The Beverly Rogers, Carol C. Harter Black Mountain Institute (BMI) will host Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah, author of Chain-Gang All-Stars and Friday Black, at 6 p.m. on Thursday, Sept. 14 in the Judy Bayley Theatre. The reading is free with RSVP and open to the public.
In advance of this highly anticipated literary event, Adjei-Brenyah spoke about his work with Witness Magazine editor-in-chief Xueyi Zhou.
Zhou: You dedicated the novel Chain-Gang All Stars to your father who was a criminal defense attorney. You said growing up around him planted the earliest seeds for you to reflect on the prison system, the death penalty, policing, justice, and abolition. Could you tell us more about that, and how this novel idea first came to you?
Adjei-Brenyah: My father being a defense attorney was just a fact of my life. And the fact that he was usually defending those who didn't have a lot of resources, people who maybe had no other resorts, who he might try to help even pro bono sometimes, shaped my thinking. I almost took for granted for a long time that people are worth defending. When I get asked this question it forces me to think back to that time when my father told me he was defending someone who had done something really terrible that you can't take back, like murder, and it situated my thinking, where I had to wrestle with the idea of who is redeemable and who isn't at a very early age. And I think that question, that wrestling, is something I'm interested in in a lot of my work. Not just this novel, but maybe particularly this novel, specifically in terms of criminal justice. So that's the spiritual heart of it.
Zhou: When I was reading the novel, I had this impression that video games or anime might be a creative influence for you, just from the way you name the characters, the design of the death matches, the CAPE program, and the rules, all of which made this novel so active and propulsive.
Adjei-Brenyah: I'm a gamer, so that came up, certainly. I'm an anime guy, tons of anime, tons of manga. Again, not always so directly. I read Naruto in Shonen Jump. Things like Fullmetal Alchemist, Attack on Titan on some level, all these things have some deep piece of not just how I write, but how I see the world. I believe that you can have serious philosophical debate and moral issues can be hashed out while there's action, while violence is present, while the reader or viewer is engaged in action showman-style energy, and it can be a tool to keep you engaged. And also, it's a tool that implicates you in a certain way, and makes you consider your own thirst for violence, which is there on some level for all of us, just by growing up in this violent culture.
Zhou: In your previous interviews you mentioned the famously-violent TV series Squid Game. This novel has a lot of violence in it, and I think besides all the action and excitement, what always impresses me the most about your writing is your level of control and balance between an artistic treatment of violence (even “the beauty of it”) while still being able to investigate and interrogate that violence with intentionality.
Adjei-Brenyah: I care a lot about it. You're a writer, as well, and putting in care and attention is how we do what we do. I think it's particularly important when the violence is evoked, to not only be attentive there, but maybe even more attentive or more precisely attentive because violence is hard to contain when it's released into the world. It's hard to contain even when it's represented in fiction.
People can really misread you and get the exact opposite effect when you're working with violence, when you're working with satire. I try my best to be really deliberate about when I evoke violence. And it's also a way for me to express that I care about these characters. I try to be tender and show them love in that, even as they're getting brutally murdered, if I can. So all that matters a lot to me. It's a really great question.
Zhou: Another core idea you mentioned in other interviews is compassion or love. It is also a central message for one of your characters, Hurricane Staxxx – an active practice of compassion.
Adjei-Brenyah: For writers, our attention, our care, our line-level appreciation, that’s like our love. I really hope that compassion, despite the violence of the book, is what comes through most. I think that compassion is one of the things we lack most overtly in our larger culture, in America and beyond. I think there'd be no way for the prison industrial complex to exist as it does if we were a compassionate nation or peoples or planet. And so it felt like compassion was an important piece if I was going to write a book about this subject.
Zhou: To paraphrase what you said before, the importance of compassion, or the practice of compassion, is not just about taking down something, but also opening up space and possibilities for new things. And that's the focus of abolitionist movements and your own beliefs.
Adjei-Brenyah: Yeah, it's about building up a new world, it's about creating something new, it’s about growing something, not just eliminating something. And yes, we should eliminate this, but it’s about creating in the gap. There's so many gaps that prison absorbs. Whether it's mental health crises, whether it's drug addiction, whether it's people who are impoverished, people who have suffered from trauma or abuse. Prison is a catch-all “solve” for them, and really doesn't solve any of those issues, it just disappears its victims. I try my best to speak to that point.
Zhou: You have footnotes throughout the book, which both introduce concepts and institutions, but more importantly, there are footnotes with each death that happens in the novel as well as historical details and inner monologues. It is a creative risk, because the footnotes can pull readers out of the narrative. Did you know you would include footnotes when you first thought about the novel, or did this decision come later?
Adjei-Brenyah: I don't think I ever thought I would use footnotes. I'm not a huge fan of footnotes for some of the reasons you just described. I think I'm also attracted to a challenge narratively. I think that's part of why I was into it. Like I mentioned earlier about how easy it is for people to get the exact wrong message from something. I just wanted to make it impossible for those misreads to happen.
I wanted the reader — those kind of nerdy people like me, who care about the kind of world-building like Elden Ring or Metroid Prime, who want that extra texture in their world. I also wanted a way to not have anybody be throw-away dead. So the footnotes end up being a way for me to solve many problems at once. I could honor every death, even the most “insignificant” ones. I could eulogize those who I felt were important, which is kind of the first thing, but also I could create a new narrative experience that I hadn't exactly seen, which is probably the most interesting of all. It ended up being one of the hallmarks of the book. I think I was attracted to the challenge of it, and seeing if I could keep that dream going even with something that feels like it might disrupt it inherently.
Zhou: I think the footnotes in this book are little capsules of their own narratives. If you just read the chapter, you get a self-contained narrative that can stand on its own, but also you get small capsule narratives with the footnotes, and then together all of them add to something bigger.
Adjei-Brenyah: Exactly! Because the prison industrial complex is really at the nexus of a lot of different types of injustices, it felt important to try and speak to that in both the real world, and also the narrative world of the story.
About the Event
Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah will read at UNLV’s Judy Bayley Theatre on Sept. 14 at 6 p.m. The reading is free with RSVP and open to the public. Copies of Adjei-Brenyah’s books will be available for sale on-site by The Writer’s Block. Limited free parking for the general public will be available. This reading is supported by the Program on Race, Gender & Policing at the William S. Boyd School of Law at UNLV.
About Black Mountain Institute
Black Mountain Institute at UNLV champions writers and storytellers through programs, fellowships and community engagement. From the brightest spot on the planet, BMI amplifies writing and artistic expression to connect us to each other in the Las Vegas Valley, the Southwest, and beyond. For more information about BMI, please visit the website.