The challenge of an absurd reality is producing art that is reflective of that absurdity without giving in to its logics. What I mean is, it’s difficult to make art that captures the heightened sense of precarity and peril we face while maintaining the perspective needed to undermine the forces that have produced such a situation. For author Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah, recently named to the National Book Foundation’s 5 Under 35, one answer to this predicament is to dial into the absurdity, turn the volume way up, and allow the harshness to wash over us until it hurts too much not to move. Full immersion.
His debut story collection, Friday Black, is darkly humorous satire of the dystopic results of an American culture conditioned to accept the excesses of capitalism, racism, and structural violence as the norm. The extraordinary becomes quotidian. And somehow Adjei-Brenyah retains a semblance of hope. We aren’t necessarily doomed, but we will be, he warns, if we can’t see how we’ve allowed the absurd to flourish in ways both macro and micro.
I spoke with Adjei-Brenyah over the phone about the big things — violence, racism, capitalism, human nature. But these are only points of entry. He wants, perhaps even more than the end of these forms of oppression, to remind us of our human connection — and responsibility to one another.
Mychal Denzel Smith: These stories are incredible. You’re diving into this satirical dystopian blurring of American life, particularly from a black perspective, with all of the different violences and systems at play that prey on emotions and alter the way in which we interact with one another. I’m curious, as far as your writing process, are there triggers in your everyday life that turn your imagination towards the surreal?
Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah: I remember a while back I made a video about wearing a hood. I remember Geraldo Rivera said if black kids wore their hoodies — didn’t wear hoodies as much — maybe they’d be safer. To me it’s already so ridiculous and so crazy but he said that in this way that presents it as normal or whatever, and so I try to say what is the real implication of him saying something like that? It’s that if you wear this kind of thing, that is if you present in this sort of way that is associated with black people, then maybe you’re going to get killed. Then maybe it’s okay for you to die, or maybe it’s acceptable. Almost literally even by his own logic that’s sort of what he’s saying. And that was several years before I wrote that book so for me, the surreal is the way of getting to the heart of the ways people try to use language to hide a sinister reality. The racism, or general evil that they’re willing to accept.
The surreal is the way I get to the heart of how people try to use language to hide a sinister reality of the racism, or general evil that they’re willing to accept.
MDS: From the very beginning of the collection, the violence you imagine feels extraordinary. But there’s a coolness to the way that you describe it in which it feels sort of regular or mundane in a way. Is that a deliberate approach to it? Do you find the violence extraordinary, or what is the tension there for you?
NKA: Yeah, I do think there is an extraordinary amount of violence. Part of the reason why the book is playing with that is because we accept a lot of violence in our personal lives and also on a larger more macro scale. I remember the first time, the news was like 47 people were killed today on Black Friday. And it was just like, “yeah”and then “The Ravens Won.” Because of the overwhelming nature of the violence in our society we kind of almost allow a lot of violence. So when I put it in text, you’re kind of forced to pause and think “wait a second.” Because there is a part of us that does resist, but we’ve gotten so used to packaging our violence in these particular ways. “Oh a bomb was dropped in x country that we are trained not to care about. It hit a hospital. 68 people we think were killed.” And that’s — 68 human beings were killed by an accidental whatever, civilians whatever you want to say. And it’s just there in front of you.
I worked in a mall for a time. I was there when someone jumped off the fourth floor of Palisades mall. And I remember they put a yellow tarp on her. They kind of put like an emergency siren or something and the mall just continued. And I guess —
MDS: So that story is real.
NKA: Um, that story — it’s more real than I wish it were. Yeah I definitely worked in a mall for sure. I worked in a mall for too long. And besides actually teaching at school, the only real jobs I’ve had have been in retail. Everywhere I look there is some incredible violence happening and we’re sort of just walking by it. Sometimes in my stories I turned up the volume on that violence a little bit more, or I make it seem like I’ve turned it up a little bit more. Sometimes — now, often I don’t even think I am. But I turn up the volume a little bit more, and I still walk by it. I think that also causes the reader to be like “hey, wait a second,” and I guess what I hope is that we had that “wait a second” a little bit more in our actual lives.
MDS: Yeah, because to me this is like a comment on the ways in which violence, or even the potential for violence, informs our interactions even when the violence or that potential is left unsaid.
NKA: Yep! Yeah it’s kind of like known — and there’s violence like “I’m gonna kill you” and there’s violence like erasure. There’s violence like silencing. And it’s just built into society that you pay.
It feels like if you don’t wear a tie, you’re not acceptable. A tie has nothing to do with your person, it has nothing to do with your ability to handle problems. It’s about your ability to conform to this arbitrary system. I mean not even arbitrary system, it’s often very much explicitly and implicitly right in front of us. It’s kind of just the thing we do. And there’s violence in that, too. There’s all types of violence that we sort of just learn to deal with. And sometimes I try to maybe present them in hyperbole so we could say maybe we shouldn’t just accept these things.
There’s all types of violence that we sort of just learn to deal with. There’s violence like “I’m gonna kill you” and there’s violence like erasure. There’s violence like silencing. Maybe we shouldn’t just accept these things.
MDS: In the story “Zimmerland” there are a few sentences that felt like they encapsulated the themes that you were trying to address throughout the book. You write: “People say sell your soul like it’s easy, but your soul is yours and it’s not for sale. Even if you try, it’ll still be there, waiting for you to remember it.”
In the context of the story this man is playing out this role at this symbolic theme park and he’s attempting to make a difference here, or believes that he’s doing something more than he’s actually doing, only to see that he’s playing into the racist fantasies of people who come into the park and pay to kill him over and over again. But he thinks that there’s the potential for him to do good. It plays out over and over again — from the first story when these folks are getting retribution for the deaths of these children, the last story with this dystopian future. People’s souls are still intact, no matter what the systems they are subjected to, but feeling like they have little control over them. But it remains with you and eats away at you.
NKA: That’s one of the places in the book where I almost to the point of stepping out of the story — tried to say it a little bit overtly — what my hope is. Sometimes when I’m a little more cynical I don’t know how true that is. But when I’m at the highest up and doing revision, looking at your work hard you kind of get this story to reflect a self higher than your person.
Whenever we allow ourselves to believe in these dehumanizing practices, we try and try and try but it’s an empty promise that will never return what you think it will. The protagonist in that story has realized that — and he’s realized it in a way that maybe makes him do what is wrong for the time being, but he has arrived at something that I think is true, and I think the idea of selling is really important to the book as a whole.
The idea of purchasing, consumerism, this transactional life that we subscribe to or are forced into in capitalism is kind of an illusion. The realest thing is there when you can’t sell anything, and you can try and try and try I think, or hope. But I think there is sort of an innate call to good or at least without any help you know that it’s wrong to hurt somebody else.
MDS: Yeah —
NKA: It’s also sad, you know. It’s kind of like really depressing.
MDS: Well, yes. You do — what’s interesting in the way that you present these stories is that there is the sadness of the violence here but sometimes it’s comical in a way. In that very dark, humorous way. And it hits you in a way that you’re caught off guard by your own laughter. The idea, the absurdity of the level of violence or the way that you’ve described the violence, does hit you. But then you’re remembering that what you’re describing is the destruction of the human being.
NKA: Humor works in several registers for me. I think that’s how I navigate the world, it’s how I cope. But also, one of my favorite types of humor is when the punchline is actually the truth in the joke. It’s ridiculous and it’s terrible, and there is something that makes us laugh about absurdity. There’s absurdity and I actively try, to make things “haha stupid” funny to kind of leaven the intensity, but there are also times when it’s like “Hah — Ohhhh.” And I like that cut “Oooooh” moment, where we’re getting ready to laugh but then you realize no, you said — whatever you’re describing — these are real people’s views, these are real people’s bodies. There’s a real profit in this. And they’re ridiculous.
My favorite types of humor is when the punchline is actually the truth in the joke. It’s ridiculous and it’s terrible, and there is something that makes us laugh about absurdity.
MDS: I’m probably not going to be the last person to bring this up to you, but your stories put me in the frame of mind of when I was watching Sorry to Bother You. The idea of — there’s an absurd level to this, that I’m presenting to you but actually this is not far off from the reality that we’re living through. And similar to Sorry to Bother You I feel like there’s a way in particular your stories about the mall and retail and Black Friday, that you’re presenting the very real evils of capitalism to us, and the consumerist impulse that this breeds within people and the way that can turn violent, but also from the perspective of the narrator of the story, finds a pride in his ability to sell. And there’s a way in which you can recognize the evils of this system and have that still juxtaposed with the fact that someone who’s also victim to the system finds self-worth and purpose within that.
NKA: For me it’s important to recognize that I’m not on some hill talking about these problems. I’ve gone to the store and felt good about myself because I was able to buy this or that. Make art out of pain and I think that’s important and I recognize that I am not outside of that.
So that’s another thing I think for the narrators of my stories. The narrator is not innocent — they’re part of the system, too, and that’s sort of the insidiousness of it for me. Because, even when you think you’re outside of it, even if you’re critical — I know I still, at some level, judge my work by these things I have. And sometimes I have to to survive because the system is set up that you have to participate to an extent, but even outside of that, I want these shoes, I want that thing, and I’ve gotten away from it quite recently, but I think it’s really hard to separate yourself from the system entirely.
MDS: Yeah, I mean I have 100s of pairs of Jordans, so —
NKA: I used to kill myself for Jordans. I remember when I used to follow it, and when the 8s came back out the first time, it was such a huge thing. I mean, I’m not anti-them, I think they’re cool, I just know how I’ve attached my self-worth to them.
MDS: Right, exactly. Is retail a special villain to you within the capitalist economy or is it just because you worked retail?
NKA: Retail is special to me because I know it. And I know it because it’s funny because it’s so — I imagine those old wars, those guys that get shot right in the beginning you know? They shoot them, they shoot them, we’re like one of those people. One of those — brief, inconsequential, foot soldier, pawn, for some guy you’ll never meet. Or when you do meet them it’s such a big deal — they come to the store and you have to bow down at their feet.
For me retail is what I know but also it’s funny because in retail you also connect with the people not in retail. In the same way that corporate suits do not. And in some way that’s a grey area in that story “In Retail.” You get to speak to people. And there is something nice about having an opportunity to help someone. I remember working in a store — I still remember this was several years ago and I was trying to help them. I realized that they were deaf — all three of them were deaf and I remember this moment of — they were trying to get a Northface jacket — and I sold a lot of Northface jackets. They were trying to get the fleece that everybody used to wear. And whatever, I’d sell a bunch of those, and they don’t see the one they need, and they’re trying to talk to me and I remember this moment of one of them takes my hand and they draw it into my hand, I understood them. And I went to the back and got a medium. And they were happy. It was like someone helped them and they were happy.
There were times when people would come to the store looking distraught — back to school, I remember how stressful that was for me and my parents. And I know that this is cheap and I was young enough, I’m young enough to know they’re not going to get clowned at school for it. So let me help them. Several people came in — but usually a woman would come in for a very specific request because in prison you can’t wear a lot of stuff. You can’t wear any of these colors, you can’t wear any insignias, you can’t wear these and that. It’s almost like a section of grey on grey stuff. And it’s a big relief to them to be a small help, so for me the blessing or salvation of retail is that you do get to interact with people on a human level that is sometimes really nice. Often it’s really not nice because customers suck and people are the worst. But — also people are cool. It’s always both. Are people the worst, are people the best? Yes. It’s both.
Retail is a good subject for me because I do like working in that space of intense — terrible, also wow wasn’t that a beautiful thing. And if you ask somebody in retail they have a bunch of horror stories, but also if you push them, they have moments of “actually that was pretty dope when I got to do that for that person.”
Originally published October 25, 2018
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