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With ‘Chain-Gang All-Stars,’ Aspen Words Literary Prize finalist Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah seeks to ‘grow our capacity for compassion’

Author Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah is a finalist for the 2024 Aspen Words Literary Prize, which recognizes works of fiction with a social impact. His novel, “Chain-Gang All-Stars,” is a dystopian satire that critiques the carceral system and consumerism, among other contemporary issues.
Courtesy of Aspen Words
Author Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah is a finalist for the 2024 Aspen Words Literary Prize, which recognizes works of fiction with a social impact. His novel, “Chain-Gang All-Stars,” is a dystopian satire that critiques the carceral system and consumerism, among other contemporary issues. 

Author Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah has published two books in his writing career, and both have been nominated for the Aspen Words Literary Prize, which recognizes works of fiction that grapple with vital contemporary issues.

His short story collection, “Friday Black,” was a finalist in 2019.

It offered a satirical look at life as a young, Black person in America, through topics like racism, cultural unrest and consumerism.

A story he started for that book spurred the idea for his debut novel, “Chain-Gang All-Stars,” which is a finalist for the prize this year.

The novel — also darkly satirical — considers a not-so-distant future in which prisoners sentenced to death or 25 years in prison can try to fight their way out in gladiator-style combat against other prisoners. It is also a love story, among two of the competitors, and a sweeping work that considers the inner lives and perspectives of numerous characters.

“I think, through certain lenses, … I really can have appreciation and compassion for maybe the worst person you can imagine,” Adjei-Brenyah told Aspen Public Radio.

“I think I've been working on that for a long time through both books, just trying to figure out avenues to be more generous,” he added.

The book is a sharp critique of the carceral system that Adjei-Brenyah says strengthened his views as an “abolitionist” against prison institutions.

“I probably was never super okay about it, but I was sort of flippant about it, or (had) just a mild, “that's kind of bad energy” (attitude),” he said, “as opposed to what is now a really serious understanding that it’s one of our more serious pro

blems we have as a global civilization: our current attitude towards the carceral state.”

Reporter Kaya Williams spoke to Adjei-Brenyah about his work for this series of interviews with Literary Prize finalists. This conversation has been edited and condensed.

In the world that transcends the carceral state, community reemerges as one of the primary pillars of our day to day existence.
Author Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah, on a future that diverges from the dystopia of “Chain-Gang All-Stars” 

Kaya Williams: This is an award that recognizes fiction with a social impact. Now, the social impact of your latest book is immense. It's pretty clear on the surface that this explores the carceral system and consumerism and many other themes. I'd love for you to tell me a bit about why those themes drew you in, and what inspired you to write fiction about them, particularly versus say, some nonfiction exposé?

Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah: Well, the second part is easy. Fiction’s just where I feel I'm most effective. It's where I've sort of studied the craft in this particular kind of way. But that said, this book also did push me to really stretch my sort of research muscle.

I think, as a writer, I'm generally interested in different systems that get us to step on each other's heads, metaphorically or literally — different systems that sort of trick us into thinking that the only way to move forward is to neglect a sort of communal humanity, a sort of sacred, special, humanist energy that should never be thrown out the window. I think I'm interested in systems that get us to kind of forget about that.

Williams: Do you find that literature and writing in particular can remind us of that humanity?

Adjei-Brenyah: Absolutely. I think it's a huge part of my project. To me, as a writer in general, I think that there's a lot of our world that massages or sort of placates or exercises or grows our competitive side, our self-preservation side. But there's a lot less of our structures that really grow our capacity for compassion. And I think a big part of my project as a writer is to try to be one of those forces.

Williams: Now, one of the things that has struck me while reading this book is both the level of world-building — there all of these wonderful little kind of witty footnotes, almost, that really immerse you in the world of “Chain-Gang All-Stars” — but also that this may be speculative, it may be fiction, but to me, at least felt very plausible, in an unsettling way. As a writer, as you were creating that world, were you going in with the intent of saying, “this is something that could happen”? Or did you go in trying to say, “this is something totally otherworldly,” and at the end, (it) starts to resonate?

Adjei-Brenyah: I kind of want the feeling to be that this is already happening. We don't have public gladiatorial games, but we have human beings being treated as slaves, and entertainment, even, and producers of commerce right now.

And so what I hoped would happen is that I would sort of get any reasonable person to agree, like sort of fundamentally, that this, what’s in front of you on this page of the story is horrendous and way beneath our moral, ethical standard.

But then, (I wanted) to slowly remind us that what we have right now is better — in the sense that it's not televised in that same way, we get to feel better about it, because it’s not so public — but the moral ethical foundations that allowed the “Chain-Gang All-Stars” system are those which we actually have in our real world. And so in some senses, we’re already there.

Williams: In the spirit of your values as an abolitionist, and in the spirit of speculative fiction, have you ever considered — or even in the process of writing this book considered — what an alternate future could look like, what the ideal future might look like versus the dystopian version of it?

Adjei-Brenyah: I think you have to think about it. And I think one of the cool parts about writing and doing this kind of work is (that) your imagination is always kept in shape.

And to answer the question a little bit more precisely, hopefully: Abolition, a lot of people think of it as like removal, as a negative process. It's really more additive than anything else. And so what I think about is, what if there was a universal income, a living wage for everybody? It seems like a lot of crime would disappear.

What if we grew our sort of compassionate arm against diseases like addiction, and we had a lot more, not only just medical, but holistic approaches to dealing with the disease of addiction, for example?

What if we just grew our ability to really, really think and take seriously this mental health crisis — much of that is also, again, fed by poverty — but what if we really tried and grew new institutions that dealt with that and thought about those issues seriously. What would that look like?

I'm kind of just asking more questions. But those are the kind of questions that animate me towards that answer. Those are the kind of questions that come to my mind.

It would be sort of a fundamental reimagining of a lot of our spaces. I think about when you go outside and try to go to a public space, outside of maybe the church, the library, and the park, it's hard to think about a space where there's not an expectation of commerce.

I think we would have to grow a lot of spaces where that was not the expectation, and really, reintroduce ourselves to the idea of community. I think we have this illusion that you and me can live right next to each other, or literally on top of each other, but have nothing to do with each other.

I think in the world that transcends the carceral state, community reemerges as one of the primary pillars of our day-to-day existence.

Interviews with several other Aspen Words Literary Prize finalists will be broadcast on Aspen Public Radio and archived onlinein the lead-up to the awards ceremony on April 25. There is a watch party for the ceremony at the Pitkin County Library at 4:30 p.m. Aspen Public Radio will record the event, and broadcast it at 8 p.m. the same night.

Kaya Williams is the Edlis Neeson Arts and Culture Reporter at Aspen Public Radio, covering the vibrant creative and cultural scene in Aspen and the Roaring Fork Valley. She studied journalism and history at Boston University, where she also worked for WBUR, WGBH, The Boston Globe and her beloved college newspaper, The Daily Free Press. Williams joins the team after a stint at The Aspen Times, where she reported on Snowmass Village, education, mental health, food, the ski industry, arts and culture and other general assignment stories.