New York Times Book Interview With Author Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah

From a New York Times By the Book interview with author Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah”

What books are on your night stand?
“Greenwood,” by Michael Christie, “House Gone Quiet,” by Kelsey Norris, “House of Cotton,” by Monica Brashears, and “Grace Engine,” by Joshua Burton.

What’s the last great book you read?
I loved “Greenwood,” by Michael Christie. Really impressive on the line level. Extremely ambitious structurally. He swung for the fences and made contact for sure.

Can a great book be badly written? What other criteria can overcome bad prose?
We have to do the work of defining “bad.” Bad to whom and why? What might feel like a lack of precision to my eye might be a beautiful whimsy to someone else. That said, I think a writer who doesn’t pay attention to decisions, who is not making choices so much as just writing things down, might risk making readers feel they aren’t being cared for. Paying attention, looking closely, is a way of showing love.

And as a writer, I think it’s important for me to pay attention as acutely as possible. So if I have ID’d something that (in my perception) feels inattentive, it’s very hard for me to feel like that book can be great to my eye. I’m adding all these qualifications because I think we all need to remember this is art we’re talking about. My perception is not God’s truth. As writers or critics we sometimes posit our ideas as if anything is absolute. It’s corny to me. It’s reductive.

All this said, to me a book is the writing, so it’s sort of like asking, “Can great music sound bad?” And the answer is, of course, yes. Because I’m a human being with particular tastes. But can a person who doesn’t play the piano write a beautiful piano concerto? Maybe they’d stumble onto some great moments, but it’s very difficult to sustain that. But can someone who is not as technically advanced on the piano, but has some fundamental skills and is a living, breathing, feeling human willing to be vulnerable on the stage — can that person make something beautiful? Absolutely.

Which writers — novelists, playwrights, critics, journalists, poets — working today do you admire most?
Imani Perry, Jason Reynolds, George Saunders, Arthur Flowers, Dana Spiotta, Mary Karr, Christopher Kennedy, Tayari Jones, Nic Stone, Tiffany D. Jackson, Elizabeth Acevedo, Roxane Gay, Bruce Smith, Min Jin Lee, Mariame Kaba, Clint Smith, Angela Davis, Ruth Wilson Gilmore. This is a small sample, but they’re at the top of their craft and stand for something outside of their art making, and they personally inspire me to be better.

What’s the last book you read that made you laugh?
“Bliss Montage,” by Ling Ma. Loved it.

What’s the most interesting thing you learned from a book recently?
“Greenwood” taught me a whole lot about trees. Their lives and how they’ve seen generations, how we must protect them and how they’ve been leveraged over the years economically.

Which subjects do you wish more authors would write about?
I think with any subject I can think of, it’s more my ignorance than authors not doing the work.

What moves you most in a work of literature?
I am moved by characters trying. By that struggle for goodness in systems that try to squeeze it out of them. I’m moved by authors trying ambitiously for something that may seem just beyond them but in the trying they somehow do something greater, maybe, than they ever could have anticipated. I’m moved by vulnerability and a willingness to transcend cynicism.

Do you prefer books that reach you emotionally, or intellectually?

I think emotionally is my knee-jerk answer. But I sort of resist the distinction. I can be moved by an intellectual or even academic work emotionally. Those works are labors of love too, in a different mode. I like work that moves me, makes me see things anew, asserts humanity, cares enough to really look. That can be emotional or intellectual and usually (almost always) it’s both.

What kind of reader were you as a child? Which childhood books and authors stick with you most?
I loved reading from early. I was into fantasy and sci-fi like “Animorphs,” by K.A. Applegate, and “Pendragon,” by D.J. MacHale. “Bud, Not Buddy,” by Christopher Paul Curtis, was huge for me, as was “Monster,” by Walter Dean Myers.

How have your reading tastes changed over time?

I’ve grown, because of exposure to it, to love poetry. For a while a significant portion of what I read was fiction but I think I’ve grown to look forward to poets’ work as much.

You’re organizing a literary dinner party. Which three writers, dead or alive, do you invite?
I bet if you did a poll Toni Morrison is the most requested dinner guest. Add me to that list. I think I’d want to have her and tell her how, strangely, every place I’ve lived she has also lived (New York City, Rockland County, Syracuse, Albany). I want to ask her about her experiences in these places we have in common. And of course I’d like to just vibe.

I’d also invite Denis Johnson. I’ve had a chance to meet so many of the people who have really influenced me and I never got the chance to meet him but a lot of my professors did know him and I’ve heard he had amazing stories, like I mean real-life wildness. I feel he’d be entertaining. As I’m writing this I’m feeling very self-conscious of the premise of rousing these icons from the peace of death to have dinner with me and how presumptuous it would be for me to ask for their company. But yeah, I’m going to proceed assuming in this context they’ve signed some post-death dinner waiver citing that they’d love the idea of meeting stupid young men who look up to them. Last would be Zora Neale Hurston, who had just seen so much. I imagine I’d feel very lucky to be in her presence.

What do you plan to read next?
“House Gone Quiet,” by Kelsey Norris. I’ve read it before, but now I have a galley and I want to take it in again. It’s that good. Comes out in October, I believe.

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