UNLV’s Black Mountain Institute hosted a reading of “Chain-Gang All-Stars,” a fiction book by New York Times-bestselling author Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah at the Judy Bayley Theater on Sept. 14. “Chain-Gang All-Stars” explores a world where prisoners trade their sentences in exchange to combat to the death with other prisoners. This combat is then televised as a sporting event, one that is pay-per-view. “Chain-Gang All-Stars” follows Loretta Thurwar and Hamara “Hurricane Staxxx” Stacker, two Black women, as they team up to fight for their freedom. In the book, the “Criminal Action Penal Entertainment” (CAPE) is the company that runs these televised gladiator battles. Thurwar is the fan favorite and is only a couple matches away from securing her freedom, but CAPE is hesitant to lose their prime star, putting obstacles to keep their star player. The book is a scathing critique on prison labor and how prisoners are exploited for their labor. In this case, for the audience, prisoners provide entertainment value, but for the prisoners, they are fighting for their freedom.
Adjei-Brenyah talks about how he humanizes these characters when put in such extreme situations, saying, “For me, it’s really important to remember that whatever the situation, someone came from somewhere; they come from a context and with my characters, whether they’re incarcerated or whatever it might be, I try my best to remember that they’re human and that their humanity is non-negotiable. Whatever they’re being subjected to, I just try my best to handle them with care, and that’s really important to me as a writer, to remember that no one is like unredeemable.” The idea that no one is unredeemable is a theme that underpins all of Adjei-Brenyah’s books.
In a past interview with Vulture, Adjei-Brenyah shares how he became interested in prison abolition. Adjei-Brenyah has read and took inspiration from Angela Davis, Michelle Alexander and Ruth Wilson Gilmore, who wrote “Are Prisons Obsolete?,” “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness” and “Abolition Geography: Essays Towards Liberation,” respectively. Adjei-Brenyah is considering other political themes for his upcoming books. He says, “When I go into each book, I don’t necessarily have the sense that I want to address this or that political issue specifically. I think I just get attached to certain things. Even within the issue of abolition of prisons and being kinder and fairer to those who do so-called crimes, there’s a lot of issues involved in that. There’s social inequity, there’s mental health issues, there’s drug addiction; there’s so many issues wrapped up in that one thing, and so I try my best. The physical climate of the planet is something I’m interested in, so that may come up in some of the work I do in the future and how our relationships with each other and how technology can bring us together or pull us apart. Also, the gun culture in America is something I’m thinking of reading a little bit about.”
Adjei-Brenyah does music, photography, video work, screenplay writing and non-fiction writing. In sharing his passion for writing books specifically, he says, “I’m interested in stories in general, and I think I chose writing, maybe even more broadly, because it’s something that’s free and it’s hard for someone to take away from.”
At the reading, many aspiring writers attended, listening attentively to Adjei-Brenyah’s every word. He offers a piece of advice to aspiring writers sharing, “I would say, for my young writers, the number one thing is to fall in love with the craft. Fall in love with the craft of writing and try to build discipline. It’s not a sexy answer, but if you can fall in love with the part where you actually are making the thing happen, it gets a lot easier. There’s going to be a lot of times where writing is hard, but if you can grow your discipline and enjoy the difficulties, that’s really important. Also, if you can grow your love for reading, it’s the writer’s most supportive tool.” Adjei-Brenyah is currently reading “The School for Good Mothers” by Jessamine Chan and reiterates, “But a big part of it is just being able to sit down and write.”“Chain-Gang All Stars” is available to purchase from local bookstores on IndieBound. It is also available on Amazon and Barnes and Noble. The Black Mountain Institute is hosting a reading by Edgar Gomez on Sept. 20 and a film screening of “Lakota vs. United States” with Layli Long Soldier on Sept. 28.