Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah, B.A.'13

A Literary Superstar Arrives

By Paul Grondahl, M.A.’84
Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah at an event with the New York State Writers Institute
Adjei-Brenyah appeared on campus in October 2018 to talk about his experience at UAlbany and his book. Patrick Dodson
Book cover for Friday Black by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah

Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah is having the kind of astonishing literary moment that most writers can only dream about.

On Oct. 23, his début story collection, Friday Black, received a rave review on the cover of The New York Times Book Review, the pinnacle of literary success. Reviewer Tommy Orange said the author “has written a powerful and important and strange and beautiful collection of stories meant to be read right now.”

In December, Friday Black was included in the 100 Notable Books for 2018, chosen by The New York Times Book Review editors, who hailed Adjei-Brenyah as “a new and necessary voice.”

The collection tackles fraught themes, such as racism and violence, in a wildly original narrative style shot through with dark comedy. Critics have likened his fiction to that of such literary lions as Isaac Babel, Ralph Ellison, Anton Chekhov, and Kurt Vonnegut. Author Roxane Gay praised Friday Black as “dark and captivating and essential.”

Adjei-Brenyah made a triumphant return to campus Oct. 30 as part of the Writers Institute’s Visiting Writers Series. He spoke to large and appreciative afternoon and evening audiences, including several alumni classmates and former professors. He also had an informal conversation with English majors in the morning, at the invitation of English professor and author Edward Schwarzschild, whom he considered a mentor.

Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah was featured on the cover of the New York Times Book Review in November.

Friday Black is no ordinary first book, no ordinary story collection,” Schwarzschild said in his introduction to Adjei-Brenyah’s Recital Hall evening event. “It is a literary sensation, arguably the fiction début of the year. And that’s not a former professor making the argument; that’s not another proud Great Dane engaging in hyperbolic speech.  That’s just the way it is. And if you don’t believe me, all you have to do is take a look at what they’re saying about Friday Black in newspapers and magazines around the country.”

In my interview with Adjei-Brenyah for the Writers Institute podcast, he expressed gratitude and humility about the homecoming at UAlbany. 

“It’s great to come back to the place where I first allowed myself to admit that I wanted to be a writer,” he said. “That idea, that possibility, became real at UAlbany.”

Adjei-Brenyah grew up in Spring Valley, N.Y., the son of Ghanaian immigrants. He recalled that his parents would drop him off at the local library for the day, and he would read a lot of fantasy, science fiction, and Japanese Manga. “In my house, reading was cool because of my older sister,” he said. They had their share of sibling rivalry, and when she was accepted at Columbia University, he was upset that he, too, did not make it into an Ivy League school. 

“I have to be honest: I came to UAlbany with a chip on my shoulder,” Adjei-Brenyah acknowledged. “I chose it because it was close to home and affordable.

I ended up loving UAlbany and making my best friends – the people who became like family to me – here. I also found wonderful writing mentors here. It was the exact place I was meant to be.” 

Adjei-Brenyah praised the assistance of Schwarzschild and Lynne Tillman, an English faculty member. Both of them are fellows of the Writers Institute. “They helped me come into my own as a writer,” he observed. 

While majoring in English and completing minors in journalism and film studies, Adjei-Brenyah was active in several student organizations, including ASUBA; Pan-Caribbean Association; and Lola’s Love, which raised money for cancer patients. He went on to earn his M.F.A. in creative writing at Syracuse University,  where he now teaches.

“We had an inkling he was bound for greatness,” recalled Amy Biancolli, who attended Adjei-Brenyah’s talk and a campus dinner honoring him. She worked with Adjei-Brenyah during his internship in the arts department at the Albany Times Union. “I was bowled over by both the mesmerizing genius of Friday Black and the good-natured ease with which he’d assumed his new role as emergent literary star,” Biancolli commented.

After his evening reading, I joined Adjei-Brenyah and a half-dozen of his former classmates at Bombers on Lark Street, a favorite hangout from their student days.

“He’s the same Nana we’ve always known,” said Jamere Shelby, laughing and reminiscing over orders of chicken wings, tacos, and French fries. “Just a great guy. We are all so proud of him.

Paul Grondahl, M.A.’84, is the director of the Writers Institute; the author of several books; and a columnist for the Times Union, where he worked 33 years as a reporter.

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