Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah likes to start his creative-writing workshops by first offering one of his own stories up for critical scrutiny. It can be a terrifying experience, he concedes, but empowering students to trust their own expertise is one of his teaching philosophies.
It was not so long ago that the 27-year-old was in their position – a creative-writing student rather than professor at the esteemed Syracuse University in New York. A student who thought he would have a book deal at 19; who wrote 80 short stories and a young-adult novel that were "really bad".
It was his teacher George Saunders, who won the Man Booker Prize in 2017 for his surreal novel Lincoln in the Bardo, who offered him key advice: don't rush. Saunders would become a mentor, later a friend and colleague, and the first person to read Adjei-Brenyah's provocative debut short-story collection, Friday Black. The collection has already received high praise, with writer Roxane Gay describing it as "dark, captivating and essential" and the Fairfax review calling it a "knockout".
On the eve of publication – before the promotional campaign kicks into overdrive with signings, talks and events – Adjei-Brenyah is in a New York hotel trying to remain calm. He sought advice from Saunders on this portion of a writer's life, but he is reluctant to publicly share the short-story master's words of wisdom.
"I have thought about tomorrow everyday for the last 10 years probably, pretty specifically, the actual event of having my friends and family be there to celebrate this thing," Adjei-Brenyah says.
"You spend so much of your life on the outside looking in, or thinking you are looking in on something, and then when you are kind of inside it's just so many different feelings ... There is also a realisation that now it is show and prove. Now your work will be seen by people who are not just your Facebook friends. Now you are going to have to stand behind the work you have worked on in solitude for many years. Now it belongs to the world and you can't go back on that. It's a lot."
If Adjei-Brenyah has shown, he has also proven. His 12 short stories are riveting; with a sharp blade they eviscerate the structures of class, capitalism and race that underpin our society. They are dark and the untempered violence is confronting, but they also have heart and humour. The shock in each is the realisation that what may at first appear an extreme occurrence is not so far beyond the realm of possibility. The enabling structures are all too recognisable.
Some are set in Black Mirror-esque sci-fi dystopias, such as in The Era where parents-to-be can opt for "prebirth optimisation", choosing from different personality packages for their children, and where residents receive a mandatory injection of the addictive "good" every morning. In the post-nuclear bomb setting of Through the Flash time has broken. The same day repeats itself, allowing residents to do whatever they desire to each other. A father slashes his daughter's throat with a butcher's knife, a young woman continuously hunts down a former bully, making his mother watch as she cooks strips of his body.
Other stories fall firmly into realism. A stand-out in the collection is the opening, The Finkelstein 5, that unfolds after a man who decapitated five black children is found innocent of murder. "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-F15- and retrieving his Hawtech PRO eighteen-inch 48cc chain saw."
The protagonist Emmanuel, who grades his blackness on a 10-point scale ("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") is swept up in a violent backlash where "The Namers" scream the names of the Finkelstein 5 as they beat and kill white people. "I don't know what to do," Emmanuel yells on the cusp of thrashing a couple to death with a baseball bat. He doesn't know what to do in that moment, but also with his rage, and within a system that is so clearly set against him.
Adjei-Brenyah's inventive collection has an obvious political and cultural relevance, and a glowing review published in The New York Times described it as "meant to be read right now, at the end of this year, as we inch ever closer to what feels like an inevitable phenomenal catastrophe or some other kind of radical change, for better or for worse". Yet he says the collection was 27 years in the making, and is about the "problems inherent to the project of America" rather than those specific to the contemporary moment.
"A lot of things were happening already way before this. I think now we are sort of tuned in because not only are these awful things happening but the person giving the message is not palatable or smart or kind or has any obvious redeeming factors," he says.
"I think we are now forced to look at the train wreck that we call the system. We can't look away from the wrong that is happening all around us and we are thinking about trying to find answers or at least asking questions. I think literature is trying to do that and art tries to do that. I think that artists right now are stepping up and doing important work but I think writers have always done that important work."
The stories in Friday Black were written over six years. Adjei-Brenyah grew up on the fringes of New York City in Spring Valley, a community with a large immigrant population that he describes as having "the feeling of being really close to something but not quite part of it". His parents – his mother an early education teacher, his father a lawyer – were migrants from Ghana. As an undergraduate, Adjei-Brenyah met Saunders for the first time while he was an intern at a local newspaper. Saunders was already his favourite writer, and inspired him to apply for the MFA program at Syacruse. As he read more, learnt from mentors such as Saunders, and workshopped his writing in class, Adjei-Brenyah says something shifted in his creative approach.
"What switched was I got to a place where I realised there were certain stories I could write that I could be proud of and want them to do something in the world, even if my name wasn't attached to them. Those kind of became the stories where I could see motivation in writing them and dive into them."
In Retail was one of the first stories in the collection that he wrote. It is one of three set in the world of retail, for which Adjei-Brneyah drew on his own experience of working in stores from the age of 16 to 23. In the story, a Taco Town cashier leaps to her death from the fourth floor of the mall during her lunch break. Her body lies covered in a yellow blanket, but the "Buy One Get One stops for no one". In the story Friday Black, shoppers gouge, push, scratch and trample each other to reach the Black Friday sales discounts. A huge push broom is used to sweep the dead bodies aside. The inverted title hints at something that is both familiar and unfamiliar, a theme for his entire collection.
Adjei-Brenyah has now turned his attention to a novel; the writing of which he describes as "swimming without a shore in sight". While he says his self-doubt has lessened, success has also prompted soul searching.
"Now I am realising that whether or not I became a writer, in the sense that I was externally validated by these institutions, wouldn't mean I was any less of a person. That's the important thing, I think, for me to realise now and I try to get that across to my students," he says.
"You're not like a person waiting to become a person because you haven't achieved some specific goal yet. I am all about going hard and working hard and achieving things, but I think the way you manifest motivation you can lose sight of the fact that whether or not you achieve anything observable you are still a person worthy of all the good in the world and I think that is important for me now."