by Jody DiPerna
From the first page of his brilliant novel, “Chain-Gang All-Stars,” Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah brings the reader into a prison system of the future based entirely on history to lay bare harrowing truths about the carceral system.
Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah has created a world in the not so distant future wherein incarcerated people compete in death matches for pay-per-view audiences. These hellish deadly battles are broadcast as sport and are a cash cow for the prison company that produces and broadcasts them. The incarcerated people who compete, these ersatz gladiators, become both executioners and the executed, giving the government a work-around for state-sponsored executions.
Adjei-Brenyah is not the first author of speculative fiction to mine real life atrocities in order to create art. Margaret Atwood famously said of her masterwork, “The Handmaid’s Tale,” that everything in that book had happened at some point in history — she put the pieces together in a new way.
The same is true for “Chain-Gang All-Stars,” just released by Pantheon Books in which Adjei-Brenyah breathes life into his dystopian world by building on grim present-tense realities and equally grim historical carceral practices.
“The thing about prison for me is that it’s such a canvas for horrors. The idea is that — we can do whatever we want to you,” he said.
He is an audacious story-teller. He writes savage, bold prose. His first story collection, “Friday Black,” won the PEN/Jean Stein Book Award and the William Saroyan International Prize for Writing. In “Chain-Gang All-Stars,” Adjeh-Brenyah’s first novel, his bodacious writing constructs a grim world in which incarcerated people choose certain death over prison, where private tech companies have monetized the entire system, and the government shrugs like Pontius Pilate.
Some of the technology of this world is imagined, but otherwise the book is built on history. Adjei-Brenyah draws on research done around solitary confinement and suicide data in prisons. He builds in other true stories, like that of George Stinney, Jr., who was the youngest person executed in the United States. (He was just 14 when he was executed by the state of South Carolina in 1944.)
“This research created so many moments, because I knew I wanted a certain type of character. Then I discovered the Auburn system, which was real,” Adjei-Brenyah said.
The Auburn system was a 19th century prison practice, considered an innovation at the time. Talking was prohibited. Prisoners were confined in separate cells at night and labored together during the day at work that was modeled on the industrial factory. Adjei-Brenyah said he was inspired to write by the ways that the prison system exploits incarcerated people to find the absolute limits of human suffering.
“It is the nature of prison. That’s what we’re still doing, but that was interesting research because it created a whole narrative voice for me,” he said. “I thought about someone whose existence is driving against that idea of literal silence.”
The result is Hendrix Young, a character who serves his time in an Auburn-inspired prison where his silence is enforced through technology. Hendrix hasn’t heard the sound of his own voice — in the dining center, on the line in the slaughterhouse where he works, or even just talking to himself in his cell — for the duration of his incarceration.
Adjei-Brenyah shifts points of view throughout the novel. Hendrix Young plays a large part, but the story is told most frequently through the perspective of Loretta Thurwar, one of the fiercest and most popular competitors. We also get to see this world through the eyes of other competitors, who Adjei-Brenyah writes with full humanity, even those white supremacists and rapists for whom we might have nothing but contempt. All of them know that they will likely die in televised combat. And yet that is preferable to life in prison.
We are also invited into the boardroom of the company that owns the prisons and thus, owns the money making machine that is the Chain-Gang All-Stars, the product. And Adjei-Brenyah also puts us with fans of the sport, sitting in the audience watching death as entertainment and on the sofas of others who watch from the comfort of their homes.
In addition to the live-streamed battles to the death, the Links (competitors) are followed around by cameras, kind of floating GoPros which produce countless hours of auxiliary reality television programming. Fans get to watch the Links as they train, eat, sleep and walk from one battle-site to the next. There are so few moments for privacy, so friendships are formed and dissolve, romances bloom and conflicts erupt, as the competitors grapple with their own mortality on screen.
“That was really important — because everyone is implicated in the existence of prisons, in my opinion,” Adjei-Brenyah said.
“I wanted an opportunity to speak to the ways everyone is implicated in this massive, massive, massive, massive horror of injustice that exists. And that is sort of fundamental to our current understanding of civilization.”
Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah will read from “Chain-Gang All-Stars” on Friday, May 12th at 7:00 at Bottlerocket Social Hall in Allentown. He will be joined on stage for conversation with Damon Young, author of “What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Blacker.” Tickets for the event are available through White Whale Bookstore.