“Friday Black,” the blistering debut short story collection by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah, is a perfect book for racially tense times.
The violent, heartbreaking and funny stories featuring normal protagonists in abnormal situations show how fraught the black experience can be and how racism and rampant consumerism can only make it worse.
Adjei-Brenyah will discuss the book at 10:10 a.m. Feb. 16 at the Savannah Theatre, part of the Savannah Book Festival.
“The stories are concerned with the way people deny each other humanity and the different ways people grant each other humanity,...the way humanity persists despite this inhumane behavior,” says Adjei-Brenyah.
Adjei-Brenyah, who was chosen by Colson Whitehead for the National Book Foundation’s “5 Under 35,” received his Master of Fine Art from Syracuse University where he studied under George Saunders.
Saunders, who with his wife Paula are delivering the opening address at the festival, helped Adjei-Brenyah shape his thesis which eventually became his debut book.
“One of the things he really got me to focus on is precision of language,” says Adjei-Brenyah. “He helped me understand how essential and powerful it is to just say something very clearly and precisely, sometimes simply, even.”
The clarity of Adjei-Brenyah’s prose hits with the force of a gut punch in stories like “The Finklestein 5” in which a white man is acquitted of brutally murdering five black youths in front of a library with a chainsaw because he “felt threatened.”
In the aftermath of the trial, the protagonist, who engages with code-switching by using a 10-point Blackness scale (1.5 for job interviews, 7.5 for wearing a baseball cap backward) finds himself at a breaking point after another gross injustice against the black community has left him and his friends numb and with no more options.
" It is sort of a litmus test of if you can handle this book or not,” says Adjei-Brenyah.
Adjei-Brenyah also uses cutting satire to create surreal scenes that may seem exaggerated at first, but are not that far removed from the absurdities that black men and women deal with on a daily basis, he says.
“Zimmer Land,” for example, portrays a future in which people of color are employed at a theme park that allows men to act out their “justice” fantasies, such as saving a train from “Muslim” terrorists or shooting a hoodie-wearing black stranger for the crime of being in a white neighborhood.
“I think it goes back to George (Saunders) and other writers,” Adjei-Brenyah says of his use of satire. “I like people who can be funny while talking about difficulty. Humor is a way that I deal with harshness in my own life and it kind of came out in my fiction. A lot of the things that happened to me that weren’t so easy, and finding ways to laugh about it, or not let it break you, made satire a natural fit for me.”
Other stories from the book, like “Friday Black” and “How to Sell a Jacket as Told by IceKing,” examine the relationships between race and consumerism. Adjei-Brenyah vividly describes the apocalyptic atmosphere of Black Friday and the soul-crushing lengths the protagonist goes to sell a few winter coats.
No matter how extreme, bizarre, or heartbreaking the stories are, Adjei-Brenyah often uses humor to hone in on deeper truths. Adjei-Brenyah saw Trevor Noah, of “The Daily Show,” speak recently, and cites something he said about using humor to tell the news.
“He said, ‘humor is a way to remind myself that I am still me on the other side of whatever obstacle I’m dealing with,’” says Adjei-Brenyah. “I really liked that and it’s sort of true for me, as well. Why I think it rings true is because there is always a remove when you read the news, hear a story or watch a movie. You also know you are participating in watching something as opposed to just feeling it yourself or living it. I think that exaggeration sometimes helps collapse a little bit of that distance between the person and the medium they are taking it in through. That volume turning up makes it loud enough to remember that even though I’m not actually living it, something in that reminder through satire ends up ringing a little more true.”
Almost all of the stories in “Friday Black,” no matter how strange, draw from Adjei-Brenyah’s own personal experiences.
“Even the stories that are pretty surreal, that are set in the future,” explains Adjei-Brenyah. “People saying to write what you know is almost like saying, ‘Breathe air.’ I think some people mean it literally, but you have no option but to write from your personal experience. That said, some of my stories may be literally tied to my life, but also some of the stories that have a more surreal feel are more personal to me.”