The courage to be earnest

Photo courtesy subject. Photo courtesy subject.

When Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah was growing up in Spring Valley, New York, he didn’t realize writing was a career path. He felt drawn toward the art, even though he was unaware that “actual human beings” composed Harry Potter books, science-fiction, and the fantasy works and anime he enjoyed.

“I didn’t come from a place where I saw writers in the flesh. I didn’t think of it as a possibility until I went to college,” Adjei-Brenyah says. “In college, I started realizing that this is doable.”

Last October, Adjei-Brenyah released Friday Black, his debut collection of short stories. In just four months, the book received critical acclaim from The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Guardian, and more. Adjei-Brenyah’s work also landed him on the National Book Foundation’s annual “5 under 35” list, and on longlists for the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction and Nonfiction and the Dylan Thomas Prize.

As the Times’ review notes, Friday Black is “not an easy read.” The collection explores complex topics that Adjei-Brenyah feels compelled to address: consumerism, the criminal justice system, and race and prejudice in the United States. Creating the book felt deeply personal to him, though he didn’t hesitate to break from reality. It’s “dark” and it’s “tough,” Adjei-Brenyah says of his themes.

In spite of Friday Black’s intensity, Adjei-Brenyah wants readers to feel lightness—to “exist without hopelessness” in a world filled with terrors. Without hope, he says, there is only inaction. “For me, writing is like gathering the courage to be earnest. I try to avoid cynicism and be unflinching if I can,” he says.

In his short stories, he achieves this through endless revisions and revisiting. He initially struggled with finding his voice, and it sometimes took him hours to write a handful of sentences. “I tried to chase [ideas] to get something out of [them]. More often than not I’d get something terrible or nothing. Sometimes something sticks,” he says. “Revise, revise, revise, and sometimes you get something good.”

With Friday Black, Adjei-Brenyah has clearly ended up with something good, and he says he feels “lucky to be one of the people who gets to say something.”

“My high school was predominantly underrepresented minorities,” says Adjei-Brenyah. “Publishing is homogeneous and there hasn’t been a lot of minorities. …Growing up, I liked the idea of being an author that someday some kids get to see.”

Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah will read excerpts from his debut short story collection Friday Black on March 22 at Common House.