Festival spotlights a trio of authors with new releases
BY ASHLEY M. BIGGERS
Santa Fe New Mexican
Remembering El Grande
When Chain-Gang All-Stars hit bookstore shelves on May 2, it had already earned top spots on several national lists. Oprah Daily called it one of the “Books We Can’t Wait to Read in 2023,” and The New York Times placed it on a list of 22 books to read this spring. Its author, Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah, speaks about his buzzy novel at the Santa Fe International Literary Festival. Adjei-Brenyah’s first release, 2018’s Friday Black, a collection of short stories, reckons with racism and classism. In it, he crafts dystopian settings that often feel uncomfortably close to the present. “I think my work often goes right into the space between hyperbole and understatement. The way I negotiate that is by thinking about the outcome of something instead of thinking about the language or the euphemism around it,” he says. In the first story, “The Finkelstein 5,” a man murders five Black children in front of a library with a chainsaw. “The chainsaw makes it feel excessive or surreal or impossible, but many, many young Black people are killed by extrajudicial police or by people via gun. They’re just as dead as if they were killed by someone by chainsaw. That enhancement changes the way you lean in, the way you appreciate, the way you care,” he says. Chain-Gang All-Stars began as a story for his New York Times bestselling short story collection. “I overshot it by a couple hundred pages,” Adjei-Brenyah says. The novel follows Loretta Thurwar and Hamara “Hurricane Staxxx” Stacker, two stars of a gladiator-style tournament within the private prison industry, as they fight for the chance at freedom. The son of a defense attorney, Adjei-Brenyah began grappling with issues of justice early. “I remember the first time he told me he was defending someone who had committed murder,” Adjei-Brenyah recalls. “I remember thinking, ‘My dad’s a villain or a bad guy.’ My dad told me, ‘It’s not that simple.’” Trayvon Martin’s fatal shooting while Adjei-Brenyah was in college (he did his undergrad at SUNY Albany and earned an MFA at Syracuse University, where George Saunders became a mentor) led to further inquiry into the American justice system and then into the private prison industry. “I think in anyone’s body you feel a natural recoil against someone profiting from the incarnation of human beings. It’s not hard to extrapolate the type of horror people administer for money if they have an institution to do so with,” he says. “It became an obsession on some levels . . . . I felt like I had to write about it before writing about anything else.” Adjei-Brenyah writes about unseen characters and corners of society with the hope of illumination. “I think it’s inherently empathetic to allow your mind’s space to be occupied by another person’s voice,” he says. Hailing from a Ghanaian American family, Adjei-Brenyah often navigates liminal spaces in his life and writing. “Having parents from a place that’s different from where you’re from . . . teaches me to understand that where someone is from totally changes their outlook on life. It’s something that I understood probably before I had language to say it . . . . My father was born in the Gold Coast and was witness to revolution. People who have seen that thing understand the malleable potential of a space. That inheritance is big for me. Things can change. Things can be different than they are.” Balance — and perhaps the need for change — is a keystone of The Heartbeat of the Wild: Dispatches from Landscapes of Wonder, Peril, and Hope, by David Quammen, another festival guest author. In this essay collection, released May 16, the acclaimed nature writer and New York Times bestselling author of Spillover journeys to far-flung places to explore the tension between civilization and the wild. For example, he reflects on Kenyan lions and the human villagers whose homes border preserves created to protect these apex predators. Luis Alberto Urrea explores perilous living situations in his latest novel, Good Night, Irene. Not officially released until May 30 but available to festival attendees who preorder copies, the novelfollows two Red Cross volunteers who command frontline vehicles during World War II and ultimately join Allied soldiers marching into France — and some of the most famous and dangerous battles in history. Urrea draws upon his family’s legacy for this, his 17th novel, as he has done with previous works, such as Queen of America, based on a great-aunt who was both a healer and a Mexican folk hero. Adjei-Brenyah takes the attention for his much-anticipated novel in stride. “It’s very recent that the people who knew about my stories were three people on my Facebook,” he says. “You know how you can feel in your body when you gave it your best swing? I feel that with this novel. I took my best swing and I’m just watching it go.” NANA KWAME ADJEI-BRENYAH is in conversation on Saturday, May 20, at 3:30 p.m. DAVID QUAMMEN is on the big stage Sunday, May 21, at 11 a.m. LUIS ALBERTO URREA speaks on Saturday, May 20, at 2 p.m., and joins DENISE CHÁVEZ in a tribute to Rudolfo Anaya on Sunday, May 21, at 2 p.m.