Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Friday Black: Stories by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah

Friday Black by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah is a collection of short stories and, as such, half of the people I know will probably skip right over this review. I'm here to tell you that you need to stop that. Short stories can feel incomplete, true, and less satisfying than novels. But, that's not always the case and you're missing out on a potentially amazing form of writing if you reject them out of hand.

Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah's stories are astonishing. They can be equally quirky and deep at the same time. In one story, for example, the author tackles the rampant, even vicious, consumerism of Black Friday. "Friday Black" is the name of the story, the one from which the book gets its name. In "Friday Black" an employee climbs to a safe spot from which he pulls down jackets with a pole. He's up high to avoid being trampled. The customers have developed their own language and he speaks it, so he understands what they want and is able to quickly retrieve their requested items, making him a top salesperson. During the lulls in business, employees pick up the dead bodies of those who have been crushed by the crowd and move them to a part of the store set aside especially for the dead. It's a strange story and yet you see the truth in it.

The trouble with reviewing a book of short stories is that I almost never think to write down my thoughts about the stories as I'm reading them and when I get to the end of the book, I'll think, "That was great/awful/[insert other generic thought]" but I won't recall the stories themselves because they tend to be so diverse. The stories in Friday Black are unusually memorable, but I think it's interesting what I wrote about the first three -- not a paragraph, but a word or two (or five) about each. I'll write the words I wrote down in my notebook in bold.

"The Finkelstein 5" - Emmanuel has nightmares about the five children who were murdered in front of the library and the growing backlash in which his friends are being swept up. As he prepares for a job interview, Emmanuel worries about how to present himself. At the same time, an acquaintance shows up on the bus nicely dressed, as if headed for work. But, he's one of the people involved in the violent retribution for the deaths of the Finkelstein 5. 

There are two things that are particularly fascinating about this story. Emmanuel has a mental scale that he uses to adjust his blackness. He knows, for example, that if he wears a hoodie and allows his pants to sag, his blackness level goes up and so does suspicion. He's more likely to be followed by security or employees at the mall, police in the streets, the blacker he appears.

At the same time as Adjei-Brenyah gives you this blackness scale to ponder, he has created a scenario in which a white man claimed to be so frightened of black children that he went to his vehicle to fetch a chain saw and chopped all their heads off. As I recall, he claimed to fear for his own children's lives. In this aspect of the story, you can't help but see the insanity of George Zimmerman's claim because, while the method of killing is different, the reason for fear is not all that far removed. A kid with a bag of Skittles vs. a guy with a gun? Same thing. By the time he gets to the end of the story, you have an understanding of why Emmanuel makes the choice he does. But, it's still shattering.

"Things My Mother Said" - A mother shows her strength, dignity, and good parenting by managing to put a warm meal on the table after the gas, water, and electricity have been turned off. At only two pages, I described this deeply meaningful story as a gut punch and a revelation.

"The Era" - A futuristic tale of a world in which a happy drug is doled out as needed unless you overdo it, I described this one as a phenomenon because of its uniqueness.

Strong reactions, strong stories.

Highly recommended - A spectacular set of short stories with particular focus on racism, poverty, and consumer greed that will knock the breath right out of you. The stories in Friday Black reminded me a bit of William Saunders' writing and coincidentally (or not?), Saunders blurbed the book and is mentioned in the acknowledgments. So, maybe Adjei-Brenyah was his student? There's definitely a similar quirkiness and level of impact and meaning to the writing. I can't wait to read more by this fabulous writer.

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