A society that seems to be an evolution of ours as likely as it is imminent. A gigantic penitentiary system that, to lighten its load, has mutated into a reality show and celebrates fights to the death between prisoners in exchange for a vague promise of release for the winner. An anti-racist, dystopian and ultra-violent satire that all the major media in the US have chosen among the 10 best novels of the year, a contender for the most important literary awards and whose adaptation is already being disputed by the platforms. A 32-year-old black writer, with an unpronounceable name, the son of poor Ghanaians, who with his debut film has shaken up the publishing scene.

Her name is Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah and she confesses that she misses when everyone misspelled her name, now that the journalists queuing to interview him are struggling to pronounce it correctly. In spring 2023, she published Chain-Gang All-Stars, the eccentric love story between Loretta Thurwar and Hamara Huracán Staxxx, convicts, fighters, and murderers. It was his first novel after a highly original volume of short stories entitled Friday Black, which already caught the attention of critics in 2018 and was published in Spain by Libros del Asteroide. And little by little, month by month, a book that exhibits violence that is as graphic as it is incredibly well narrated has been conquering American readers to become the great literary phenomenon of the year.

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"Should I have so much fun?" asked Nathan Giri in his review of the book in The New York Times? "That's what's dizzying about Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah's talent: we can't applaud her first novel, Chain-Gang All-Stars, without getting blood on our hands. Enjoying the action involves sharing the blame for those bloodthirsty fans sitting in the front row at live-streamed inmate deathmatches. But Adjei-Brenyah is so good at writing fight scenes that our moral disgust never definitively cancels out the primitive thrill of reading them."

And Ron Charles added in The Washington Post: "This is a devastating indictment of our criminal justice system and our enthusiasm for violence. Like Orwell's 1984 and Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, Adjei-Brenyah's book presents a dystopian vision so disturbing and enlightening that it should permanently change our understanding of who we are and what we are capable of."

Who is Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah? He was born in 1991 in Spring Valley in Rockland County, a depressing, fast-sinking former manufacturing center. He was the second of three children of Ghanaian immigrants who saw the American dream slipping through their fingers. His mother, a teacher, was fired from her job in the crisis of the late 90s and, after a forced eviction, the whole family had to move into a basement that flooded periodically. When he finished high school, in the midst of a teenage pop culture binge, he enrolled at SUNY Albany and, upon graduation, became the only black student of the Master of Arts at Syracuse University, run by his hero, the writer George Saunders. A year after graduating, and with the impossible dream of lifting his family out of misery, he sold his first book. With those stories he obtained the long-awaited fame, but his father, a lawyer for poor blacks, did not know it: he died shortly after publication.

The beautiful and cruel stories of Friday Black made Adjei-Brenyah a shining star of the new American letters. In 2019 he received the PEN/Jean Stein Award for Best American Book, entered The New York Times bestseller list, and was selected by Colson Whitehead, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner for Fiction, as one of the best authors under 35 for the National Book Foundation. But would that boy be able to turn the promise that vibrated in those stories into a long work? Chain-Gang All-Stars, which was originally a story that grew uncontrollably to a couple million words, is the resounding and affirmative answer.

Here the scenes follow one another, they are mounted and interrupted at full speed, the characters show their heads to have it ripped off shortly afterwards without ceremoniousness, the frenetic pace gives the reader no respite except in the frequent footnotes, some real, others invented, that unfold the reality of systemic racism in the United States. And, at the heart of the book, a love story: Thurwar's doomed romance with his partner Hurricane Staxxx, who recites poetry to the camera and cries after each death. The rules are that members of the same gang don't fight each other, and Thurwarse is just two weeks away from his "liberation day." But the game is rigged and the two lovers are about to collide unknowingly.

Heir to the Black Lives Matter movement that shook his country a few years ago against police abuses of African-Americans, Adjei-Brenyah defends the abolition of law enforcement and the prison system in a way that he believes is as urgent as it is realistic. Chain-Gang contains an interlude in which one of the characters, a protester opposed to the bloodthirsty contest, is interviewed by a journalist whose sister was murdered by criminals. The man asks him all the difficult questions that can be asked. Do you really want to have rapists and murderers walking the streets?

For Adjei-Brenyah, abolition is more of a direction than a goal. "Let's see what works, but starting from a fundamental paradigm where life is sacred and your humanity is non-negotiable. Obviously, we don't have the ability to fully execute it yet. But we should build systems that follow that premise," he told The Guardian. "This is not easy. But I know in my heart that I'm right."

  • literature
  • Racism
  • novel