Author Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah on US policing: ‘It’s a kind of poison’

Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah is exhausted. He’s back at home having taken 19 flights in 20 days to promote his first novel Chain-Gang All-Stars, which came out in the US in May. “It was kind of brutal,” he says, though he admits that one of those flights served to transport him to his best friend’s bachelor party in Cartagena, Colombia’s Caribbean party town. How is he holding up? “The events were good. Everything else in between was a little rough. I’ve been acting as though I’m done, but I’m not – yesterday, I realised I had to do something an hour into the event starting … ”

He’s talking to me from his apartment in the Bronx, New York, in a room crammed with boxes and books, a suit hanging wonkily on a clothes rack behind him. His award-winning collection of short stories, Friday Black – on which he’d worked intensely for years (he was “crazy” and “obsessed”, he says) – became a surprise bestseller in 2018 when he was still in his 20s. Now 32, he’s receiving plaudits for a work of speculative fiction that, according to the Washington Post, “should permanently shift our understanding of who we are and what we’re capable of doing”.

Chain-Gang All-Stars is a rumbustious satire of the criminal justice system, a book that is far more entertaining than an attempt to convince its readers of the case for prison abolition has any right to be. “As a writer and as an artist I’m interested in the different systems that trick us into stepping on each other’s heads,” he tells me, “[the ones] that convince us that someone else is less than us or more than us, that make us feel that our humanity is negotiable. And I think that the carceral state, in America in particular, is the Death Star of that enterprise, so to speak.”

In Chain-Gang’s alternative United States, convicts are offered a chance at freedom if they sign up to a televised form of gladiatorial combat, or “hard action sports” as the euphemism of the day has it (the formal name for the programme – Adjei-Brenyah has a nice line in dystopian officialese – is Cape, short for Criminal Action Penal Entertainment). Freedom comes only to the survivors, since each encounter, broadcast to millions of fans from NFL-style stadiums, is a fight to the death. Even then you’re only eligible for release after three years: as the action begins, just one participant has made it out so far. Despite these odds, Cape comes to seem like a smart choice for the inmates whose lives in jail have been rendered unlivable by solitary confinement or the implants that deliver excruciating electric shocks if they speak or otherwise step out of line.

The fighters, whose names – like Thurwar and Staxx – conjure both ancient myth and modern spectacle, are divided into troupes, members of which are never pitted against one another. In these chain gangs there’s an uneasy equilibrium and deep bonds can form, creating space for an unlikely study of love, loss and self-sacrifice. Given how tooled up everyone is, though, the risk of unplanned violence is never far away.

And the book is violent – just like Friday Black, where political messages were frequently wrapped in hallucinatory horror. As the New York Times’s reviewer puts it: “Adjei‑Brenyah is so good at writing fight scenes that our moral disgust never definitively stamps out the primitive thrill of reading them.” It’s a clever, discombobulating move – a proof of concept for the plausibility of the sick world he’s built. Think you’re immune to the kind of casual bloodlust that fuels Cape, and sees millions tuning in to Chain-Gang Unlimited, the reality-TV spin-off that follows the prisoners in their downtime? How come you’re having such fun reading about it then?

Making us even a touch complicit is important for Adjei-Brenyah, because it underlines his point: if you’re tempted by the sci-fi accoutrements to see this book as a warning against future depravity, rather than an alarm raised about the here-and-now, you’d be wrong. It can’t happen here doesn’t apply, because it’s already happening. “That’s sort of like an ego response, thinking ‘We are better than this’,” he tells me. “And then once that bubble of, I don’t know, innate humane pride pops up, I can sort of grab it and hitch it to reality, which is to say – yeah, we are better than this. So your instinct about that is correct. But despite how you feel, this horror that you think is so impossible, it actually exists right now and has done in many different iterations for decades.”

In case there was any doubt, the text is dotted with Greek chorus-like footnotes. Sometimes they are part of the story – detailing, for example, the crimes that fighters were jailed for, because nowhere does Adjei-Brenyah pretend that this is an easy story of heroes and villains. Sometimes they are snippets from the US constitution reminding us that slavery is still explicitly permitted as punishment for a crime, or the federal law on torture, routinely flouted when it comes to treatment of prisoners. Occasionally they make clear the cruelty described in the book is matched, sometimes exceeded, by real events. When Thurwar dispatches a 16-year-old in one of her fights and the exuberant match commentator declares “[that] may be the youngest person ever executed as punishment by law”, a footnote tells us that, actually, a 14-year-old Black boy named George Stinney Jr was sent to the electric chair in 1944 for the murder of two white girls. His conviction was finally overturned in 2014. One of the chain gangs is named after the real-life Angola state penitentiary in Louisiana, where, twice a year, spectators pay to watch inmates compete for cash prizes in a dangerous bull-riding rodeo. Adjei-Brenyah is also keen to challenge another kind of “ego response” that might offer false comfort to readers outside the US, a sort of smug pointing across the pond at American excess. He says that while “America has taken many of these things to level 10 … some of these traditions [have] direct lineages to other countries that think: ‘That would never happen here.’ I went to Amsterdam for the first time right after going to South Africa,” he laughs. “And there’s some people there who think that racism has nothing to do with them. Like they’ve never participated in any sense. And in terms of the global colonial context, it just feels baffling. They’re just like: ‘You guys have a lot of crazy racism over there. We don’t have that here.’ And I’m coming from South Africa, where apartheid is still fresh in the air. I was like, wow, people can just pick and choose their realities.

“It’s also another reason why the speculative form is useful for me, because it creates a remove. This is America, but it’s not exactly America. It’s more like a technologically advanced western democracy, and that could be many places. But yeah, there are going to be some people who would say: this is about how America sucks, and how great we are.”

Adjei-Brenyah is clearly a bit anxious about the possible effects of the violence he puts on the page. “I really hope that I am not just recreating it for the sake of recreating it. I want it to be always [directed] back towards thinking about the systems.” So he’s worried about glorifying it? “Glorifying it, or even just rendering it un-usefully.” It’s the Tarantino problem, I suggest, and he agrees. Is he a fan or a critic of those films, which have been alternately celebrated and deplored for their (frequently racialised) violence? “Well, both, you know. I think he certainly cares a lot less about the pernicious possibilities and merely recreating violence than I do.” At the same time, “it’s never zero sum. He’s super dope. He’s made incredible movies. He’s made some I’m less of a fan of … I think he’s much more OK with, you know, 86 nameless henchmen being murdered. But that’s the film world.”

I point out that his writing often seems to have one foot in another medium, be it latter-day superhero comics, streamed shows like Black Mirror or action movies. Has he had offers to adapt his work? “Oh, yeah, absolutely. And I’m also interested in that stuff myself. Like you can see I have a bunch of cameras over there,” he waves to a corner of the room. “I’ve directed music videos. I’ve worked on a screenplay.” Friday Black was optioned, but with Chain-Gang All-Stars, which is nothing if not filmic, “We’re trying to be very slow – also there’s a strike right now,” he says, referring to action by the Writers Guild of America, which represents thousands of screenwriters. “But there is interest for sure.” How does he feel about the prospect? “I’m trying not to rest only in the anxiety about the potential mishandling of it,” he says a little sheepishly. “I’m mostly trying to be excited. I’ll be intimately involved if it happens, meaning I’ll be like an executive producer and a writer on it. And that’s a fundamental, or else it will never happen.”

Presumably that’s a concern about the politics as well as the craft side of things? Yes, “but for me they’re related. It’s not just because I think it’ll suck. But because I think that to suck in this context would have political ramifications and so, yeah, I am taking my time with it, trying to make smart decisions. But also trying not to be too fear-led, because you could also do something really beautiful.”

Hollywood is a long way from Spring Valley, a distant suburb of New York City where Adjei-Brenyah spent his later childhood and teenage years after his Ghanaian parents moved there from Queens. Things were often difficult – one of the stories in Friday Black, which he says is “more or less 100% autobiographical”, describes a high-school senior trying to hold his family together financially and emotionally as his father disappears for months on end. In this context, writing promised a very real form of salvation. When he began working on that story collection, he was, to put it mildly, highly motivated. “Focus is a very nice word for all of it. It was a very deep obsession. And that was like founded on an illusion, you know, which is: ‘Oh, you can success your way out of family strife or whatever.’”

He continues: “You create a lot of happiness on the other side of this imagined wall. And you view your own life here as very much without happiness, and that contrast creates energy.” But when Friday Black was finally published, generating massive buzz, it didn’t feel like he’d expected. “The book coming out the way it did, which was incredible, and getting to see the world for the first time and almost having something like money for the first time and [getting] awards. All those things can happen. And in those moments, you could be the least happy you’ve been.”

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What does he put that unhappiness down to? “I think that the illusion I had shaped my life around was crumbling.” His father was also suffering from cancer, and would die six months after the book was published. “And again, I had a sort of magical thinking, where if I do good enough, I’ll be able to fix it.”

But while Friday Black “came from desperateness”, Chain-Gang emerged in a different context. “There is still that energy, but it’s from a much more confident place. [It] felt like: what’s the most important thing I can say with the five minutes I have the stage? For the world, not just me. What’s the most important thing I can do with my ability in this context?” The way America polices its population, with people of colour bearing the brunt, is “a kind of poison that affects us, even if we’re not impacted directly. I wanted to speak to that.”

His interest in questions of crime, punishment and how we treat those deemed guilty was piqued at an early age; his father – to whom Chain-Gang is dedicated – was a lawyer. “I was 11 or 12 when I learned that he was defending a person who had murdered someone, and I said something like: ‘OK, why would you do that?’ And I remember him just telling me: ‘It’s not that simple.’”

An appreciation for the complexity of social problems stayed with him, even as he proclaims himself a committed abolitionist, meaning he’d like to see the end of prisons and policing as we know them – “it’s something I believe in vehemently”. Chain-Gang contains a four-page interlude in which one of the characters, an anti-Cape protester, is interviewed by a journalist whose sister was murdered. She pitches all the most difficult questions. Do you really want to have rapists and killers walking the streets? What about justice for the victims? It’s a little didactic, but he manages to pull it off – and it’s important to him to have the counterarguments articulated without condescension. Plenty of people are concerned, or confused, about what abolition might actually mean. For Adjei-Brenyah, it’s a direction of travel. “Let’s see what works, but coming from a fundamental paradigm where life is sacred and your humanity is not negotiable. Obviously, we don’t have the ability to fully execute that yet. But we [should] build systems that follow that central premise.” He understands there’s plenty of room for disagreement. “This is not some easy thing. I know in my heart I’m correct. But having this attitude helps me hold compassion for those who are diametrically opposed to my view, and helps me speak to them more reasonably.”

Besides, being righteous doesn’t make for good copy. He mentions a conversation with his former writing teacher and mentor, George Saunders. “I showed him a draft of a story that has not yet been released, and he said if the reader, the writer and the protagonist of this story are all on the same side of an issue, who gives a fuck?”

“You know, in America, guns are insane. I believe that. Right? Nana’s attitude is fuck the NRA people and everyone with an AK is an idiot. Not everyone, but most of them. Then if my reader says that – OK, cool. Then if my character says the same thing, who cares now? Is that a story? Or is that a pamphlet? Because they’re not the same.”

“Things are complicated. Life is complicated. And that complexity is something to lean into, not to be afraid of.”

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