Transcribed by Jeff Doherty - Intern
Edited for length by Courtney Galligan - Managing Editor
Ed Schwarzchild: I want to start by thanking the NYS Writers Institute for making this event possible. What an incredible semester they’ve put together so far. Thanks to Paul Grondahl and his incredible team. They give a gift to— anyone who finds inspiration in the essential acts of reading and writing. So, thank you to the Institute for bringing Nana back to campus. It’s just an incredible pleasure to have him back here. As most of you know, Nana is a UAlbany alum. He was an English major here; he wrote his honors thesis here. After he graduated, he went on to Syracuse University where he had been awarded a full scholarship to study in their illustrious MFA program. Now what brings him back is he’s on tour for his first book, a collection of stories called Friday Black. Friday Blackis no ordinary first book. It is a literary sensation. Many people are calling it the fiction debut of the year, and that’s not a former professor talking, that’s not another proud Great Dane engaging in some type of hyperbolic speech, it’s just the way it is. If you don’t believe me, I encourage you to take a look at what they’re saying about Friday Blackin newspapers and magazines all around the country. I’m going to read out the first paragraph of Tommy Orange’s review of Nana’s book that was just published a week ago today in the New York Times.
Here’s that paragraph:This year has been exhausting in so many ways, asking us to accept more than it seems we can, more than it seems should be possible. But really, in the end, today’s harsh realities are not all that surprising for some of us — for people of color, or for people from marginalized communities — who have long since given up on being shocked or dismayed by the news, by what this or that administration will allow, what this or that police department will excuse, who will be exonerated, what this or that fellow American is willing to let be, either by contribution or complicity. All this is done in the name of white supremacy under the guise of patriotism and conservatism, to keep things as they are, favoring white people over every other citizen, because where’s the incentive to give up privilege if you have it? Now more than ever I believe fiction can change minds, build empathy by asking readers to walk in others’ shoes, and thereby contribute to real change. In “Friday Black,” Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah has written a powerful and important and strange and beautiful collection of stories meant to be read right now, at the end of this year, as we inch ever closer to what feels like an inevitable phenomenal catastrophe or some other kind of radical change, for better or for worse. And when you can’t believe what’s happening in reality, there is no better time to suspend your disbelief and read and trust in a work of fiction — in what it can do.
Just a marvelous piece of work about a marvelous piece of work. I want to take advantage of this time to have this conversation with Nana. Please join me in welcoming Nana back to UAlbany. (To Nana) I don’t know if you’ve hung out on this stage before, but what it’s like to be back at UAlbany?
Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah: First, thank you for all that. It’s very kind and thank you guys for coming out here. I’m excited that you’re here. It’s crazy to be back. I’m kind of trippin’ sitting here right now to be honest. I remember the Black Playwright’s group would have their events here, and I remember sitting out there watching my friends perform. And to be here right now it’s wild. It feels great. I feel mostly – besides this wild and sort of scatterbrained— I feel overwhelming gratitude for people like you who were one of the first people who were able to see me wanting to do something, take it seriously, and just make me feel like it was possible. So, thank ya’ll, I appreciate it.
ES: Nana’s being nice. He’s already written incredible things in my mind. He was already reading all the time which is the sign of someone who is going to become an incredible writer, there was no doubt. We started earlier in the afternoon speaking of gratitude, we talked about the role of your mother a bit in terms of becoming a writer. If you turn to the epigraph of the book – for my mom, who said, “how can you be bored? How many books have you written?”
NKAB: People, understand. My mother is a Ghanaian immigrant, it was said like an admonishment. I wasn’t happy when she said that. “How many books have you written?” I’ve been telling people I’ve figured out how to get your immigrant parents to sort of be a-hundred percent behind your artistic pursuits. All I needed to do was get a profile in the New York Times; I was like, “Oh, so obvious. Why didn’t I think of this earlier?” African parents, I think they hate their kids being idle more than anything else. She was just sort of saying that, but it did stick with me though. She’s responsible for me being here literally and figuratively. When I did give her the book, she went straight to the dedication to make sure. I’m glad you know, I would have gotten in trouble.
ES: Before we open it up to questions; is there a particular Albany story that you can remember the scene of it here at UAlbany?
NKAB: Yeah. Both the stories “Lark Street” and “In Retail” came around when I was here. I started realizing I could mine the malls; I worked at Crossgates while I was here. I remember taking the twelve bus down and back, and you know it wasn’t fun for me, but I had to do it to get my little money to pay whatever. Because I didn’t like it, I made it this space that I would use to sort of glean writerly information, writerly potential details. And so, absolutely back then when I was working, those sort of longer shifts especially, I was thinking about stories.
ES: [to audience] You must have questions for Nana that we can start with.
Question # 1: The first story in the collection has a lot of violence in it, which is something that is incredibly hard to write. I was hoping you could talk a little bit about the process of drafting that violence but also drafting within a satirical space.
NKAB: The first story “The Finkelstein Five”, it’s very purposely the first story in the book, because if people read one thing of mine and nothing else, I want it to be that. I think it’s also like, “If you can handle this, you can ride this ride,” because it is pretty intense. I tried to be very conscious about the important violence in my work, and a lot of my stories are pretty violent, and there’s a lot of different ways to negotiate that. Story by story I try to consider how to do it. I mention this a lot, Roger Reeves has a talk about “The Work of Art in the Age of Charleston, Baltimore, and Ferguson”, and how you can use violence to dismantle violent systems as opposed to it being pornographic. There’s different ways I try to do that. For that particular story, we have a white man who kills five black children via chainsaw. On some level that chainsaw as opposed to being a gun could be more violent, right? But again, I like to think of it more as a reader though, using the chainsaw is my way of looking at the reader, “I’m doing something here.” Again, it’s getting pushed to something like satire, something like hyperbole, maybe. I think it trains the reader’s eye a bit. “Okay let me see what you do with this.” But it’s also, you can’t ignore a chainsaw the way that maybe unfortunately now we’re trained not to blink at a gun. And I’ve said before but that’s an interesting effect because whether if someone dies by gun, or chainsaw it just says I’m dead either way. A gun kills people. That’s one of the things I consider, “Why a chainsaw for that reason?” I want people to not be able to ignore it, but also to be aware of the conceit within a story, a fictional realm as opposed to just having him shoot down five kids. Which is, sadly, why I wrote this book, a sort of familiar story. And then I try to think about just how I’m gonna actually use, or show violence, and again in that story for example the actual murder of the kids is unseen, it’s sort of a remembered thing that’s reported on. There is violence that is seen as well, and again it’s just being really picky and choosy about how to use violence, why use violence? If there is going to be violence on the page, I have to be able to justify it very specifically. Often satire and surrealism are a way for me to have just as much control over that justification as I can.
Question # 2: How much would you say that living and studying in Albany influenced or shaped your creative process?
NKAB: The ways are probably innumerable. For one I had mentors and professors, like Ed and Lynne Tillman really made me feel seen as a writer. That’s number one. Lynne Tillman was especially big on the editorial level making me comfortable getting my manuscript sort of obliterated, getting a lot of error marks, but because of how she treated me, I learned to see that as like love, kind of. As opposed to being mad about it, or thinking she was hating on my story or something, I learned to appreciate that, which is essential if you’re gonna be a writer. I had a really cool group of friends who supported me very early on. I have a bunch of people who bonded with me and supported me. A lot of writers I feel like don’t necessarily feel supported. That’s why they don’t necessarily feel like they have a community that is invested in their art or their work, and I’ve never felt that. It started actually in Albany for me, because Albany is where I started basically admitting I was a writer.
Question # 3: Could you talk a little bit more about the shape of the book, and when did you know that you had to write it as a book, and what did that mean as a collection with that particular shape?
NKAB: I was at Syracuse University for grad school, and I spent a lot of time feeling like I don’t have direction; I’m not this type of author, I’m not that type of author. When I was doing my thesis, I was working with George Saunders, and I was trying to get him to tell me who to be as an artist. I said, “I’ve got these realistic stories… stories with ghosts and undead babies and stuff.” I felt like they couldn’t both exist. “Should I be this, or should I be that?” George was like, “Yes.” And I’m so, so thankful for that, because the way I looked at it, I would have done anything he said. I realized both is my power, or at least the power of this book. If you can work with this form and you feel like it’s powerful, do it. If you can work in that form and you feel like it’s powerful, do it. So that first story I wanted it to be there because I think it could be potentially very powerful, I knew it was pretty visceral, but it was purposeful. The second story is a brief interlude where I’m basically saying to my mom, I love you, and that story ends “I hope you can be proud of me”, that’s the end of the second story. The third story it starts, “Suckawamenah,” a funny transitional moving through, and back to the regularly scheduled program almost. I care a lot about the sort of sequencing, like an album almost.
Question # 4: For a person who writes with such powerful words, you seem like a pretty chill dude. How do you deal with writer’s block? How do you keep your writing consistent to the point where I can read the book and never be bored of it?
NKAB: Well thank you, I appreciate that. Chill dude is a high compliment to me, I’m not joking. I try very hard to be even keel about stuff. I like stories where things happen. It’s funny because in the light of “literary fiction,” it’s almost like how boring can you be but still be good? I like stories where things happen, and I don’t think that’s bad. I think it’s okay to tell stories that are interesting and tell them well, so I try my best to do that and that’s important to me. A lot of these books that are in the canon are not only about characters that don’t look like so many of us, or don’t think like so many of us, or don’t represent so many of us, they also don’t do anything. It’s like a double whammy, of bad, that makes kids think they don’t like reading. It’s not that you don’t like reading, you don’t like hearing about a seventeenth century divorce. Maybe that was mean… I mean you also asked about writer’s block. For me I try to reject writer’s block as a concept, I try to say that’s not really a thing because I feel that often I tell my students and myself to lean into that feeling of “it’s not going well.” It’s gonna find itself anyway, so be very comfortable writing bad stuff. I think that when you feel like you’re blocked as a writer, your editorial self has become louder than your creative self. Sometimes you can tell the editorial side to, “Shut up for a second, let me get these lines out, good, bad, ugly, whatever. Let me get something out.” Because you can always work from something. I don’t think writer’s block is a thing because I’m never not blocked as a writer. I have trained myself to be like, “What would you write today? This is the thing that’s gonna happen no matter what I’m feeling.” And then also feeling comfortable in the fact that it’s only gonna be good after I’ve looked at it a thousand times, so I’m gonna try that way, yeah.
Question #5: Your book ended by stories of violence, to begin and end, and reading about how Kendrick Lamar’s album, most recently, the first and last song are about somebody getting shot, and everything in between, which is a similar thing I find in yours. Was that something that you feel as being a black person that everything in your life that’s happening will either end or begin in violence?
NKAB: That’s a great question. There’s violence all throughout, but especially violence front and back of it. This worry about being a black creator is that violence is kind of always the story, and it is something I worry about a hundred percent. For me, it’s connected to the first question, that’s why it’s very important to me that I sort of situate that violence in a dismantling of a system that I think is violent. It’s really important to employ that violence to do work for me. And I try my best to sort of have a tender hope alongside that violence if I can. It’s not always super easy, because in my regular lived life sometimes I don’t know how hopeful I am. But I think my best self is pretty hopeful. My best self does kind of feel that, in the middle of all this sort of hatred, insanity, and darkness, our best selves are pretty good. I try to find ways of appealing to that, but I try to do it through the muck if you will, because I have to be honest, it’s pretty dark too. It is something I worry about, and it is something I think about, and I look forward to the day when I don’t have to have so much violence in the stories. I look forward to that. I don’t know if I’ll see it, but I’m hopeful, I’m hopeful.
Question #6: In reading the first story, I was gasping, “Ah, can that be?” I was gasping because the story seemed so realistic that I actually went online, and googled ‘did this really happen’— I think it sparks the conversation that we need to have because for it to seem so realistic when you actually read the story, and say, “Let’s find out did it really happen in South Carolina?” I feel like that was a great seed to plant, especially to open up your book. My question has nothing to do with that. My question is about the art for the cover. Me being Ghanaian as well, I went to school here as well, I’ve seen Anansi stories, immediately seeing the spider on the front, does that have any relation for you?
NKAB: Yeah, it did. Absolutely. First thank you to your comment, I really appreciate that. I do like to operate in that space of, “Is this real? Is it hyperbole? Or is it not?” I really like operating around that space because it makes us sort of see how bad things are. The cover, there is the image of a lion, there is the image of a spider, it’s a hundred percent a call to Anansi, my father also a Ghanaian immigrant, told us Anansi stories growing up. I got lucky. I was really expecting a cover that I would hate to be honest. I got really lucky. He used that story, “The Lion and The Spider”, as his inspiration, and it is speaking to Anansi. You’re right on with that and I felt very lucky to have it there.
Question #7: Do you draw inspiration from real life, like the details?
NKAB: Yes, very often I do. Even in the stories that feel the most surreal I pull from real life the most if that makes sense. I don’t very often plot something that happened to me one to one in a story. I can’t say which stories. But for me, even the stories that are pretty far out in terms of their trajectory, they are tethered to some kind of dreams that I’ve had.
ES: Not to make you answer something that’s uncomfortable, but is there something more surprising that you’d want to share, that you wouldn’t think was connected but actually when you put pressure on it you see the connection?
NKAB: I think people wouldn’t probably think the story called “Hospital” is where it was connected. But I think for me it’s maybe the closest connected. It includes a 12-ton god character who is— it’s a weird story in which to make it as a writer he has to make a weird ceremony. Cut this tongue off, give it to this news character, receive the tongue that kind of stuff. To me that’s the closest I could present to explain what my relationship to writing used to be. It’s a pretty magical story, but to me it may be the most real, the most closely related to my life story—
ES: That’s amazing. And it’s a story of a father who takes his son to the hospital. But what you were saying that’s not the realistic part, the realistic part is the 12-ton god…
NKAB: I mean that part is connected too. I remember details of my father taking me to the hospital, this and that, but to me when I’m reading them it rings truer than other parts.
Question #8: Do you create a structure and then play with these images, or you get some topic, something interesting, and think, “I will use some of that,” and then you just follow your imagination?
NKAB: I don’t usually work from a plotted out structure even though on some level I’ve maintained something like a structure in my head for some of the more world building stories. I try not to do that too much. I don’t even necessarily choose the topic either, usually what I’ll do is I’ll have a small thing like a voice or a two-line exchange in my head, or maybe I’ll have a conceit like the blackness scale for the first story, and I see where I go from there. Usually I don’t have too much in advance when I make up these stories, that’s what I like about short stories. I can make up a lot as I go. Then also again through revision— some of what I’m saying is false because the story can change completely, because I have a whole story done and I go back changing stuff. Not only do I have a super structure, I have a whole blueprint that gets rearranged. But I try for the first draft, I try not to be tethered to too much when I go into it. Sometimes it might be just an idea, what if— Black Friday’s so crazy that people were killing each other like zombies? And then go from there.
Question #9: As a writer how do you correlate what you want, how you feel, what needs to be told?
NKAB: I think as a writer what you think needs to be told, needs to be told. I think telling it honestly, unapologetically, is important. I think the world needs that. I think just existing honestly, completely, fully is an important thing for a writer to do. It might not be exactly what the world needs; actually, exactly that so… Yes. (chuckles)
Question #10: Ed mentioned that you read early on. What early books were you captivated by? What books are you reading right now?
NKAB: Ed introduced me to a lot of people in the world who were pretty important, ones that jump into my mind right now— I remember we had Norse Mythology with Z. Z. Packer, I remember Z. Z. Packer ended up being one of my favorite writers, she chose me for the first contest I won. Drinking Coffee Elsewherewas important, alsoBlack woman writing short stories that was huge for me. During college is when I got introduced to George Saunders, it was actually the first time I read Baldwin. It was the first time I read a lot of things. Hemingway, first time— I had read some Toni Morrison before then— when I read Dennis Johnson was what really blew my head up. Jesus’s Son, that book. A lot of important stuff right there. Now I’m reading a great book by a woman named Leni Zumas called Red Clocks it’s a beautiful book. I highly recommend it. Nafissa Thompson Spires wrote a book called Heads of the Colored People, I think that’s an incredible book people should check out. I just got into There Thereby Tommy Orange, I’m not just saying that because he wrote my review, but I do feel a bit obligated though, that’s in my bag right now. What else am I trying to read right now? Katy Kiamara’s A Separation, and I’m gonna read Jamel Brinkley’s A Lucky Manas well.
Question# 11: You’re obviously a great writer, but also a really great speaker, it seems to come really naturally to you. I always struggle with that. I mangle my words. I can write but when I say it aloud; I can’t articulate it the way I want to. Do you have any tips for that, or did it just come naturally to you?
NKAB: Are you a student right now?
Question #11: Yes.
NKAB: I think it will come. The speaking thing it can be hard. Don’t even worry about it, first. The writing thing is way, way, way more important. Let’s do that first. You’re doing what you need to do. The talking, speaking, trying to convey— it’s a separate air. This isn’t really my story. This is cool because I can do this, this is a casual conversation. I don’t have any expert techniques. I don’t imagine everybody naked or anything. I’m not doing that. I used to get super crazy nervous before I’d speak, every time I’d just die. I remember I had to go to New York for some big thing, the Times was there, Nylon Magazine, and all these peoples with an office in Park Avenue…
ES: It’s nerve wracking just hearing about it.
NKAB: Yeah. It was breakfast and stuff, and I was like, “I can’t eat now. I’m at the bottom of this table.” My agent’s like, “Drink some juice at least.” But I did it. I will sometimes prep crazy, write a bunch of stuff down and not even say it, but it makes me feel a little bit better. I also, for my meditation stuff, I don’t resist the nervousness. I guess that’s a practical thing for me. I just sort of let it come, I mean worst case scenario I faint, and I wake up in an ambulance. Hopefully I’ll be alright. I’ve had bad meetings, I’ve had bad public engagements for sure. But it is something I’m working on, and I have struggled with. It’s really nice to say that because it makes me feel like I’m not a complete failure so thank you.
Question #11: How do you cooperate with your personalities? Because you decide to kill that person, or not, and their family, and their relatives. Do you have a guilty feeling deciding to kill that person? The people who love this person, how do you come to terms with that?
NKAB: It’s hard. For me the revision process is really learning to know your characters and hopefully really love them. I do feel guilty about it, but I try to get out of the story’s way as much as possible. It’s rough though, it really is rough. The guy in Arctic Flowers, I’m wearing his hat, he says, “If the work doesn’t cost you emotionally, it’s not worth doing it.” It’s not my favorite part of it, I try to make it as purposeful as I can, as necessary as I can.
Question #12: Did you have any concerns when you were going to publish your book? Anything that made you almost not want to do it? What others would think of it. How it would take you in a different career direction? If so, what changed your mind about it?
NKAB: I was so crazy focused on it for so long, that it wasn’t until right at the end, when it was about to happen that I was like, “Oh wait.” People are going to have bad feelings about it that are totally wrong, and I’m gonna just have to be okay with that. It’s scary. I’m committed at this point for this week, but maybe next week I’ll say, “I changed my mind, I hate it!” Right now, it is what it is. I’m super blessed to have really nice reviews. I think if you move through the world a certain way, honestly and kindly, people will sort of know. I never want to pull back because I’ve worked so hard for so long. I thought it was gonna come out when I was nineteen. When I was in Albany, I wrote a YA book, I’m about to be, “Aw yeah, we did it. I’m about to be Oprah.” That didn’t happen obviously. But I did have some general anxiety about it, and I still do. Here it’s cool because I really do feel at home. I went to SUNY Albany, I was in the Class of 2013. I feel at home here.
Question #13: If there’s a cost to these violent stories, is there a higher emotional cost to your daily life? Is the pain five-times as strong because you’ve killed five kids by chainsaw?
NKAB: Usually not because I’ve been writing stories for years, so I hope that doesn’t become the case. It’s like this double weight. This is art, there’s this story you’re creating but it’s so close to your heart— you’ve gotta just find a balance to that, have different things to ground you. For me I know my intentionality, I know I’m never trying to hurt anything for the sake of art, or anything.
Question #14: How often do you find yourself looking towards other forms of media, film or music for inspiration? Do they come into the forefront when you’re writing stories, or do they kind of set a mood for you in the background?
NKAB: I don’t write to music or have anything in the background, but do this kind of crazy thing where I have a song on repeat for sometimes way too long. An OCD kind of way. I kind of pace around, I’m like this close to having issues with it. I suck the juice out of the song, and sometimes I just write right after that. Moreover though, what was that magazine… Pulitzer Writers Recommend, and mine was actually about, “I think if you’re a writer, it’s very helpful to have another medium to create stuff in.” Especially for me, ideally a medium I don’t ever get judged on, or have to submit or ever get critiqued on. Writing is fun too. It isn’t just death, and doom, and gloom. I think you can have some joy in it. Some writers don’t. Ironically Joy Williams and I met, and she said she has no joy for writing. She said it brings her no joy. Back to what you were saying, I have a beat machine now, I have a new PC. I make beats now. I’m not good good. I’m this close to being the dude who is asking, “Do you wanna hear my mixtape in the car?” I’m almost that person. After a couple of those wine and paint things, I got a canvas. I paint from Youtube videos. I find it very therapeutic. I’m not great but I can do it. No one’s judging it, I created something. Not only is it inspiring you, reminding you, “I can make stuff just for me.” I think especially as you’re a writer, writing becomes more and more professional. You can lose the magic in that part of it. Once that which what was your passion becomes your livelihood, now all of a sudden it gets funny and weird.
Question #15: Did you like working with your publication agent? And did you have all of your short stories done when you started working with them?
NKAB: Yes, I did, they were all done. Working with an editor? It’s interesting. It’s kind of like an arranged marriage. All of a sudden you work with this person you’ve never seen before, with your life’s work. They have the power to not allow it to come out, and that’s scary. I got lucky because my editor was pretty cool. In the beginning I tried to pretend like, “I’m super cool, I’m cool with getting edits.” I am, but in the beginning I’m always weird too. I think in the beginning I would get something and be like ehh, I’m gonna close this file, and not look at it again for a month. I was pretty sensitive because I didn’t know her, and now I have a great sense of trust with my editor. That’s something that comes over time. We did it just like some teachers do, comments in Word, changes in Word. You change some of this, and I change it back. I like it this other way I did before. And then sometimes it’ll be, “yes, that should get cut”. I’m pretty good at accepting cuts. I like cutting stuff. I don’t like people adding anything. My editor does a good job, she doesn’t add anything, which is great because I don’t like that.
ES: I know we have one more question over here.
Question #16: I was wondering if you could talk about the lack of black satire across the medium. And whether you plan to stay in that lane.
NKAB: I am definitely open to staying in that lane, I don’t necessarily think of myself as a satirist, but I guess I am. I wish there was more black everything. I wish there was more black every single thing. I wrote my book before Get Out came out, but I saw Get Out, and I told my agent, “We’re on now.” “This is allowed now,” because it wasn’t. What’s funny is since then both Hollywood and book-world are responding, it’s about to be allowed more. I hope that people do it earnestly, and work in that form because they want to, not because it’s hot right now. I think that it’s very powerful, I think that black satire and black art in general— because of the overwhelming homogenous nature of everything has made us tell the same stories so many times, the same way so many times. There is power in allowing yourself to do satire, and to do surrealism, and also do sci-fi, and also do whatever. There’s so much power in allowing yourself to work in other forms. We’ve done this twelve years of slavery story so many times, over and over and over again— not to be dispiriting to that but it can be harmful because, for some people they think it’s like racism only exists with someone has a whip. Also, a white guy comes in and stops people beating you. That’s how they think it is as opposed to every day what we see everywhere. I’m glad to be sort of in that tradition. I’m happy to be in whatever tradition. I don’t want to be down at all, but I do hope that I’m not the only one. I can’t imagine anything happier than somebody else reading my novel, working in that form, and make somebody else see in that form. I’m actually gonna try my best to make that possible. I think there’s of potential for a lot of black creators in many different ways. And I hope I can be instrumental in helping somebody else. And I hope I can continue doing what needs to be done.
ES: That was a great place to end. Let’s thank Nana again.