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Political author Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah shares his writing tips and experiences

| Staff Writer

Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah talks being a political author, Jan. 31 (Ella Gyre | Student Life).

Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah, author of award-winning “Chain Gang All-Stars” and “Friday Black,” traveled to Washington University on Jan. 31 for a book reading and Q&A about his experience as a political author.

This event was a collaboration between the St. Louis County Library, the University, and the Novel Neighbor, an independent bookstore in St. Louis, as the first of many events in celebration of Black History Month. 

After giving a brief synopsis of his book, “Chain Gang All-Stars,” Adjei-Brenyah moved into the reading segment of the event. However, what differentiated this book reading from so many others was the audience participation that Adjei-Brenyah employed. 

“This book has led me to try and be more interactive,” Adjei-Brenyah said. “I think there’s just a bigness and a scale that I feel crowds happen to be able to sort of simulate. Also, I love readings, and I’ve been to a bunch, but some readings are super boring, and I don’t want to be super boring.”

Adjei-Brenyah had the audience chant the name “Bishop” to simulate the roaring crowds of a colosseum in his book, and taught the audience to hum a tune while he was reading. In this way, the audience took the role of characters in the book.

Missy Rung-Blue, a St. Louis resident and fan of “Chain Gang All-Stars,” appreciated this method of reading the book.

“I did not read [the second chapter] with [the singing and humming] in mind, but that really added a lot to that section for me, and I kind of want to go back and re-read the book with that in mind,” Rung-Blue said.

Another audience member that enjoyed the audience participation was Marni Younger.

“Sometimes I go to other events and I’m excited for the readings to be over because they’re dull, but this one was phenomenal, like being able to hum and incorporate other types of vocal elements into the reading and hear [Adjei-Brenyah] read with so much enthusiasm made me really excited to read the book,” Younger said.

Next, Adjei-Brenyah sat in conversation with Danielle Dutton, fellow author and co-director of the Center for the Literary Arts, to answer some of her questions. 

Both Dutton and Adjei-Brenyah are professors, so Adjei-Brenyah spoke about the specific teacher and writing prompt which lead him to be the author he is today: “write a story to save the world.” However, despite being a political author, Adjei-Brenyah’s story in response to this seemingly political prompt was about a memory of his mother.

“I know it’s weird because a lot of my other stories are more, quote on quote, overtly political, but when I had that prompt, that [memory] is what jumped out at me,” Adjei-Brenyah said. “If I think back, I think it has to do with that idea that love and having been loved and having someone care for you, and acknowledging [love] feels really important and powerful and radical and all those things that I think motivate some of these other potential [transformative] changes that people might think of [like with politics].”

However, Adjei-Brenyah said he doesn’t feel that he has the “gravitas” to give this prompt to his students yet, and opts for a more focused version of saving the world.

“If you care about the world and want to save it, it’s okay if you save one person, and it’s okay if that person is you,” Adjei-Brenyah said. “I’m just trying to get [my students] to feel comfortable being fully themselves on the page at all.” 

Adjei-Brenyah said that he has always been a political writer. Even his speculative fiction book contains explicit research and facts in the form of footnotes.

“For a long time, my core idea as a writer was to never break the fictive dream,” Adjei-Brenyah said. “Footnotes really announce the work as a text because of the mechanical way you have to move your eyes down.” 

Despite this issue, Adjei-Brenyah opted for footnotes for a variety of reasons. He said that he alternated the footnotes between historical facts/research and in-world history in order to maintain immersion. He also said that he wanted to ensure that the work’s political commentary could not be ignored by a popular audience, specifically naming Squid Game. He added that he also wanted to shed light on misleading euphemisms like rubber bullets.

Laurie Hegeman, a St. Louis resident who heard about the event from the library, was intrigued by these footnotes.

“I think it would definitely be an intriguing book,” Hegeman said. “The author spoke about how he wanted people to go between the fiction to the footnotes to kind of explain the facts behind his story, and that would be interesting.”

Creative Writing major Bryn Muller said that footnotes are something that every creative writing major has an opinion on.

“I love footnotes and I’m always looking for ways to implement them,” Muller said. “These talks do so much for my writing [that] I can’t even explain.”

During the talk, Adjei-Brenyah explained how footnotes can call attention to the “palette of violence” we’ve grown, referencing popular media like Attack on Titan and John Wick. In fact, Adjei-Brenyah said that he was cautious to not make the book too enjoyable.

“That’s another reason why disruptions are sometimes necessary: to be like ‘look how much you’ve come to love this [violence],’” Adjei-Brenyah said. 

Francisco Lucca, a second major in English Literature and a student of Danielle Dutton, was particularly interested in this idea of a story’s enjoyment levels and the line between fact and fiction.

“I think his authenticity really shone through,” Lucca said. “I think he was very insightful in terms of how books are political by nature, and one thing that I really took away was his sailing the line between making an enjoyable to read book, and one that gets his message across, which I think is very relevant.”

Following this discussion, the floor was opened for audience questions. One piece of writing advice Adjei-Brenyah gave, in response to a question about chapter crafting, was to think about each chapter of a story as having its own arc of sorts, in order to build to a greater conclusion.

“I think it does come from working with short stories and thinking about every conversation; there’s always something at stake,” Adjei-Brenyah said.

After another audience member asked Adjei-Brenyah about the “human sacrifice” idea behind the death penalty. He spoke further about how the death penalty and the prison system are flawed.

“[Prisons] don’t really do what they’re supposed to do, let alone the inherent statistical realities of discrimination against people of color, the LGTBQIA community, and how most women in prison are victims of sexual assault,” Adjei-Brenyah said. “They also have institutionally stopped us from dealing with very real issues, like mental health crises, disease, and drug addiction.”

Adjei-Brenyah, who was inspired by the “write a story to save the world” prompt so long ago, made sure to speak about the importance of speculative fiction as a whole. 

“To me, one of the benefits of working with speculative fiction is that if you can understand my book at all, it means you are exercising a certain type of imagination that I think is important to have the ability and capacity to imagine a better world at all,” Adjei-Brenyah said.

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