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Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah: ‘Satire is a way to make myself less depressed’
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Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah: ‘Satire is a way to make myself less depressed’

Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah, 33, made his debut in 2018 with the story collection Friday Black, praised by Bernardine Evaristo as “so daring and mind-bending… that you haven’t a clue where he’s going to take you”. His first novel, Chain-Gang All-Stars, now out in paperback and currently on the shortlist for this year’s Arthur C Clarke science fiction award (announced on 24 July), takes place in a future in which live-streamed combat between death-row convicts has become prime-time entertainment. Adjei-Brenyah, born and raised in New York, was speaking from his home in the Bronx.

Where did Chain-Gang All-Stars begin?
I’d been working with this group to try to end solitary confinement in New York state, because it’s known pretty much universally to be torture. I actually got involved with them because they were trying to support my former school district – it was being mismanaged and children of colour were being treated poorly – but the group [Rockland Coalition to End the New Jim Crow] was also interested in the rights and outcomes of people who are incarcerated. I’m interested in systems that get us to buy into violence and trick us into stepping on each other’s heads – literally, metaphorically – and I view the prison system as a huge version of that. Ninety-nine per cent of people in prison are impoverished and suffering from mental health problems and diseases of addiction. The idea that you can put humans in cages only stifles our ability to respond to these systemic issues with compassion. Carceral solutions to serious human problems perpetuate those problems.

Why did you address the subject by writing a satirical dystopia?
The speculative nature of the story helped me feel more comfortable getting extremely specific about the brutal statistical realities of prison. I don’t deny I’m writing a dystopia, but dystopia is really just a point of view that depends on your proximity to violence. For a kid in Palestine, dystopia is now; for us [in America], if a publicly traded Fortune 500 company like General Dynamics can make a 2,000lb MK-84 bomb – and America can send a country 1,800 of those bombs – then dystopia is now. Satire is a way to make myself less depressed.

What led you to use footnotes to tell part of the story?
I’m anti- the gun-fu era of action movies where 80,000 people get murdered by the protagonist and it’s just fine. I wanted it to be impossible to interpret Chain-Gang All-Stars as a book that was just about a woman killing people with a hammer. So many books get egregiously misread. A lot of “bro” bros love Fight Club and kind of miss that it’s satirising them. At the same time I didn’t want to be this didactic lecturer person thinking I’m above everybody. I actually don’t like footnotes, but I thought: OK, what if they could be dynamic, surprising, sometimes encyclopedic then swerving a bit, so [the reader] doesn’t really know what’s going to happen in them

How did you go about writing the fight scenes?
I don’t know if you’ve ever done yoga, but the instructor doesn’t just say “downward dog” – they’ll say: “Spread your feet hip-width apart, hinge at the hips, have your hands open, let your fingers spread open to the sun and press them to the ground.” I break down a movement’s component parts like that: if you’re punching with your right hand, your left foot stomps down, your hips angle themselves, your shoulders square then shoot forward and the fist follows …

Have you had any contact with prisoners who have read the book?
Yeah. Speaking about it in a book club with men who are likely going to die in prison was probably the most meaningful experience I’ve had as an author. There’s a character in the novel called Barry “Rave Bear” Harris – the first person killed – and they mentioned him in a way no one ever has. They appreciated that [the novel gives him] a footnoted elegy instead of just letting him die. They appreciated the acknowledgment, which is a thing they don’t get; that this is a person who made a mistake. I’ve done over 100 events, and I can’t tell you how many interviews, but I swear no one else has spoken about that character once. They made me feel I’d maybe done something right. It was really moving.

Name something you need in order to write.
A sense of purpose. A sense of fun. A little bit of quiet.

And where do you find that?
I’m still figuring out my best space, but sometimes it’s right here in this living room/kitchen thing.

What have you been reading lately?
Akwaeke Emezi’s Little Rot. It’s a sort of fun, sexy, dangerous, dark thriller about corruption, told with beautiful style and a literary eye. Right before that I read Paul Murray’s The Bee Sting. I felt so invested in it. I’m not from a small Irish town, but I love being made to feel so deeply entrenched in something really disparate from me. That’s the feeling I’m looking for when I’m reading a novel.

Name a work of fiction that made you want to write.
George Saunders’s story Escape from Spiderhead.

Does your view of America as a carceral state mean that, for you, the outcome of this year’s presidential election is beside the point?
Both of the popular parties are as interested as each other in the carceral, militaristic attitude that America has. Not to say they’re equal: there’s one that’s more evil than the other – the Republican one, for British readers! – the one with the man who’s been charged with several counts of sexual assault. But the Democratic party loves the war machine just the same. It loves the carceral system just the same. I don’t think Joe Biden cares about these issues at all; as a legislator, he’s perpetuating them. So the election is beside the point for some of the things I care about, but it’s imperative that Donald Trump not become the president – for the world, not just America.

Source: theguardian.com