Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah joins StockX as one of the contributors to this month’s Visting Voices series.
He is best known for his New York Times-bestselling and critically acclaimed collection of short stories, Friday Black, but is also making a name for himself as a photographer and director. Originally from Spring Valley, New York, Adjei-Brenyah earned his MFA from Syracuse, was named as one of the National Book Foundation “5 Under 35” by Colson Whitehead, won the PEN/Jean Stein Book Award, and was named as a finalist for both the National Book Critics Circle’s John Leonard Award for Best First Book and the Aspen Words Literary Prize.
Stay tuned for a conversation between Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah and Nic Stone presented by StockX later this month.
StockX: What is the burden of being a Black story maker in this era?
Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah: It’s hard because my kneejerk reaction is to dismiss the idea of a burden because it’s a dream come true to be a Black story maker, but the truth is there are realities of the world that do make the dream carry a kind of weight, a burden, and some of them aren’t necessarily ones I expected.
The one that jumps out in my mind is you become somewhat type casted or thought of in a very particular way. For me, I’ve used this term before, but I’ve become a kind of Black Death Correspondent, in some people’s minds. And what that means you are often forced to engage with brutality against people that look like you in terms you don’t necessarily control. The burden piece is I know very well that part of my work is very concerned with this very thing. Part of my work wants to scream Trayvon’s and Sandra’s names over and over so now that I’m asked to speak to the killing of so many others I sometimes feel a responsibility to do so and to do so precisely and in a way that will inspire people to care. But of course, sometimes it hurts to do that kind of work. Sometimes that feels really heavy.
Also, it’s painfully obvious that Black people everywhere are still denied opportunities and so a part of the job I take seriously is amplifying and empowering those who haven’t been amplified or given a shot. And this feels more like a responsibility than a burden because I genuinely enjoy it. But know young you have been given a chance when so many have not been given that same chance, that knowledge can feel like a burden as well.
Can stories move a society towards equity? If so, how? If not, why not?
I think/hope/pray they can. But I’m more confident over recent years because I’ve seen just how swiftly bad story-telling, lying, and fear motivation can motivate society in the wrong ways. So, I choose to believe the opposite kind of storytelling must have some kind of power. Also, in my own life I’ve gotten to be other people, live other lives, have new eyes through good stories. I’ve been reminded that every human is an infinity of nuance and that’s something I try to carry in my actual life.
Stories are how we make sense of experience. And if we do so with grace and nuance and generosity I think we can inspire that in ourselves and others. And I believe that would push us towards a better, more equitable society. I hope so at least cause, damn. But I genuinely believe it can.
How should non-Black people understand what a “Black story” is?
It feels weird for me to tell people what to understand, but I think it’s important to remember Black stories are human stories. That seems obvious, but some of the reductive thinking enforced by some of the media suggests we’re this or that. Magical or diminished. Evil or holy. When actually we are everything. I think Black stories are stories that can be anything. Understanding Black stories is understanding there is a huge history some of us draw from, it’s knowing that many times we’ve been portrayed in ways that only capture one side. Non-Black people should understand that a Black story can be anything.
How has working in Speculative Fiction facilitated the ability to tell the stories you tell?
I think I like working in the Speculative space because it gives me a lot of latitude to play. I can have a lot of fun because creating things completely new and unique to my imagination is fun for me. I think that’s at the core. Like that really basic, “wouldn’t that be dope if…” part of me gets to have a say in the creative process.
But beyond that, the speculative space helps me be really pointed and direct with a subject, but also not feel too preachy or pamphlet-y. Like the speculative conceits can often be trojan horses for thinking about humanity in some way, but the horse might be so well crafted or fun or whatever that the reader lets me come right in through the city gates so to speak on an issue. What’s important for me as a writer is to remember the speculative elements of a story are not where the story must derive its power. They are a tool. It doesn’t matter how cool the conceit or idea is, for me if the characters aren’t moving through the world purposefully the feeling ends up being “so what?” for me. So speculative conceits create basically arenas of play for me.
Because there’s a tendency to viewing realism as superior in Western media when speculative elements are included they become somewhat over emphasized. Like people almost get blinded by the trojan horse in terms of thinking about the story and what the story did and was about. But what really made them like it wasn’t the fact of X conceit. It was more likely the way the characters who live in a world where X conceit is possible respond and react to their given reality. In that sense, the difference between speculative and more human scale stuff kinda collapses.
I also like to move outside of what is considered realism because our individual perspectives vary so much that what is “normal” and “surreal” is not and never has been objective. Of course, there are facts, but our access to them is so determined by our personal worldview, identity, situation, etc. This last several years have made that truth impossible to ignore, but it’s always been true. There’s so much that we each hold. Tailoring a narrative to a particular character’s point of view can sometimes be enough to be considered surreal and even speculative. I’m going on over this now, but it’s because I think about it a lot since the book got published. I didn’t ever really think about the overarching genre of what I read before getting an MFA and I was even less aware of the hierarchy that exists in some peoples’ minds. That unawareness became an outright resistance and I think that’s why my first book has stories that many would consider straight sci-fi and some that feel more familiar in terms of the world. I like the space to be whatever a story calls for. I think as consumers of, basically anything, we often try to categorize, sometimes to the detriment of the art. It often comes down to being more easily able to compare/sell things, but art I feel, exists in a space so much bigger than the reductive terms we often rely on.
What makes you hopeful?
Despite all the fuckery and horror that is everywhere, there are so many good people doing incredible things and when I see that and am reminded of that, I feel hope. I feel like we can’t lose actually if we remember to never lose hope.
A specific memory that’s coming to me now and not just because Nic [Stone] is a part of this [Visiting Voices project] is when I was somewhere in the south for a book festival. There were actually two book festivals happening concurrently. At mine, a lot of weird racist stuff had happened. Like, when I went to the venue I was going to have an event in the next day, someone at the door asked me if I was, “there for the furniture.” I laugh about it now but at the time I was hot about it. Anyways, the next day though I was walking around this city prior to my own events and I see a line that’s like snaking literally down the block. And I’m curious to see what’s going on. It’s parents and kids, younger ones and teens all types of ethnic backgrounds on this line. And I’m walking to try to just see who is at the head of it. And it takes me a while because the line is so long and eventually I can tell after a while everyone is waiting for because of the books all these young people are clutching so excitedly as they wait for probably literal hours for their book to get signed. And after asking the organizers to let me pass I got to the front of the line and there was Nic Stone, this dope ass Black woman who all these kids had come to see and get their books signed by. I’m not even joking it inspired me in some different way. That this many kids had books and were so excited about them, but that they were so hyped to see Nic who writes the kinds of books that will grow your heart and humanity. It was like okay, maybe we’ll be alright. That’s what I felt that day and so things like that help me feel hopeful.
Look out for more from the Visiting Voices program and Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah.