by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
The National Book Foundation honored Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah as one of their "5 Under 35" authors last year. His first book, Friday Black is a collection of stories that range from mainstream to science fiction, fantasy, and horror. Most, but not all, are dark and violent. I would have put them in a different order, especially moving the first to later in the book. "The Finkelstein 5" is one of the darkest, which almost put me off continuing. It's about a man who continually has to think about how to minimize the Blackness he presents to the world, especially in the aftermath of a White man's acquittal on charges of murdering five Black youths, and the backlash that results from that verdict. It's an exaggerated situation, but still realistic enough to understand the fear Black families have to face every day.
The second story, "Things My Mother Said," might have been a better start. It's flash-fiction, little more than a page, about a woman who resorts to magic to conjure food for her starving family. "The Era" is next, a look at a future society after The Turn, after the Big Quick War, after the Long Big War. Some families are able to afford OptiLife™ for specific gene selection for their children. Some might only be able to afford it for their first born, but not their second. Ben is a "clear-born," going through life without prospects of any success, continually over-shadowed by his "opti-born" older sister, Marlene. Perhaps the reason Ben's parents chose not to optimize his gene selection is that Marlene's was only partially successful. Instead of the seven traits they chose for her, the only one that survived the process was ambition. "Lark Street" is a sad fantasy, easily read as a dream sequence, about a young, unmarried couple who resort to a morning-after pill to end an unwanted pregnancy.
I'll talk about the other stories out of order. Three are set in the same location, a clothing store in the Prominent Mall. Two of them, "In Retail" and "How to Sell a Jacket As Told by IceKing," are mainstream, but the third, the book's title story, verges toward horror in the depiction of a very chaotic, very bloody Black Friday. Two other stories are set within work environments, although both very different than the ones in the mall. Neither could be considered SF per se, but they both feature speculative elements. "Zimmerland" is about a man who works for a virtual environment game company, perpetually the victim in a violent vigilante scenario. He hopes to improve his situation after being chosen for the research and development team, because he has grown tired of frequently seeing the same people pay for the privilege of "killing" a Black man lurking around their neighborhood. "The Lion and the Spider" was frustrating because it ended abruptly, but I'm convinced I need to read it again to figure out the author's intent. It would probably be best to study up on the Anansi myth before trying again.
Also out of order, I saved the best for last. Ninth in the table of contents is "Light Spitter," about a college student who kills another student at random, then goes to the restroom and shoots himself. The spirits of both he and his victim then interact, with the girl believing she is becoming an angel, the boy not convinced his real self is completely dead yet. They seem to be directed to another boy, who may be contemplating another killing. "The Hospital Where" could have been either a good start or a good end to the collection. There are twelve stories here, this one being the fifth. A young man writes stories in a notebook, either inspired or cursed to do so by a spirit he visualizes as the Twelve-Tongued God. In his visions, the god cuts off its own tongue, the man cuts his and replaces it with the god's, each time resulting in another story. The god's tongue grows back, ready for the next time. The final story is the best, both in style and content. "Through the Flash" is about a community isolated from the rest of the world, caught in a time loop following a nuclear blast. There's no telling how long it has been going on, but long enough for the protagonist to go from bewilderment, to realizing everything resets each "day" even though memories of what occurred remain. She starts to change the scenario by torturing and killing a boy who taunted her before, which leads to torturing and killing all of the other people, including her father and brother, hundreds of times, day after day. She doesn't think she has dreamt since the time loop began, but then she does dream about her mother who had committed suicide a few months before the Flash. She wonders if she can change her actions and be a better person? Even if she does, will the rest of the neighborhood be able to forget that for a long time she was the Knife Queen?
The copyright page shows individual dates for just three of the stories. "Things My Mother Said" and "In Retail" were previously published in different literary journals in the fall of 2014, "The Finkelstein 5" in yet another in July, 2016. I assume the others are original to this collection, but some were likely written years earlier. It's an auspicious debut from an author I'd like to follow in the future. I can't recommend every story, but I can the collection as a whole. As I said in the beginning, most are dark, brooding tales. Even the occasional humor is dark. It will likely resonate more strongly with Black readers, or other minorities, but some of the truths are universal, meaningful for everyone.
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