STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Years ago, the writer Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah worked in a clothing store. He worked in the holiday season, which peaks on Black Friday. And that experience informs the short story collection he calls "Friday Black." Adjei-Brenyah's book makes its points by exaggerating race and class divisions and consumer culture. Or is it really exaggeration? He spoke with Noel King.
NOEL KING, BYLINE: You write in this field of speculative fiction, or dystopian fiction - whatever you want to call it. But one thing that separates you from other authors I've read in that genre is that your writing seems to be explicitly political. And I wonder, as a black writer, do you feel that that is partially your responsibility, to have a political take on things?
NANA KWAME ADJEI-BRENYAH: I don't want to, like, suggest that any black writer has any particular thing they have to do. I mean, that said, I myself do feel compelled to write about certain things. It's pretty much unavoidable that my work engages subjects that are highly politicized. I think that most identities, where they intersect with the culture that they come out of, there's politics involved. And sometimes just existing in a space - and proudly and loudly - is somehow political.
So I think if you write fiction in anything that's not a vacuum, on some level I think it's political. And so because no one writes in a vacuum and no one comes out of a vacuum, you're kind of doing something political. And if you - and I think it's a great privilege to think you are not.
KING: Many of your stories are filled with brutality. But there is also a wide vein of dark humor running through some of them, which I think might surprise people. The story that gives your book its title, "Friday Black," this short story takes place in what we assume is a department store. And it's a - it's a Black Friday. It's the Friday after Thanksgiving, which we all know is kind of a nightmare of consumerism.
Your protagonist is a young man working in this store, selling fleece jackets. You have these just vicious scenes where people - consumers, shoppers - storm the entrance of the store. And they're so overwhelmed at the idea of getting a deal that they trample each other. They - when they trample each other to the point of death, they shove bodies out of the way. That is a heck of a way to look at Black Friday (laughter). What were you saying there?
ADJEI-BRENYAH: To talk about the humor, for me it's important to try to laugh when you can because I think it's healthy. But also I think for me it's a way to help me say exactly what I want to say because if I don't add some levity, some humor, I probably won't get through, on some level, for the reader. I think it's like the sugar to help the medicine go down. Sometimes you kind of get through a story where there's, like, sort of this vein of humor. And sometimes I think the punchline is, like, it actually wasn't a joke after all. But with that story, "Friday Black," I did work in retail. I really have seen, like, a woman step on another woman's, like, calf or jeans.
We all know for a fact that pretty much annually, someone gets killed because people in Wal-Mart are trying to get TVs. In my mind, the first time that happened, everyone - the country, the world should have been like, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa. You know, maybe we've taken this thing too far. But it's - that's a scary thing for me to think about. And what's scary is I think how - how we can know that happens so regularly and still sort of casually participate.
KING: Yeah, the main character in that story, in "Friday Black," is a young man who wants to get the sales record because he will win a prize. And the prize is a coat that he intends to give to his mother. And at one point, a colleague, another young man, confronts him and says, you know, seeing the bodies strewn about, hearing the yelling and screaming, he says, this is just not worth it. Your mother knows that you love her. She doesn't need a coat.
ADJEI-BRENYAH: And, you know, what's funny about that moment - and I didn't have that moment, if you can believe that, originally...
ADJEI-BRENYAH: In the first - like, in the original draft.
KING: I'm surprised.
ADJEI-BRENYAH: Yeah. And actually, prior to the book being called "Friday Black," it had a previous title. And after I made that editorial change, after I revised it and made that moment, I was finally like, OK, this can be the title of the book - because you absolutely need that moment, that moment of self-implication in which the - someone can say, like, you know, you think you're not in this, but you are in it too.
It's the same line of logic. I'm going to participate in this craziness because I'm going to get my mother a thing. And again, for me it's important because, like I said, I really did work in retail. There was a contest in my store. Instead of giving us more money or something, whoever made the most sales would get a North Face jacket. And I got it for my mom. I really did that.
KING: You did, wow.
ADJEI-BRENYAH: I really did do that. And, you know, I don't know that she wears it anymore.
KING: You are the son of immigrants from Africa - from Ghana?
ADJEI-BRENYAH: Yes, both my parents are from Ghana.
KING: How do you think that informs the way you see race in the United States and, in particular, racial tension, which makes up so much of your book, in the United States?
ADJEI-BRENYAH: I'm sure it informs me in a lot of ways I can't even really perceive. You know, my parents are - they're very decidedly - they're African. They're Ghanaian. And they would sometimes even - I had a built-in thing that I had to work through and sort of adjust about even my distinction from, like, black Americans, which - they were like, you know, you're not from here. And, like, don't think you can act like these people here.
And because of the way I started - again, in Queens, N.Y. - I was - I understood, you know, black is different. And all - you know, but because of the way - like, the sort of pride associated with where my parents come from and - I didn't have to default to a feeling of white is the best, which I think is really hard to escape in America. And you mentioned something before, like, some of my characters, a lot of them it's explicit that they're black. Some of them, they're not. But in my mind, they're all black.
You know, I don't accept the sort of white default in the literary world. Like, it's almost like if you don't say they're black, they're white. I definitely, like, sort of try to resist that - and especially because in my stories, some - often the way their race is revealed is through some type of traumatic instance happening because of their race. And I don't want that to be the case, where readers are only seeing characters that are of color, having that manifest in some kind of pain or trauma for them.
KING: Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah, thank you so much for coming in to talk today. We really appreciate it.
ADJEI-BRENYAH: I appreciate it. Thank you so much.
(SOUNDBITE OF INON ZUR'S "BRIGHTNESS CALLING")
INSKEEP: His new short story collection is called "Friday Black."
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