He acknowledges the impact of recent landmarks in Black American culture, including HBO’s The Wire, Childish Gambino’s This is America video and Amanda Gorman’s unforgettable reading of her poem The Hill We Climb at Joe Biden’s inauguration. But for Adjei-Brenyah, one development stands out as uniquely powerful, as genuinely life-changing: 

“The Black Lives Matter movement, whether you’re talking about what happened with George Floyd or going back to Trayvon Martin when the movement started in 2012, has been huge – transforming the world in ways that are undeniable. That public acknowledgement of something that’s been there forever, has been so important.” 

The young Nana was a very different kid to the confident, ambitious, filled-out author Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah appears to be today.

“When I was a teenager, I really wanted to be in the NBA,” he remembers. “But I was already getting desperate. My mother and I have been really close all of my life, but she’s suffered some serious mental health issues, which means I’ve worried about her since I was young. She was unable to work because of her illnesses when I was in my teens, so I had already internalised a kind of seriousness by then.  

“When I was 16 I became almost a different person. My childhood kind of ended. I’d been writing little stories here and there and I joined a literary magazine in high school. And I was involved on some student level in local politics. But when I was 16 I started getting serious about writing, even though I didn’t have the vocabulary or the confidence or energy or ability to claim I was a writer. 

“I was angry and desperate back then. But I feel grateful to that boy now. Because without him there’s no chance things would have worked out for me. He was trying to carry an entire family on his back in a way that was not possible or fair, but he tried really hard. I would tell him, it’s not your fault everything can’t be fixed. But it’s because of how hard you worked that I’m here now. Today I’m in Manchester, in England! Back then that would have been like saying I’m on the moon.” 

His natural writing ability saw him to university; Adjei-Brenyah was one of the lucky kids who didn’t just read George Saunders’ groundbreaking A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, as a Syracuse student he attended the classes on which Saunders’ guide to writing and reading was based. Saunders was a huge influence on his own writing, and the first to read a draft of Chain-Gang All-Stars. How, I wonder, after learning the lessons of Tolstoy and Chekhov, which Saunders’ course focused on, did he know he’d found his own unique and honest voice? 

“I think it’s a feeling process,” he muses. “I had to write a lot of stories to learn what it feels like to really be yourself on the page. You know it when you feel it. It’s kind of magical, it really is… it’s an epiphany. By my last year of uni I started to officially ‘come out’ as a writer. I remember telling my older sister and I liked the idea that she could be proud of it. I just felt like, there’s no way I’m not going to do this. And I’ve felt that way ever since.” 

Chain Gang All Stars by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah book cover

Chain-Gang All-Starsby Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah is out now (Vintage, £18.99). You can buy it from The Big Issue shop on Bookshop.org, which helps to support The Big Issue and independent bookshops.

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