An NPR member station
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Author Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah on his new novel 'Chain-Gang All-Stars'


"Chain-Gang All-Stars" is a novel that drips with blood and violence from the first scene, but also with love between Loretta Thurwar and Hurricane Staxxx, the two top-rated gladiators of the Chain-Gang All-Stars. That's a trademarked enterprise of Criminal Action Penal Entertainment. "Chain-Gang All-Stars" is the new novel from Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah, the bestselling author of "Friday Black," and he joins us now from Eugene, Ore. Thank you so much for being with us.

NANA KWAME ADJEI-BRENYAH: Thank you for having me. It's absolutely my pleasure.

SIMON: I often ask a novelist, where'd you get this idea from? But, I mean, where did you not get this idea from (laughter)?

ADJEI-BRENYAH: Right. If you - I mean, if you think closely about the incarceration system and just how willing we are to lock human beings in cages, it's really not hard to imagine all the other ways we might administer inhumane circumstances to people. And so I think this book is really just considering that fundamental idea that we've established pretty clearly, which is if you do bad things, we as a society are allowed to do anything to you.

SIMON: Let's try and set the premise here. Prisoners held in private prisons fight in staged, trademarked matches for freedom.

ADJEI-BRENYAH: For their freedom eventually. And it's to the death, and so, yeah, it's absolutely sort of this gladiatorial blood sport that has become sort of the hottest craze in this imagined America. And willing convicted wards of the state who are sentenced to at least 25 years can opt out of their sentence and then participate in this sport. There's a particular one called Chain-Gang All-Stars, but it's part of a whole maybe constellation of blood sport or Criminal Action Penal Entertainment programs in which criminals can participate in these for-profit sort of institutions.

SIMON: And trademarks are an important feature of the novel, aren't they?

ADJEI-BRENYAH: They absolutely are. So many things are commodified. I think for-profit prisons should be an abomination, just to say, but it's actually a thing that we have here in this country. But I think once you go into that for-profit model and also think about the slave labor that the incarcerated people in our country are doing - and I use that word intentionally 'cause we know that slavery is explicitly protected by the Constitution - there's so much profit existing in the carceral space, and I tried to highlight that by using these trademarks and all these companies and businesses that are part of this really dangerous and bloody enterprise.

SIMON: Your father was a criminal defense attorney.

ADJEI-BRENYAH: Yeah, that's correct.

SIMON: I'm sure you've reflected on this. How does this nourish what you write about now, do you think?

ADJEI-BRENYAH: It absolutely does. I think it's a big part of how I came to writing this book in the first place. When I was really young, I can't - I don't know the age, but it's before I was a teenager, I remember hearing for the first time that my father was defending someone who had killed someone. And I remember thinking kind of, like, huh, well, I guess my dad's a villain, you know? I guess my dad's a bad guy. And I think I expressed some kind of, like, confusion. And I remember him telling me it's not that simple. But I think that planted a seed in me, which years later became this book. But I think for a long time I've been interrogating this idea that is sort of hard-baked in so much of our media, so many of our police procedurals, that there are good people and bad people, and bad people deserve to be punished or bad things happen to them. And I think abolition in this book are really trying to get us to interrogate those ideas and see if we can move towards something a little bit more nuanced and elevated.

SIMON: And I realize you've written a novel, but what should well-meaning people in society do with people who violate the law and hurt other people?

ADJEI-BRENYAH: It's a really important question. I know the answer is not just torture them more. So I want us to think about our responses to poverty, which is a great precursor for incarceration and people doing so-called crime. I want us to rethink our responses to people in mental health crises. I want us to rethink our responses to people who suffer from addiction. And those are just some things, but growing a more compassionate response to poverty, to mental health crises and substance abuse and building institutions that can do so.

SIMON: I've read that you began to become a serious reader when you were working in a shopping mall.

ADJEI-BRENYAH: I started to understand the, quote-unquote, "literary" - even though I still don't know what that word even means...

SIMON: Yeah.

ADJEI-BRENYAH: ...What the literary space - like, that's the first time I probably picked up, like, The Paris Review in the Barnes & Nobles above - on the fourth floor of the Palisades mall. I would go to McDonald's, probably, get the highest-caloric-to-lowest-dollar meal possible at the time. And I got my little 30-minutes McGriddle and a book. It was kind of nice.

SIMON: And now you write books. It is kind of nice.

ADJEI-BRENYAH: One of my first ever book events was in that same Barnes & Nobles, so...

SIMON: Oh, what was that like?

ADJEI-BRENYAH: It was extremely overwhelming. Like, my high school teachers were there. I actually found out recently that one of them is about to retire, one of my really favorite English teachers ever, Ms. Jacobs (ph). So if you get to read this, hi, Ms. Jacobs. You're a big part of why I'm talking on NPR right now today. My dad was there. It was towards the end of his life, so he was there, like, in his wheelchair and stuff. He had cancer at the time. So it was overwhelming, but pretty - I'm grateful for it. It's a great memory.

SIMON: Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah - his novel, "Chain-Gang All-Stars." Thank you so much for being with us. And thanks to Ms. Jacobs.

ADJEI-BRENYAH: Thanks to Ms. Jacobs for sure. Thank you so much. It's absolutely my pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.