The celebrated author’s debut novel, Chain-Gang All-Stars, takes aim at institutionalised racism in the US
Image: David Levene/Guardian/Eyevine
“In the absence of compassion, something really nefarious grows. And that thing is really hard to bottle up, it seeps back into the culture, often as violence. We have this hope in America that we can build a wall and shove things we hate behind it. But that doesn’t work. We don’t get to hide a poison in this one little hole, it grows out everywhere. Because it’s people who are poisonous. That uncaring, ‘wealth over everything’ kind of thinking was emboldened under Donald Trump, but it has existed forever. It’s as American as America.” Speaking on the phone from a hotel room in Manchester, Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah is on fine, fiery form.
Five years ago his collection, Friday Black – a provocative and inventive set of dystopian stories about white misperceptions and racially aggravated injustice – created a stir in the literary world, and Barack Obama singled out the Ghanaian New York writer for his originality and chutzpah. Friday Blackwas The Big Issue 2018 book of the year; five years later he has published his debut novel, Chain-Gang All-Stars. Now 31, he’s no longer a mid-twenties firebrand rookie, but his punch is as powerful as ever, and his passion remains undiminished.
Chain-Gang All-Stars is, as its subversive title suggests, both a consideration of the US prison system and a salutary tale about where we draw the line regarding the exploitation of ‘contestants’ for primetime entertainment. But that sounds terribly dry; page by page, the gripping story of prison inmates Loretta Thurwar and Hamara ‘Hurricane Staxxx’ Stacker’s fates in a televised Squid Game-style gladiatorial is only nailbiting because we care so much about the characters involved. Thurwar and Stacker are teammates as well as lovers, and Adjei-Brenyah writes about them with as much tenderness as he writes about the American justice system with righteous anger.
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It was his deepening interest in Thurwar, originally set for a short story, which inspired him to write the novel. “I wanted to explore her character more because I was interested in this woman in the eye of the arena, and her response to being incarcerated,” he says. “I realised I had to do some research into our prisons, and that opened a huge can of worms. I enjoy the tip of the iceberg feeling you get with short stories. But in this case, even the novel felt like it’d be just the tip of the iceberg because the issue was so huge. Exploring Loretta as a human being, and all the people who orbit around her, was another absorbing task.
“There’s a particular way in which women, and maybe particularly a Black woman, and maybe even more particularly, a queer Black woman, can be attacked in a system like the carceral state. That’s a really useful way to explore how a woman in any position of power will be both respected and disrespected in the same breath, this kind of rising up then tearing down. That dynamic is really important to the kind of story I wanted to tell.”
He acknowledges the impact of recent landmarks in Black American culture, including HBO’s The Wire, Childish Gambino’s This is America video and Amanda Gorman’s unforgettable reading of her poem The Hill We Climb at Joe Biden’s inauguration. But for Adjei-Brenyah, one development stands out as uniquely powerful, as genuinely life-changing:
“The Black Lives Matter movement, whether you’re talking about what happened with George Floyd or going back to Trayvon Martin when the movement started in 2012, has been huge – transforming the world in ways that are undeniable. That public acknowledgement of something that’s been there forever, has been so important.”
The young Nana was a very different kid to the confident, ambitious, filled-out author Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah appears to be today.
“When I was a teenager, I really wanted to be in the NBA,” he remembers. “But I was already getting desperate. My mother and I have been really close all of my life, but she’s suffered some serious mental health issues, which means I’ve worried about her since I was young. She was unable to work because of her illnesses when I was in my teens, so I had already internalised a kind of seriousness by then.
“When I was 16 I became almost a different person. My childhood kind of ended. I’d been writing little stories here and there and I joined a literary magazine in high school. And I was involved on some student level in local politics. But when I was 16 I started getting serious about writing, even though I didn’t have the vocabulary or the confidence or energy or ability to claim I was a writer.
“I was angry and desperate back then. But I feel grateful to that boy now. Because without him there’s no chance things would have worked out for me. He was trying to carry an entire family on his back in a way that was not possible or fair, but he tried really hard. I would tell him, it’s not your fault everything can’t be fixed. But it’s because of how hard you worked that I’m here now. Today I’m in Manchester, in England! Back then that would have been like saying I’m on the moon.”
His natural writing ability saw him to university; Adjei-Brenyah was one of the lucky kids who didn’t just read George Saunders’ groundbreaking A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, as a Syracuse student he attended the classes on which Saunders’ guide to writing and reading was based. Saunders was a huge influence on his own writing, and the first to read a draft of Chain-Gang All-Stars. How, I wonder, after learning the lessons of Tolstoy and Chekhov, which Saunders’ course focused on, did he know he’d found his own unique and honest voice?
“I think it’s a feeling process,” he muses. “I had to write a lot of stories to learn what it feels like to really be yourself on the page. You know it when you feel it. It’s kind of magical, it really is… it’s an epiphany. By my last year of uni I started to officially ‘come out’ as a writer. I remember telling my older sister and I liked the idea that she could be proud of it. I just felt like, there’s no way I’m not going to do this. And I’ve felt that way ever since.”
Chain-Gang All-Starsby Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah is out now (Vintage, £18.99). You can buy it from The Big Issue shop on Bookshop.org, which helps to support The Big Issue and independent bookshops.
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