Allow me to join that enormous chorus of voices recommending Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah’s debut collection of short stories Friday Black.
Paperback, 192 pages.
I’m going to do a brief walk-through of the 12 stories; and include a quote for sampling on most. Anticipate shifts in genre, from realist to fantasy, magical realism, science fiction. The shift in genre opens up a range of linguistic expression emphasizing just how talented Adjei-Brenyah is in capturing a singular voice for each of his protagonists and their worlds.
I’ve read few contemporary authors as adept with the absurd and depicts non-gratuitous violence as well as Adjei-Brenyah does. Another way his writing impressed me is how he’ll change the tenor of a popular conversation on race and/or justice, shifting into a different facet/perspective that provokes thought. It may be how he clothes the Naming in the first story; who creates the augmented realities that employs minorities as targets in the sixth; how he places horns and a halo on the head of murder victim in the ninth.
The collection leads with a particularly strong work; easily one of my favorites; as is “Zimmer Land” and “Friday Black” at the center, and “Through the Flash” to close out the book on good impression. Read in whatever order you like, obviously, but you’ll enjoy “How to Sell” and “Retail” better if they follow in order after “Friday Black.”
Each story offers a lot to unpack, I barely scratch surfaces, and my readings are certainly mine and only noted in here in brevity, and a few times emotionally.
1. “The Finkelstein 5”
A white man is acquitted for removing the heads of five black people with a chainsaw outside the local library. One of the five was seven years old, though he’d claim she looked thirteen.
A young black man goes to the mall to buy clothes for a job interview. He ends up repurposing that eggshell blue button-up.
The name Emmanuel, by the way, means “God with us.” [my note, not the story’s.]
“That morning, like every morning, the first decision he made regarded is Blackness. His skin was a deep, constant brown. In public, when people could actually see him, it was impossible to get his Blackness down to anywhere near a 1.5” (1).
Adjei-Brenyah uses the absurd as the instrument for incision that it is; it’s not there to anesthetize, but rather to wake your ass up with a sharp, deliberate slice; leaving you exposed and seeping—and gasping around that wide-eyed look of rage and disbelief, around that “what. the fuck. is wrong with people”…with us.
Horrific as this will sound: what is absurd is not that a white man would claim fear of black people and stand his ground by retrieving his chainsaw to dismember them with; absurd is that trial that plays out between scenes of Emmanuel’s life—or is it? The Naming doesn’t feel absurd, problematic, but understandable. Okay, so the reality of our United States is absurd.
Good luck getting your breath back after the close of the first short story. And, if that first story was too much for you: take another deep breath and continue on. The next story is two pages.
2. “Things My Mother Said”
“At home the fridge had become a casket bearing nothing. The range and oven had become decorations meant to make a dying box look like a home” (27). “At night hunger and I huddled together” (28).
A complication of gratitude; of being a son. It is a story that listens; and finally speaks. The shift in the address of the last paragraph that is comprised of a single urgent sentence is striking. After that initial invitation to pause and reflect, I’m interested to know whether you gave into that impulse to reread the story again after that last sentence.
3. “The Era”
“Later on, when the Amalgamation of Allies suspected a key reservoir had been poisoned, they asked the New Federation if they’d done it. In a stunning act of graciousness and honesty, my New Federation ancestors told the truth, said, “Yeah, we did poison that reservoir,” and, in doing so, saved many, many lives that were later more honorably destroyed via nuclear. The wars going on now, Valid Storm Alpha and the True Freedom Campaign, are valid/true wars because we know we aren’t being emotional fighting them” (31).
A science fiction that engages in questions like: What justifies the current cultural way of life, of acceptability? And is a throw-back time, an former era, a better way to live? Is there another way for those who aren’t suited for either…contextually, or biologically. The gatekeepers are a fascination under Adjei-Brenyah’s pen, as is the subject of political correctness and propaganda.
4. “Lark Street”
A story employing magical realism told in the hours following an in-home abortion of twins as a young man wrestles, or is asked to wrestle with what he has done, is doing, and will do, not only in relation to the abortion, but in his relationship with the mother. A psychic is involved. She’s going to handle it. Nothing about it feels like a lark; its deliberate, and….Yeah, I’m not entirely sure what to do with this one yet.
5. “The Hospital Where”
…an unusual “artist’s muse” story will be situated.
“The Twelve-tongued God beckoned in the form of the heat I felt on my back, and while I waited for my father to finish his oatmeal, I tried, finally, to write. I scribbled and felt the free feeling of fire in my bones. Transported into a world where I had command and anything was possible” (68, bold letters are my doing).
The mark the Twelve-tongued God left on his neck burned and its only relief was to write. But his writing has yet to prove awarded, nor has it pulled his family out of poverty. It seems that the time to collect has come due when he takes his father to the emergency room. It’s a Hospital Where a sentence awaits its predicate/conclusion, description…explanation. His muse begs for him not to be boring. But he is…and isn’t.
6. “Zimmer Land”
This therapeutic-educational amusement park (?) promises a surburban Westworld type fantasy with employed actors in “mecha-suits” to protect them and aide in the module-based scenarios and “patrons” who are physically present as themselves. The patron is primed, and so are the actors. The fantasies are disturbing—in part, because they are familiar narratives that excite ‘Mericans like that Uncle…like Trayvon Martin’s murderer.
What deepens the discomfort is the creator of the park, and the way the protagonist participates in it, the justifications. When the park opens up for all ages, brace yourself for nausea.
“Later that day I have ten walk-throughs. Eight times out of ten, I get murdered.
That night I dream about getting killed. Murdered by a bullet. I dream this dream often. But this time, after I’m dead, I feel my soul peeling from my body. My soul looks down at the body, and says, “I’m here.”
People say “sell your soul” like it’s easy. But your soul is yours and it isn’t for sale. Even if you try, it’ll still be there, waiting for you to remember it.” (100-1).
A moment for me: Honestly, just what the fuck is wrong with people?* What Zimmer Land is about isn’t educational in the way it sets out missionally; tainted by industry, the systemic, and a failure to fully realize white supremacy, it’s enabling and fostering some seriously toxic mindsets. Its drinking its own Kool-Aid. Damn the heart-break of that close…really, the heart-break of the whole damn thing.
* a popular refrain for me in the reading of this collection
7. “Friday Black”
is painful and hysterical. It’s Black Friday and anyone whose worked retail on this hell day will delight in reading this short story. Shoppers? You’re not going to be flattered, but it isn’t as if the protagonist isn’t compassionate. Consumerist messaging isn’t lost on the retail worker, nor are they immune.
“At five in the morning, the lull comes. The first wave of shoppers is home, or sleeping, or dead in various corners of the mall.” (108)
8. “The Lion & the Spider”
“The stories my father told us had great power. I made sure to let my outrage sing whenever they veered from the path I believed was best. Not to mention that Mother Rabbit’s children happened to have the same names as my sister, my mother, and I did. All his stories found a way to make stars of us” (120).
A bedtime story of Anansi and a Lion takes turns with the abrupt disappearance of the father during the protagonist’s senior year of high school. Not unlike the twist in an Anansi story, there is an unexpected turn for our narrator… a kind of generous way of thinking is introduced into a story of abandonment and hardship. Is it because the abandonment was temporary? Is it because of what he learned about himself in the absence of his father…while he waited while not waiting?
9. “Light Spitter”
A murder-suicide at a college yields an angel-demon story that complicates what is becoming an all-too-familiar narrative. I’m still processing this one… It’s not one I can be easy with, especially with my only daughter off at college for her first year. I can say that I am drawn to the question of who is best suited to help whom and ideas of collaboration; insight meeting access.
10. “How to Sell a Jacket as Told by IceKing”
“I’m lead sales associate because of my numbers. When managers step out to grab food, or smoke, or fuck in the shipment bay, they point to me, and say, “Hold the floor down.” Sometimes they’ll hand me a clipboard with everybody’s break times and daily goals. Whenever I’m on the clock, my daily goal is the highest. They think it motivates me” (150).
Another episode in the life of the narrator from “Friday Black.” Here we meet his competition as the best in sales. This one will not be as humorous for the retail worker, but it is good to read another story from this character’s perspective. He’s far more chill than I would be in a commission-tracking environment. It’s hard when systems ask you be a team player and support the people they also put you in competition with for advancement and resources.
11. “In Retail”
“I’ve been here a while now, and the most important thing I’ve learned is that if you wanna be happy here in the Prominent Mall you have to dig happiness up, ‘cause it’s not gonna just walk up to you and ask you how you’re doing. That is, unless somebody who doesn’t speak the language walks up to you. That different” (159).
A third entry from the Prominent Mall, a lovely microcosm of America; both the navigating and negotiating of it. This story is I think, Florence’s, which took a moment to note the tonal shift and a memory (Nalia). Florence is the co-worker/competition in “How to Sell a Jacket.”
The vivacious Spanish woman shopper contrasts with (and emphasizes) the sobering conversation surrounding Lucy, a retail worker who committed suicide at the mall recently.
It reminds me why I really hate retail, but how those of us who work in retail aren’t the only one’s motivated to camp out and fake our way into the good graces of those that mean a step up, or at the very least survival. That said, the story isn’t that cold, there is that part where she’s helping a woman find that red shirt for a loved one; that’s heart-warming.
12. “Through the Flash”
“You are safe. You are protected. Continue contributing to the efforts by living happily, says the soft voice of the drone bird hovering only a few feet from my window, as it has been for the last forever. Since I’m the new me, I don’t even think about killing anybody. Still, I touch the knife under my pillow.
Outside, a blue sky sits on top of everything, and I try to think about it like this: Aren’t we lucky to have our sky? Isn’t it an eternal blue blessing? Even though seeing it makes me feel crushed a little because whoever’s on the other side of time has no idea how tired we are of the same.” (165)
A science fiction, set in a time loop where Ama is forever 14, and her younger brother is always 6. The cycle of violence that accompanies the loop is breath-taking. The murdered come back with every reset which breeds both fear and vengeance in the victims, but also permission for a perpetrator like Ama who is the most accomplished killer around. She’s had countless loops to hone her abilities, taking advantage of one of the few anomalies of the system. As long as she is the most powerful (read: the most feared), why not do what she enjoys. Also, if she dies, however torturously in the process, she’ll come back, and she’ll come back at the top. Of course, her relationship with her father complicates things. Family dynamics echo cultural hierarchy resonating with our non-science-fiction world. –and what if Ama were to want to change course? What can/will survive the flash.