When my Nigerian-American friends and I talk about what it means to be black in America, we talk about the ways in which we must ensure our blackness is the right size, the right cut—a digestible version of our identity. Our nappy or dreadlocked hair might be considered unprofessional in one instance, and a fashion trend when somebody else does it; our English (Pidgin, Ebonics, Creole) deemed sub-standard. We are somehow never enough just the way we are.
Nana Kwame Agyei-Brenyah’s debut collection of short stories, Friday Black, wields the sharpest tools of the dystopian genre—wild metaphors, stark imagery, and boundary-pushing hyperbole—to grasp at the contours of blackness through the prisms of racism, capitalism, morality, and family with the incisiveness of a tailor informed yet untainted by what is in vogue. (Friday Black just won the 2019 Jean Stein Book Award from Pen America). The author’s imagination in this book is like a country where it rains knife-shaped ice, it chills the bones unexpectedly, yet it feels shockingly familiar.
The opening story—“The Finkelstein 5”—follows Emmanuel Gyan, a black man, as he tries to negotiate his Blackness with an actual scale that enables him to as it were, dial up or down how black he will be in various situations. This is in a society where a white man can behead five children with a chainsaw in the name of self-defense, and not be found guilty in a court of law. He may dial down his blackness, to say a cool 2.0 when he is in a mall full of white people, or a higher number when among black people. As he grapples with the realities of how he is expected to wear his identity and what that implies, he evolves from a place of docile response to an eventual outburst that is neither shocking nor unfamiliar.
This absurd introduction sets the tone for the rest of the book. Agyei-Brenyah will not wait for us to get comfortable: it is not a welcome-to-my-house-please-take-a-seat baptism into race, morality, and other forms of invented American discomfort. In “Zimmerland” we meet Isaiah or “Zay,” who works in an amusement park of sorts that uses simulations of everyday encounters with stereotyped minorities as a way for (white) people to “explore problem-solving, justice, and judgement.” Why would a black man, choose to work in such a place? Does that make him a sellout? Black protesters (and at one point his girlfriend) seem to think so. He is trapped in a sense. The compounded effect of being black in a racist and capitalist society means that he is at the highest risk of financial insecurity, and will take a job wherever he can get one. The dramatization of Isaiah’s dilemma, and ultimate decision to continue to work in a place where white people pay to shoot black people for entertainment, might be hyperbolic but it is not a shade too far from the everyday reality of how class, and money in a capitalist society (and the lack of it) distorts our attempts at racial solidarity and freedom. When I read “Your life is in the hands of someone who doesn’t even know you and thinks you don’t deserve it,” the shock isn’t new, only fresh, and Murderpaint™ (a synthetic blood in Zimmerland’s simulation of white people shooting black people for sport) feels like a product I have actually heard of before.
“Lark Street” tells the story of a young man confronted by the physical manifestations of twins his girlfriend has aborted hours before, bringing up a prickly debate between morality and practicality. “He says Dad like the way some people say cunt,” the narrator in “Lark Street” says of his aborted son, Jackie Gunner. Agyei-Brenyah’s choice of tackling a subject as polarizing as abortion, with the proverbic blatancy and rhetoric characteristic of a wizened Ghanaian tongue is fascinating; although he is a New Yorker, Agyei-Brenyah is also a first-generation American of Ghanaian descent. The touch of “Ghanaianness”—through words and expression that may otherwise be overlooked, whitewashed, or outright omitted—is an unusual triumph and is greatly appreciated by readers like me (and apparently many on Twitter) who do not often get to see such bits and pieces of our language in literature. The new syncretic images and language, a result of coalescing his multiple perspectives, is refreshing: there is nothing more Ghanaian than saying “My arm is paining me,” and nothing more American than complaining.
Perhaps none of the stories exhaust the abilities of dystopian fiction and use absurdity as an instrument of torture to eke out the searing truth quite like the story of Ben in “The Era.” The story is one about a distant dystopian future where people are practically programmed to speak the truth and eschew lies. Ben, the story’s protagonist, finds himself trapped in this era where people, and he in particular, depend on injections in order to have some “good” in them, right up until the moment that he realizes that maybe, just maybe, there is a secret liberty to be found in coloring outside the lines.
“The Era” is written like a dream, and the narrative reads like a dream. You can almost see yourself waking from a slumber having had this story as a dream but instead of forgetting you remember it, it stays with you. When you read a sentence like “My head feels the way an orange tastes,” it registers as absurd but there is something inexplicably au fait about it. We are forced to look at our reflection: a species invariably fallible amidst the engineered possibility of perfection, but also with capacity to rebel toward freedom. In this story, the writer seems to suggest that whether humanity exists in the comfort of our modern world or a future dystopia, we remain imperfect and rabid. This is a bleak prognosis to give, but the writer offers it without hesitation.
In “Friday Black,” people charge into stores on Black Friday, tearing into and trampling over each other like literal zombies just to get a pair of jeans. In deft sentences such as “Ravenous humans howl” the main character reports on how commonplace and mundane the hungry violence accompanying Black Friday’s shopping frenzy is, as he enjoys his “two-dollar menu burgers” over “the stench of the freshly deceased.” As if this image is not stark enough, he continues “There are survivors, champions of the first wave, pulling bags stretched to their capacity… And there are the dead, everywhere.”
Good art, as I see it, must function more like a mirror than make-up or plastic surgery. It seeks to point out, and not to righteously pretend to have all the answers. In Friday Black, Nana Kwame Agyei-Brenyah is successful in holding up society as it is for us to see the depravity that is the effect of organizing society around race and capitalism. If the twists of absurdity leave your insides searing like flavorfully hot spice, you know it is good for you, that it is doing its job.