David Naimon: Hey, everybody. It’s been a long time since we’ve shared a craft talk from one of the Tin House Writers Workshops. I think the last one might have been the eternally popular and ever-revisited talk by Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore called Writing on Your Own Terms, which if you have somehow missed, you really must seek out immediately after this one. Today’s talk, Why So? Surrealism, is a talk given by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah at the 2022 Tin House Summer Writers Workshop. I think it’s a particularly great talk in that it strikes a really wonderful balance between being insightful and educational while also being incredibly fun. As you’ll see, this talk arose from a journalist asking him how surrealist and speculative conceits informed or operated within Black fiction, something he explores with us within his own work. Adjei-Brenyah is the author of the debut story collection Friday Black. Tommy Orange says of this collection, “In Friday Black, the dystopian future Adjei-Brenyah depicts — like all great dystopian fiction — is bleakly futuristic only on its surface. At its center, each story — sharp as a knife — points to right now.” Since this talk, he has released his debut novel Chain Gang All Stars, of which The Washington Post declares, “Like Orwell’s ‘1984’ and Atwood’s ‘The Handmaid’s Tale,’ Adjei-Brenyah’s book presents a dystopian vision so [upsetting and] illuminating that it should permanently shift our understanding of who we are and what we’re capable of doing.” So without further ado, here is today’s craft talk, Why So? Surrealism, with Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah.
These stories are about to get unleashed. They’re about the wildness contained in all of us. “I think stories have some magical effect in the world. I think it’s really hard to live without stories and if somebody tells you this is the way you’re going to end up, you’re lucky if you can forget that.” “There’s me and then there’s writer guy me, and then there’s me working, which is the absence of me. It’s just a story.” “I had no idea how to write a novel. I didn’t know if it would ever come to fruition. I was working at a vet and lint-rolling puppy hair and cat dander off myself.” “They’re almost like really shy animals. They will come out of the woods but you have to stay very still and you have to pretend like you’re not interested in them.” “Artists tend to put their fingers in the wounds in the silences.” “I believe in the role of literature as a catalyst for dialogue and new forms of thinking.” “All the stuff I’m interested in is thrown into the washing machine that is my brain and it’s put on a spin.”
Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah: Wow. Shout out to y’all. Alright, gang, thanks for coming. I feel as though I’ve been respited because I applied to Tin House in my youth, did not get in, sort of found forgiveness about that but now that I’m here and I see how awesome it is, I’m kind of upset again. [laughter]
Lance, you hear your team saying, “F*ck you, basically.” You heard that? [laughter]
I’m just kidding. I’m actually very humbled. I’m extremely grateful. I’ve got these people here for a lecture. It’s been really nice to be in this space. I’m reminded I think of the real thing, this magic that happens when people are gathered earnestly. I can’t say thanks enough to Lance, A.L., and the whole team. Alright, I’m going to talk a little bit about surrealism but I’m also going to talk about speculative fiction and all these things that had been attributed to me after my book came out, most of which I had really not thought of explicitly actually at all prior to putting out my first book. A reporter for The New York Times recently called me, and yes, that’s the thing that happened, I was surprised as well. I know it’s very impressive, I think so too. [laughter] She wanted to talk about how I think surrealist conceits help inform Black fiction. She was talking specifically about a few titles that were about to come out. This reporter was a White person and so of course, I told her, “I’m not at liberty to divulge those secrets to you,” and I hung up abruptly. [laughter] No, that’s a joke. [laughter] What I did talk to her a little bit about, at least, what I thought was why surrealist or speculative tropes or conceits could be helpful, and I wasn’t that eloquent, I wasn’t that precise, I was on the toilet actually when she called and I was nervous but it was not ideal circumstances which I have right now. There are a lot of names for fiction that operates outside of the normal. Today, people call my writing surreal or speculative and basically, they’re mostly talking about stories where weird things happen. By weird, I mean some of the things that happened in my first book include fetuses appearing at a character’s bedside. There’s a town where everyone is stuck in a loop that ends in a nuclear explosion or a world where rabid shoppers literally kill each other for slim-cut jeans. The first story in my book, five Black young children are murdered via chainsaw. Some of these premises sadly are more familiar than others. Regarding that first story for context, I was in college when Trayvon Martin was murdered. It really shook me, particularly how quickly Trayvon, the dead child, was the one who was on trial, it seemed. In school, in response to the murder, I created a pamphlet that expressed the wrongs I felt were obvious and explained just how unfair I thought all of it was. Me and one of my good friends anonymously created 500 copies of that pamphlet and distributed it all over the SUNY Albany Campus. I went to bed thinking like, “Well, good job. We ended racism today.” It’s a self-righteous glee. The next day, I expected to wake up to the new world order that me and my pamphlet had ushered in. I got up, and to my surprise, absolutely nothing had happened. No one read more than a few lines. We had basically just littered. Years later, I wrote a story, I’m about to share just a piece with you, and in fiction, surreal or not, I discovered a way of writing that did something important, and rather than tell people how to fix themselves like on this hill, it was something different. I think that high-level fiction is asking us to converge together, to ask harder, more pressing questions of ourselves and each other, and in doing that asking, hopefully, we move towards discovery. I’m going to read just a little bit from this first story in my book called The Finkelstein 5 and then I’ll talk a little bit about how some of the surrealist aspects work. This first story, I’ve read it a lot, so my relationship to it is how I imagine 50 Cent’s relationship to In Da Club might be. [laughter] But I’m very grateful. I’ll read just the beginning.
[Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah reads from Friday Black]
Fela, the headless girl, walked toward Emmanuel. Her neck jagged with red savagery. She was silent, but he could feel her waiting for him to do something, anything.Then his phone rang, and he woke up.
He took a deep breath and set the Blackness in his voice down to a 1.5 on a 10-point scale. “Hi there, how are you doing today? Yes, yes, I did recently inquire about the status of my application. Well, all right, okay. Great to hear. I’ll be there. Have a spectacular day.” Emmanuel rolled out of bed and brushed his teeth. The house was quiet. His parents had already left for work.
That morning, like every morning, the first decision he made regarded his 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. If he wore a tie, wing-tipped shoes, smiled constantly, used his indoor voice, and kept his hands strapped and calm at his sides, he could get his Blackness as low as 4.0.
Though Emmanuel was happy about scoring the interview, he also felt guilty about feeling happy about anything. Most people he knew were still mourning the Finkelstein verdict: after twenty-eight minutes of deliberation, a jury of his peers had acquitted George Wilson Dunn of any wrongdoing whatsoever. He had been indicted for allegedly using a chain saw to hack off the heads of five black children outside the Finkelstein Library in Valley Ridge, South Carolina. The court had ruled that because the children were basically loitering and not actually inside the library reading, as one might expect of productive members of society, it was reasonable that Dunn had felt threatened by these five black young people and, thus, he was well within his rights when he protected himself, his library-loaned DVDs, and his children by going into the back of his Ford F-150 and retrieving his Hawtech PRO eighteen-inch 48cc chain saw.
The case had seized the country by the ear and heart, and was still, mostly, the only thing anyone was talking about. Finkelstein became the news cycle. On one side of the broadcast world, anchors openly wept for the children, who were saints in their eyes; on the opposite side were personalities like Brent Kogan, the ever gruff and opinionated host of What’s the Big Deal?, who had said during an online panel discussion, “Yes, yes, they were kids, but also, fuck niggers.” Most news outlets fell somewhere in-between.
On verdict day, Emmanuel’s family and friends of many different races and backgrounds had gathered together and watched a television tuned to a station that had sympathized with the children, who were popularly known as the Finkelstein Five. Pizza and drinks were served. When the ruling was announced, Emmanuel felt a clicking and grinding in his chest. It burned. His mother, known to be one of the liveliest and happiest women in the neighborhood, threw a plastic cup filled with Coke across the room. When the plastic fell and the soda splattered, the people stared at Emmanuel’s mother. Seeing Mrs. Gyan that way meant it was real: they’d lost. Emmanuel’s father walked away from the group wiping his eyes, and Emmanuel felt the grinding in his chest settle to a cold nothingness. On the ride home, his father cursed. His mother punched honks out of the steering wheel. Emmanuel breathed in and watched his hands appear, then disappear, then appear, then disappear as they rode past streetlights. He let the nothing he was feeling wash over him in one cold wave after another.
But now that he’d been called in for an interview with Stich’s, a store self-described as an “innovator with a classic sensibility” that specialized in vintage sweaters, Emmanuel had something to think about besides the bodies of those kids, severed at the neck, growing damp in thick, pulsing, shooting blood. Instead, he thought about what to wear.
In a vague move of solidarity, Emmanuel climbed into the loose-fitting cargoes he’d worn on a camping trip. Then he stepped into his patent-leather Space Jams with the laces still clean and taut as they weaved up all across the black tongue. Next, he pulled out a long-ago abandoned black hoodie and dove into its tunnel. As a final act of solidarity, Emmanuel put on a gray snapback cap, a hat similar to the ones two of the Finkelstein Five had been wearing the day they were murdered—a fact George Wilson Dunn’s defense had stressed throughout the proceedings.
Emmanuel stepped outside into the world, his Blackness at a solid 7.6. He felt like Evel Knievel at the top of a ramp. At the mall he’d look for something to wear to the interview, something to bring him down to at least a 4.2. He pulled the brim of his hat forward and down to shade his eyes. He walked up a hill toward Canfield Road, where he’d catch a bus. He listened to the gravel scraping under his sneakers. It had been a very long time since he’d had his Blackness even close to a 7.0. “I want you safe. You gotta know how to move,” his father had said to him at a very young age. Emmanuel started learning the basics of his Blackness before he knew how to do long division: smiling when angry, whispering when he wanted to yell. Back when he was in middle school, after a trip to the zoo, where he’d been accused of stealing a stuffed panda from the gift shop, Emmanuel had burned his last pair of baggy jeans in his driveway. He’d watched the denim curl and ash in front of him with unblinking eyes. When his father came outside, Emmanuel imagined he’d get a good talking-to. Instead, his father stood quietly beside him. “This is an important thing to learn,” his father had said. Together they watched the fire until it ate itself dead.
[end of reading]
Alright, that’s the beginning of that story. [Applause] Oh, thank you. Thanks. Appreciate it. This features a conceit that might be called the Blackness scale and it’s a numeric value that the protagonist could set himself to; 1.5 being a caricature of a White person and a 10 being as Black or actually stereotypically threatening as possible. Wearing a hoodie, for example, might increase the numeric value, and as a result, how he’s perceived in the world. Though I didn’t have the ability to describe this to the reporter who interviewed me, which is the thing that happened here, I think of at least one use of a surreal or speculative potential in fiction is that surreal elements sometimes allow us the power to usefully reduce or expand, you can render an entire history of experience into a creation of your own design. The scales may be an example of this. I think that surreal elements can be a concentrate. Once it’s established, I don’t have to explain to you how I can see the ways I’m regarded if I’m wearing a tie or if I’m wearing basketball shorts and a black T-shirt, how one of them makes me a threat and how the other renders me owning a potential threat. I don’t have to explain the careful considerations a Black body has to make to exist and be perceived without violence. By employing the surreal element, I get a way of speaking about a thing that many understand in a way that is so quick and vital it feels as unnaturally natural as the real thing. Prior to having a book interviewing retail stores, I didn’t have to think about how to sound in an interview. It was obvious, we confirmed in all aspects of my life and so I wanted to create a surreal conceit that made what was felt literal. I want to condense that experience into something that could be held easily in the mind of a reader, a weight that might anytime become far too heavy to bear. Then that retail thread out, I’m going to read probably a smaller bit of another story. This is a story called Friday Black. It’s the titular story in my book. Titular is a word I learned at a conference and now I say it to sound smart. [laughter] This story is called Friday Black.
[Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah reads Friday Black]
Get to your sections!” Angela screams.
Ravenous humans howl. Our gate whines and rattles as they shake and pull, their grubby fingers like worms through the grating. I sit atop a tiny cabin roof made of hard plastic. My legs hang near the windows, and fleeces hang inside of it. I hold my reach, an eight-foot-long metal pole with a small plastic mouth at the end for grabbing hangers off the highest racks. I also use my reach to smack down Friday heads. It’s my fourth Black Friday. On my first, a man from Connecticut bit a hole into my tricep. His slobber hot. I left the sales floor for ten minutes so they could patch me up. Now I have a jagged smile on my left arm. A sickle, half circle, my lucky Friday scar. I hear Richard’s shoes flopping toward me. “You ready, big guy?” he asks. I open one eye and look at him. I’ve never not been ready, so I don’t say anything and close my eyes again. “I get it; I get it. Eye of the tiger! I like it,” Richard says. I nod slowly. He’s nervous. He’s a district manager, and this is the Prominent Mall. We’re the biggest store in his territory. We’re supposed to do a million over the next thirty days. Most of it’s on me.
The main gate creaks and groans.
“I saw the SuperShell in the back. What’s she wear, medium or large?”
“Large,” I say, opening both eyes.
There’s a contest: Whoever has the most sales gets to take home any coat in the store. When Richard asked me what I was going to do if I won, I told him that when I won I was going to give one of the SuperShell parkas to my mother. Richard frowned but said that was honorable. I said that yeah, it was. The SuperShells are the most expensive coats we have this season: down-filled lofted exterior with a water-repellent finish, zip vents to keep the thing breathable, elastic hem plus faux fur on the hood for a luxurious touch. I know Richard would have me choose literally anything else. That’s half of why I chose it. I set it aside in the back. It’s the only large we’ve got due to a shipment glitch. Nobody will touch it because I’m me.
Most of the Friday heads are here for the PoleFace™ stuff. And whose name is lined up with the PoleFace™ section on the daily breakdown each day this weekend? It’s not Lance or Michel, that’s for sure. It’s not the new kid, Duo, either. I look across to denim where Duo is pacing back and forth making sure his piles are neat and folded. He’s a pretty good kid. Sometimes he’ll actually ask to help with shipments. He wears a T-shirt and skinny jeans like most of our customers his age. Angela tells him to watch me, to learn from me. She says he’s my heir apparent. I like him, but he’s not like me. He can sound honest, he knows how to see what people want, but he can’t do what I can do. Not on Black Friday. But he’ll survive denim.
Michel and Lance cover shoes and graphic tees. Michel and Lance might as well be anybody else. Lance is working the broom.
There’s a grind and a metallic rumble. Angela is in the front. She’s pushed the button and turned the key. The main gate eats itself up as it rolls into the ceiling.
“Get out of here!” I yell to Richard. He runs to the register where he’ll be backup to the backup safe.
Maybe eighty people rush through the gate, clawing and stampeding. Pushing racks and bodies aside. Have you ever seen people run from a fire or gunshots? It’s like that, with less fear and more hunger. From my cabin, I see a child, a girl maybe six years old, disappear as the wave of consumer fervor swallows her up. She is sprawled facedown with dirty shoe prints on her pink coat. Lance walks up to the small pink body. He’s pulling a pallet jack and holding a huge push broom. He thrusts the broom head into her side and tries to sweep her onto the pallet jack so he can roll her to the section we’ve designated for bodies. As he touches her, a woman wearing a gray scarf pushes him away and yanks the girl to her feet. I imagine the mother explaining that her tiny daughter isn’t dead yet. She pulls the little girl toward me. The girl limps and tries to keep up, and then I have to forget about them.
“Blue! Son! SleekPack!” a man with wild eyes and a bubble vest screams as he grabs my left ankle. White foam drips from his mouth. I use my right foot to stomp his hand, and I feel his fingers crush beneath my boots. He howls, “SleekPack. Son!” while licking his injured hand. I look him in his eyes, deep red around his lids, redder at the corners. I understand him perfectly. What he’s saying is this: My son. Loves me most on Christmas. I have him holidays. Me and him. Wants the one thing. Only thing. His mother won’t. On me. Need to feel like Father!
Ever since that first time, since the bite, I can speak Black Friday. Or I can understand it, at least. Not fluently, but well enough. I have some of them in me. I hear the people, the sizes, the model, the make, and the reason. Even if all they’re doing is foaming at the mouth. I use my reach and pull a medium- size blue SleekPack PoleFace™ from a face-out rack way up on the wall. “Thanks,” he growls when I throw the jacket in his face.
[end of reading]
Okay, that’s the beginning of that. [Applause] For this story, I took the lived experience working in retail—if anybody works in retail, I’m right here—and created a hypersaturated narrative in which hyperbole makes a particular point unmissable. I hope, I guess. For me, surrealism through hyperbole offers a couple of benefits, and there’s more but I was thinking specifically about these. Sometimes you can be funny. It gives you an avenue to satire I guess. I don’t think people being trampled in Best Buy for real is funny but people in a made-up store being trampled and discarded into a section designated for bodies is funny because we are distant enough from our own reality that we can appreciate the ridiculousness without ego jumping in the way and then after that ridiculousness has been appreciated, laughed at, considered, we can start actively doing what a part of our brains was doing immediately, which is drawing connections between the story and the lives we live. Oh, man, this thing is almost like a chance to play I guess. I think that’s really important to always titrate fun and play into your process. George Saunders, a friend and a mentor of mine, maybe you guys have heard of him, casual name drop, a friend of George Saunders, [laughter] in his story Sea Oak, he writes one of my favorite sentences in American letters and he finds a reason for it through like employing a surreal craziness. That sentence which I’ll offer without further context is, “‘Show your cock,’ she says, and dies again.” [Laughter] Anyways, another potential benefit is that rather than portraying a photo-realistic horror show, the hypersaturated language and surreal quality allow the trampled body to be felt but not necessarily recoiled from the same way it might have been from in a wholly realistic representation. Once we feel that trampled body, we can laugh not at the pain but at the system that would be so careless with precious, precious life. Again, those connections between the story and life are being made. A very, very, very simple way of describing the effect I’m talking about is a little bit of sugar helps the medicine go down. But that isn’t exactly what I think I’m doing here. I’m not necessarily adding a sweetness that doesn’t exist. Just as often, me and people who work in this form are shaving away the niceties, euphemisms, and real-life sugar we add to every aspect of our American existence. To try and tell a character-driven story also, as a result of following that character’s experience in this euphemism-ripped-away world, make a point about our culture. So yeah, all that said, why am I, Nana—sometimes New York Times interviewee—interested in this style, this form, this avenue of storytelling? I think that well, maybe it’s obvious given that I’m a Pisces but I’m a pretty sensitive guy. But also, I grew up as a boy in a home where we didn’t really talk about feelings. I grew up playing sports that did not really encourage expressions outside of force or anger. That’s not something special, it’s typical probably. So when our house got foreclosed, we did not talk about it. We spent days in hotels and squeezed ourselves into a new apartment. We didn’t talk about that. Years later, when a pink eviction notice appeared at our apartment’s door, there was no real discussion. Occasional yelling matched between my parents, we packed, we went, and then I went away to school and the family squeezed further into a basement we’d rent for the next eight years. Part of the power of the surreal or speculative forms is that I can say exactly what I want, examine things that trouble or bother me without having to necessarily almost like re-traumatize myself with the lived inciting incidents. That is, I can tell the experiences to look just as I want them while still feeling what needs to be felt. Imagine, if you would, a medical examiner performing an autopsy with their eyes closed, feeling fresh bullet holes in supple organs with only their hands. It is both familiar and foreign. That’s my reader. I think that this only works when I, the author, have examined the body deeply with all my senses. For me, this form works when I’ve examined the body so close I’ll never forget how it looks or feels, and to take it out of this metaphor, it works when I’m dealing with things that are my life so closely that I can never forget them. I’ve seen them and there are so many ways that it just is who I am and so the experience I’m describing, the eyes-closed autopsy is what I’m trying to give to anyone who reads my work. What I’m doing in this fictive form is saying to the reader, “Feel this with me. Close your eyes. I’ll show you where the heart is. Let me guide your hand.” So yeah, back to why I’ve come to this style. I mentioned a series of foreclosures and evictions but what was happening in that period that the thing that I actually usually never really talk about says I’m getting better at doing it now, the thing that actually bothered me was my mother’s declining mental health. She lost her job as a director in a kindergarten when I was in middle school and she never went back to work after that. This, again, was only spoken about in angry clashes between my mother and father. I see now that my father didn’t have the emotional ability to express fear and frustration and that the underlying issues causing fear and frustration at the underlying issues causing my mother’s inability to work. Instead, he screamed and yelled. There was an anger that reverberated through the home, a kind of simmer always waiting to boil over. My mother who buried the brunt of so much of this unhappiness began to ask people who might say lose her faculties, a devout Christian, she spilled oils on the floors claiming she was anointing them. She talked to herself, perpetually speaking the language of God. She sent money we didn’t have to people who promised miracles. She had very little of the spark and energy of a woman I had known my whole life. I saw her disappearing slowly. When I came back home from school, my first winter break, I dragged my suitcase from one bus to another. I was going to a home, a place I’d never been before. When I arrived, I saw a house and was confused. This place was much larger than the apartment we’d just been recently been evicted from. Soon I learned that yes, this was where we were living but the house was where the landlord lives. My family was renting the basement. I pulled my suitcase across the grass and knocked on the door. I opened after a minute, I saw my mother and a dread that still lives in me today was born, I walked in. My mother looked as though she’d aged 10 years that semester, as if some light in her had been power washed away. She spent time in a psychiatric hospital while I was gone by the will of my father. I gave her a hug. She felt brittle, an echo of an echo. The kitchen was a small space with a hot plate and a microwave. She said, “How are you?” I said, “I’m okay.” She said, “Plead the blood of Jesus.” Those few words took her almost a minute to say she was on medicine and it made her do things, everything painfully slow. I saw this and said nothing to anyone ever really. What I said to my mother was, “I’ll be right back.” I was home for the first time in months and I left again. I walked down my street with my backpack to a Dunkin Donuts. I’d barely identified as a writer back then but I was out in like a workshop at school. I sat in the corner of that Dunkin Donuts and did not leave for like eight hours. I was not ready to witness my life as it was or any version of the world in front of me. I wanted to make a new world from scratch. I wasn’t able to write about what was happening then and even almost 12 years later, I’m just starting to feel like I can. But what I did was write a story called The Great Young Magician who was a Kafkaesque story, or this sophomore English major Nana thought it was Kafkaesque. [Laughter] The protagonist was a budding magician, a magic maker. The story, he can do small magic like making things levitate or briefly changing the color of an apple from red to let’s say purple. But the great magic he aspired to, the highest alchemy known was to make something from nothing, to create that which with non-existence by will and magical craft. I wrote the entire draft of that story in one day I think I’ve never done before or after. What I was doing was looking into the heart of what I wanted, avoiding why I wanted it, which was the change in my mother. I found a way to articulate and feel my own truths. I wanted to be the kind of person who makes something from nothing. I wasn’t ready to say writer yet, but what is a writer but one who does exactly that? I was able to escape into the story and stave off the possibility of diving into the trauma that was still fresh too soon. So, again, this is part of the power and weakness of the surreal and speculative. You can almost find a roundabout way to getting right to the heart of something. For me, that’s a very powerful tool. I have something here that’s about Squid Game I’m going to skip. [Laughter] But it was basically that I love Squid Game. That was really important, powerful in a speculative space but I watched it, I guess I’m not skipping it now, [laughter] I watched an episode with someone who came from like a mega-rich family. I asked her because she had access to spaces I did not, “What do your friends think of this?” They loved it and they saw no connection because they weren’t those kinds of rich people. I guess the point I was going to say is that sometimes, you might obscure enough in that roundabout journey that people don’t see themselves at all. I think it’s an important type of little game to play like how much are you going to obscure, how much focus you’re going to put, what’s the nature of your conceit, or whatever it might be. Then I think I smartly brought it back to the other metaphor and I said something like, this thing that’s right in front of me, never allow someone to mistake a spleen for the heart so to speak. But yeah, I think that moving past that, I just want to say that we’re all trying and we’re all struggling. I love writing stories that are strange and surreal because it reminds me that all of our lives have their own magical strangeness, not just Florida people but all of us. [laughter] To hammer home that point, I thought I’d end with just a little bit of the shortest story in my book and it’s not actually considered speculative at all, it’s probably the most direct one-to-one for my own lived life story in my book and I want to offer it here to remind you that there’s no better or worse way of telling a story, there’s always going to be magic if you allow yourself and your truth to come through in whichever way feels right to you and whichever way that looks is valid. This is the shortest story in my book. I only read it when the vibes are good. You used to make me sad. It’s called Things My Mother Said. It’s about things my mother said.
[Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah reads Things My Mother Said]
My mother’s favorite thing to say to me was, “I am not your friend.” She’d often say, “You are my first born son, my only son,” as a reminder not to die. She loved saying, as a way to keep me humble, “I didn’t have a mother. You’re lucky. You have a mother.”
When the T.V went dark, my mother said, “Good. Now you can read more.” Then, our house at the bottom of a hill lost all its life: gas, water, electric.
One day, I came home to the warm smell of chicken and rice. I hadn’t been able to steal a second burger in the cafeteria at school that day. My stomach whined. 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. Hunger colored those days.
“Where is this from?” I asked, already carving out a healthy portion from a worn grey pot.
My mother pretended she didn’t hear me. She was studying pages of her massive white bible at the kitchen table. Wide sheets of light pressed through the window and draped her. She spent her days reading that big bible. Its pages wore to film as her fingers fluttered from psalm to psalm. She’d be asleep by the splash of dusk. I, on the other hand, would be up for hours. Trying to do homework by the blue glow of my cell phone, clinging to its light until it died. At night, hunger and I huddled together. I fell asleep thinking one day I would change everything.
That afternoon, I ate the chicken and rice, it tasted like pepper and smoke. “How did you make this, Mom?” I asked again. She looked up from her big bible, “Auwrade. Did you pray over your food? Did you say your psalms today?” I ate the food quickly, greedily. I chewed the bones till they splintered in my mouth.
Another thing my mother often said: “You are the best thing that ever happened to me.”
Later, when I was in the backyard, hesitant to return to the dying box as the sun dipped away, I found a patch of charred grass and a small circle of blackened stones and pebbles. An ash moon branded into a sea of wild green grass. I touched a gray rock partially blackened by flame to see if it was still hot. I felt proud and ashamed. For the record, I know I was lucky, I know I am lucky, I don’t think you’re stupid, I know I am not your friend, I hope you can be proud of me.
[end of reading]
Thank you, guys. [Applause]
David Naimon: Today’s program was recorded at the 2022 Tin House Summer Writers Workshop. You can find more of Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah’s work at nanakwameadjei-brenyah.com. If you enjoyed today’s conversation, consider joining the Between the Covers Community as a listener-supporter. Every supporter can join our brainstorm of future guests and every listener supporter receives the supplementary resources with each conversation, of things I discovered while preparing for the conversation, things referenced during it, and places to explore once you’re done listening. Additionally, there are a variety of other potential gifts and rewards to choose from: from the bonus audio archive, which includes readings from everyone from Roger Reeves to Natalie Diaz, craft lectures from Marlon James, Jeannie Vanasco, long-form conversations, many translators, and much more, as well as the Tin House Early Readership subscription getting 12 books over the course of a year months before they’re available to the general public, or a bundle of books selected by me and then sent to you. You can find out more at patreon.com/betweenthecovers. Or if you prefer a one-time donation, you can do so via PayPal at tinhouse.com/support. I’d like to thank the Tin House team: Elizabeth Demeo and Alyssa Ogie in the Book Division, Beth Steidle in the Art Department, Becky Kraemer and Jae Nichelle in Publicity, and Lance Cleland, the Director of the Summer and Winter Tin House Writers Workshops. Finally, I’d like to thank Imre Lodbrog and Barbara Browning for creating the outro. Their album Imre Lodbrog et sa Petite Amie can be found on iTunes and Barbara Browning’s trove of ukulele covers can be found at soundcloud.com/barbarabrowning.