Why ‘Friday Black’ is The Big Issue’s Book of the Year

Adjei-Brenyah's debut offers a smart yet chilling alt-vision of America for anyone paying attention to today's political dystopia. This is black power, 2018 style, says Jane Graham

It would be an o’er-leaping vault of Shakespearean proportions to call the new wave of brilliant black American writers the silver lining of Trump’s dark rise.

But the global success of Paul Beatty’s hilarious and scathing satire The Sellout turned out to be a headline-grabbing kick-starter for a series of profound and spirited essays and fictions. The Big Issue revelled in the work of Hilton Als, Jacqueline Woodson, Jesmyn Ward, Darnell L Moore, Angie Thomas, Hanif Abdurraqib, David Chariandy…we really could go on and on, so plentiful has been the flow.

But in 2018 one intoxicating short story collection cried out for special attention among its lauded peers, and Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah’s Friday Black has haunted our dreams and plagued our nightmares ever since.

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When we first reviewed the 27-year-old New Yorker’s debut (debut!), still dizzy on its exhilarating blend of wildfire imagination, blood-freezing terror and ingenious wit, we compared the experience of reading it to being ‘locked in a room with only coke-addled American Psycho Patrick Bateman and his fridge full of decapitated heads for company’
(Bateman was nothing if not a thrillingly unpredictable host).

Its bold ideas and vivid metaphors creep into your brain at unexpected moments

Like Bret Easton Ellis’ modern classic, this is a book not easily forgotten. Its bold ideas and vivid metaphors creep into your brain at unexpected moments, like a unrelenting earworm suddenly singing on your head while you attempt to conduct a conversation, catch a train or follow a complicated movie plot. It’s hard to read a story about white misperceptions or racially-aggravated injustice, or even to look upon a young black man slouching under a baseball cap without an image from Friday Black pushing its way to the front of your brain, forcing you to process the everyday through an Adjei-Brenyah filter.

Adjei-Brenyah, the son of Ghanese immigrants, has landed on the literary scene fully loaded, full of inventive and provocative ways to make his readers sit up and think again – think harder – about the lives of black Americans. Like the two landmarks in contemporary black American pop culture his book is most frequently compared to – Jordan Peele’s movie Get Out and Childish Gambino’s video for This is America – it weaponises hyperbole, fantasy, horror and surrealism to create a high-impact dystopian vision of its native subject.

Whether taking stock of a real life game in which contestants can safely relieve their violent, racist fantasies by ‘murdering’ black actors, or considering an existence in which your skin colour can be dialled up or down according to your choice of headgear, fabric, or walking style, Friday Black will make you reassess the way you conduct yourself in the world.

That it achieves such a feat without sacrificing the pleasure of a rousing plot, or the satisfaction of an immediately arresting character is testament to its rookie writer’s understanding of what makes a compulsive short story.

As its readership blossoms under the sinister rain clouds of Trump’s demagoguery, Adjei-Brenyah’s debut offers a demonic alternative vision of America which will impact on every reader which pays proper attention. It will change the way its white consumers look at black people. This is black power, 2018 style. Underestimate it at your peril.

Books editor Jane Graham, PPA Scotland writer of the year 2018.