll sort of call audibles in the moment depending on what I feel is right.