Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah’s gutting prose deems attention a form of love

Courtesy of the Vassar English Department

In a moment where decrying our global dystopia is a pedestrian pastime, Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah and his prose have never indulged in hopelessness. I first heard Adjei-Brenyah speak when I was 15. As Colgate University’s 2017 Olive B. Cooper Fellow, he delivered what would become the titular story of his PEN Award-winning debut collection, “Friday Black.” Since then, the succinct cruelty and compassion of his writing have captivated me. The day after his 30th birthday and the submission of his first novel, I finally had the chance to speak over Zoom to Vassar’s 2021 Writer-in-Residence about how these themes manifest in his life and art.

Adjei-Brenyah’s voice is uncompromising throughout the collection as he surgically deconstructs the absurd logic that informs a culture of consumerism, racist violence and apocalypses big and small. He deploys his words like a series of funhouse mirrors—funny, grotesque and always far too close to reality. When asked about his attraction to his form of choice, Adjei-Brenyah responded, “You can’t hide in a short story.” This mindset is evident in the intensity of his writing, yet his work also makes the argument that you can’t hide from a short story either. Rather, readers of “Friday Black” are forcibly discomforted as they reckon with how they participate in these systems of dehumanization.

Adjei-Brenyah went through a similar experience during his six-year stint as a salesperson in the malls of upstate New York. He would work opening to closing, devise stories on the late night bus ride home and write until morning. Discussing his motivation during this period and what it taught him about the dynamic between our economic productivity and our individual worth, he said, “I wanted to feel like I could be excellent in some sort of space, which is a very normal desire. I think capitalism is really good at getting you to think that by default you are not worthy. Prove it to me, not only that you’re a good salesperson, but prove to me that you’re a good person. That’s the sort of inherent argument of our system: unless you produce at a certain level, we will literally let you die. So, we’re taught from the beginning this very transactional mode of existence.” He went on to analyze how this mode of existence also diminishes our interpersonal relationships, saying, “The negative thing about it is that it teaches you to view people as a means— it teaches you to view people as things you finesse to get resources as opposed to human beings.”

The relationship between the chameleon skill of customer service and the concept of code-switching that Adjei-Brenyah visualizes in the collection’s first story as a 10-point Blackness scale is particularly compelling. I asked how this played into the author and professor’s approach to doing a residence at a predominantly white institution (PWI) like Vassar. “I won’t change my persona or demeanor to fit the space,” he said. He continued, “But one of the things I do know how to do, and how I had the access to even write that book, I know how to move around and be whatever the audience wants me to be. The thing is, I choose not to, and that’s a privilege afforded to me because of how people identify with me because of the book.”

Despite the need to conform and finesse, Adjei-Brenyah said that especially in the sales environment, unexpected moments of intimacy sustained him. He recalled helping a woman find plain gray clothes for her incarcerated partner: “It wasn’t a big deal for what I was doing, but it was something that was a big deal for her. It gave me the opportunity to break out of that sort of fleece attitude that is the default you need to get by in that space and to remember that every single person has a story, every single person is a human being. They’re not a means to an end, they’re an end to themselves. I learned early on to attach to those moments. Not particularly because I was some cool sort of empathetic person, but because I needed to survive because I hated the job.”

Adjei-Brenyah’s appraisal of his mindset as a writer at this time jarringly resonates in the day-to-day monotony and cataclysm of pandemic living. “At the beginning, I made the mistake of feeling like my life is not interesting, this place is boring and therefore there are no stories here,” he admitted. To young people living through a period in which it can feel like the scope of life has been narrowed, he said, “This time is not a wash. It’s probably the opposite. It’s not like those years didn’t count; they count a lot if you look at it right.”

Looked at from this angle, creative expression becomes another way of surviving and defending our humanity. “Anything you imagine, you possess,” reads the book’s epigraph, quoting a Kendrick Lamar verse in School Boy Q’s “Blessed.” Given the collection’s exploration of the close relationship between property ownership and our understanding of safety, authority and value, I was curious about how the act of writing could be a similar means of possession. Adjei-Brenyah explained, “The reason I do writing is because it’s something I can do that’s free and no one can take away from me. So, all writing, if it’s not an act of possession, it subverts the traditional relationship to possessions. That’s one of my favorite things about it. It’s something that’s mine and can’t be taken. I can make a whole world, and where else is that true?”  

Adjei-Brenyah envisions not-so-distant futures infused with surrealism and satire, although the author strains against the hierarchies such labelling enforces. In an age of deadened language, words tossed around as glibly as “surreal” have lost their original potency. I wondered if Adjei-Brenyah felt a similar desensitization as he approached writing in an era becoming continually uncanny in character. He explained, “It’s not about the grade of strangeness, but also about the delivery of it and the way it unfolds. So for me [writing during surreal times] is not harder because there are a lot of other considerations I make besides the surreal-ness of it, that render it what people call surreal. The overlap between what you call reality and what you might call surreal is the strength of it, not a weakness.”

He imagines that someday he might explore the concept of utopia, too, saying, “I look forward to a time when this whole age of humanity is considered a dark period and they look at us with grace—because you do need to have grace with yourself and others—but also huge shame. Would they even understand us? It’s a scary premise because how much of what I understand as humanity requires interpersonal harm. I know that love is real and I’m advocating for more of that, but there’s this other side too. What would that take? What would that look like? And what, if anything, would be lost?”

For now, though, Adjei-Brenyah’s characters struggle to assert themselves in systems that not only demand the devaluation of human lives but also use language to legitimize the suffering they cause. Adjei-Brenyah’s prose exploits the ubiquity of euphemism in neoliberal society, exposing a world of corpses and corporate-ese to sobering effect. I was curious about his fascination with these artificial vocabularies. “If you deaden your language enough, you can say anything and not feel bad for it,” he explained. “All oppressive governments have a way of speaking that implicates anyone but themselves and infantilizes the people.” However, as is custom for Adjei-Brenyah, he again emphasized the impact of these tactics on our personal relationships, continuing, “I think with the people who hurt or harm or murder, they’re doing that on a personal level—trying to find a way of being okay with the horror they’ve unleashed. Language is a way of navigating that with yourself and with others.”

It’s clear that Adjei-Brenyah wants us to reject these linguistic coping mechanisms and the easy callousness they offer. “Friday Black” asks: How can we avoid becoming sadists while living in sadistic times? I posed the same question back to the author. “Part of the answer is yes. That’s why these stories exist,” began Adjei Brenyah. “To me it comes down to a deep humanism. Just being unwilling to negotiate someone else’s humanity or your own—something has to be sacred. That’s the core of abolitionist thought—there’s the slogan, ‘Where life is precious, life is precious’—if we have a cultural life which isn’t precious for some, we can’t have that on the table at all.” Here is where the unusual brilliance of Adjei-Brenyah’s writing lies: Cynical, but never cruel, his stories urge an appreciation for what is precious.

Adjei-Brenyah does more than plead for a better future. Taking inspiration from Solmaz Sharif’s poetry collection, “Look,” he offered instructions on restoring our estimation of human value: “If you think about the attention you pay to someone you love—or anything you love—if you can pay that level of attention to anything, you’ll be able to understand it so deeply and it will be very difficult to hate it. To me, close reading is an act of generosity and grace that allows you to love the world better and participate more actively.”  For the writer, attention—whether to the needs of a department store customer or to the subtle rhythms of a sentence—is an act of care.

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