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‘We Are Living in Evil’: Discussing Friday Black’s Horrific Truths

Photo: Vulture

Friday Black, a collection of violent, absurdist, frequently dystopian, and always deeply moral stories by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah, came out more than two months ago, but the shock of it will take much longer to wear off. There’s the gore, of course — from the opening story, “The Finkelstein 5,” in which a white man is acquitted of murder for the chainsaw decapitation of five black kids, leading to revenge killings, all the way to “Through the Flash,” a story aptly summarized below as “Groundhog Day, but more torture.” There are the theme-park vigilantes of “Zimmer Land,” and the title story’s vicious zombie shoppers. But the violence is no gimmick: It’s the serrated leading edge of a broken world we already know, in which no one feels completely safe or is free to be completely good.

That’s a lot to process, but the members of our second Vulture Spoiler Book Club are up to the challenge. Tuning in for a wide-ranging chat about one of last fall’s most important debuts are Vulture contributors Maris Kreizman and Hillary Kelly; moderator Boris Kachka; literary and cultural critic Morgan Jerkins; and Mitchell Jackson, author of the forthcoming memoir Survival Math: Notes on an All-American Family.

Morgan: “The Finkelstein 5” took me out. I almost missed my train stop. It made me so sad because I can see all of that happening right now.

Maris: The justifications for violence.

Morgan: And how black kids aren’t really children.

Hillary: The chainsaw bit was jarring — but in a very meaningful way. It seemed intended to raise the stakes just enough to make readers realize how much other crazy shit society (well, white society) lets slide.

Maris: How do you hang on to your humanity in situations like that?

Mitchell: “Finkelstein 5” was the story that made me start thinking about rage, and what is the difference between vengeance and justice? I couldn’t help but think about watching the Trayvon Martin verdict, or even the coverage of Mike Brown’s shooting.

Hillary: George Zimmerman was all over this collection — a massive indictment of “Stand Your Ground” laws.

Mitchell: I was really moved by the courtroom arguments they were making. He really got at the heart of it: Who deserves to be safe? How far can one go to protect their safety?

Morgan: Right. [The defendant] wanted to protect his kids. I remember speaking to a black man about this. He told me so much emotional energy in public is expended on making everyone else feel comfortable and safe.

Boris: The protagonist, Emmanuel, is constantly dialing up or down his internal “Blackness Scale.”

Morgan: I know that Blackness Scale. Toning it down, as my mom would say. I have not seen it written about this way before.

Hillary: Emmanuel (whose name I loved — “savior”) has to make decisions about the bagginess of his jeans, whether or not to wear his hat backwards. It’s part of every tiny decision he makes about his appearance.

Mitchell: But the thing is, you can’t really make someone feel safe if they’ve been programmed to feel like they shouldn’t be safe. I guess in a way the murders were a lynching. And just like lynchings, no one is held accountable. “Yes, you honor. I did it. But I didn’t feel safe.”

Boris: Between this, Paul Beatty’s satirical novel The Sellout, and Get Out, it seems that many black authors are using horror and surrealism to address race. Why now?

Maris: Subtlety is getting us nowhere.

Hillary: I think, as a society, we’ve become “unshockable.” Though I thought the chainsaw bit was very shocking.

Maris: I was shocked, but only because it takes so much of what’s been happening in this country forever and makes it so visceral we can’t look away.

Morgan: I didn’t find it shocking, honestly. I found it like a mirror or even a premonition for what’s to come. I’m sorry, y’all! I was like, “Yikes, this is brutal but, yeah, I can totally see this happening any day now.”

Mitchell: I thought the chainsaw was shocking, but remember that case where the guys in Texas did those unspeakable things to a man and dragged him around till his body parts fell off? That seemed unthinkable too.

Maris: I get that I’m privileged to even feel shocked.

Hillary: Maybe that’s why Adjei-Brenyah pushes it to a point that is almost believable. He wants us to know that this can (will?) happen, but give us just enough of a shove past where we are now.

Mitchell: It doesn’t seem like we are very far off at all from that being more common. Now we’ll have some YouTube footage of it and we’ll have to watch an ad before we see it.

Hillary: Can we talk about Emmanuel’s “transformation” — his backing off from the violence?

Maris: The collection begins and ends with stories of people pushed to the brink of violence who step back.  Are they rewarded for it? Fuck no.

Mitchell: I wasn’t surprised by his transformation since he was repressing so much of himself. I can’t imagine getting my blackness down to a 1.5.

Hillary: It felt like a daring move to create these roving gangs of vengeance seekers.

Morgan: And to have them saying the names of the dead before killing? Very, very clever.

Mitchell: “He figured that at the other side of the tunnel — after the Naming — he might he happy. But as he thrashed and yelled and saw it all, he felt nothing leaving him.”

Boris: I remember Toni Morrison saying she wasn’t writing for white people; it wasn’t her job to help them be less racist. Who is Adjei-Brenyah writing for?

Hillary: As a white person, I have to say that I felt like he was writing for me — among other people. Great writing works for so many groups in different ways. This is a book I want to hand to a lot of white people.

Morgan: The book felt like it could be cold water to the face for any reader, whether white or POC.

Mitchell: I’d love to hear him explain to whom he felt he was writing. I’m sure he can’t boil it down to a single group, but it did feel like it was to an American audience, or at least those living in a postcolonial country.

Boris: What about the three stories narrated by a mall salesman? There’s been lots of fiction, dystopian and otherwise, critiquing capitalism.
What’s new here?

Hillary: Apparently Adjei-Brenyah worked in a mall as a teen/young man. He mentioned it in an interview, in which he says, “The first time someone died trying to get a Tickle-Me-Elmo should have been a big deal.”

Morgan: I like morbid humor.

Mitchell: I was just reading Willie Perdomo’s new poetry collection and he was talking about growing up in East Harlem in the ’80s. If a guy asked you what size sneaker you wore, you had to say “your size” and take them off. Now that’s capitalism!

Hillary: OMG Mitchell. I don’t know if I should laugh or cry.

Morgan: I laughed. Go ahead.

Hillary: Thanks, Morgan. Adjei-Brenyah does have an early-2000s conception of retail though, right?

Boris: Is it weird to think we may one day be nostalgic for mall jobs, when everyone’s working at Amazon? “They really had the human touch …”

Morgan: Yep. I’m from South Jersey. I miss how much shit would happen in malls.

Maris: But I think fewer people are now being trampled?

Hillary: Although he’s also making the point that humanity has been missing from shopping for a long time. Hence the zombies, and the utter inability to communicate in anything but grunts. He’s also interested in the idea of a mall as a “third space,” just a place to be — which bred problems and also offered safe spaces for kids to hang out.

Maris: In the second-to-last story, “In Retail,” there really was a connection being made between the sales clerk who could barely speak Spanish and the woman he helped.

Hillary: We have to talk about “Zimmer Land,” too. I really loved that he owned it with that name. “Yep, talking about that exact murderer.” I feel like I have a lot of relatives who would think “Zimmer Land” is a great idea. Which made me queasy the whole time I was reading it. “You can work out your anger in a safe place!”

Morgan: This story reminded me of a Black Mirror episode.

Mitchell: First, great title. Second, there’s that rage again. But this time, it felt much more about how George Zimmerman worked himself up to unjustified rage. Also, how he kept doing wild stuff even after he was found not guilty. It was like he had been given license to be the arm of white supremacy.

Boris: The last story, “After the Flash,” about the day that never ends, really killed me. People become monsters without consequences, only to be angels the next “day.”

Mitchell: The Loop. We are living in the Loop, where even a blue sky is a taunt. And also, where the women are most levelheaded but also the most dangerous.

Maris: Groundhog Day, but more torture.

Boris: Is there a unified grand theory to this book?

Morgan: The false sense of safety? How there really is no such thing as a safety net.

Maris: “Despite everything, I think that people really are good at heart.” — Anne Frank. Friday Black loads us up on the “everything.”

Boris: Mitchell, you have a book coming out on the black community in Portland. Any resonances with Friday Black?

Mitchell: I’m in that city right now. Portland was made white by writ — literally, in the state constitution. Since I lived in the little snatch of a black neighborhood, and was ignorant of that history, I didn’t know how white it was. What resonated with me was Nana’s double consciousness. His work is a lot like George Saunders, but I’d argue one huge difference is that Saunders doesn’t have to think about what a black man thinks about for his survival and prosperity. Nana does. One can do it from a place of empathy, or one does it from a place of necessity. That consciousness is at the heart of these stories. It must be.

Maris: Speaking of Saunders, I was surprised to see his blurb for the book, which mentions the “immensely likable narrators.” I mean, I think they are? But why is likability important here?

Hillary: I didn’t care about liking them at all. It was a relief not to think about liking them, as with women’s fiction: “Am I supposed to like her? Am I supposed to not like her but like that I don’t like her?” Maybe this is how dudes feel all the time?

Maris: There is such clearly defined evil in Friday Black. Not much is ambiguous, morally.

Hillary: I sort of agree with Maris, but I did feel like I needed to know if some of these protagonists were ultimately good people. The situations weren’t ambiguous. But the people were.

Mitchell: Well, we are living in evil. So we could just take notes.

Boris: This may be the first book about race where I’m not thinking, “Is it about the Obama era or the Trump era?” It’s so obviously about both, and all of American history.

Hillary: That was the false promise of “Obama’s America” right? That we’d be post-race. And instead we’re perhaps worse off than we were before (not that it’s Obama’s fault in any way).

Mitchell: It’s the Loop. Obama made what we have now, like Reconstruction made Jim Crow.

Boris: Maybe the Loop is the unified theory.

Hillary: I’m wondering if people think fiction like this can coerce. Does it change minds?

Mitchell: I think fiction can be part of an influential chorus.

Hillary: You need to trademark that phrase.

‘We Are Living in Evil’: Discussing Friday Black’s Horrors