People often ask, “When did you know you were going to be a writer? When did you decide?”
I have many answers to this question, because being a writer is a way of moving through the world, a way of seeing, of hearing and, I’ve learned, believing. When I was last asked this question, in relation to my novel, this is what came to mind:
There are bodies swaying. Air thick with exalting. An organ punches chords into the walls and into us. A pastor is conducting an energy that everyone in the space can feel, even me. He isn’t speaking English, but he is working with sound more than logic. There are women who wear handwoven cloth around their heads. They shake, electric with the Holy Spirit. I am with my mom. I am young enough that my head reaches her solar plexus. Soon I’ll be able to look down and see the crown of her head, but then and forever, I will look up to her.
She begins to speak in Tongues. Syllables of a language that has no book sing from her. She is Ghanaian, and since I don’t speak Twi or Fante, this is yet another language she has access to that seems to have missed me. Something I can’t grasp, though not for trying. I watch as the language of God flows through her and the people around her. I feel the energy all around me. I see it lifting others from their folding chairs, compelling them to dance, to erupt with praise.
Though I can feel the energy around me, I am siloed off. Somehow disconnected. I feel like a spectator in an Olympic arena. There is a great championship being won, but I am only watching. I want more than anything to believe in anything the way they all believe in that space. I want the spirit to fill me to language. I want to have a faith that can power me through all things. What I feel is proximity but very little of the thing itself. I want to be filled to the brim with what fills my mother, everyone in the space. What I am as I stand, the only still thing in the room, is lonely.
There in that room of thriving souls is where I learned to want to believe in something totally, which is a way of saying “being a writer.”
More recently, when asked how I came to be the writer of this book, Chain-Gang All-Stars, I thought of another time, a time with my father.
In his life he was a lawyer. Again, as a Ghanaian, there were many people whom I called Uncle or Aunti who knew him as “Lawyer.” It was a title, a position. More than a job. When I imagine him, he is wearing a suit.
I was barely tall enough to look straight at my father’s waist without craning my neck when he came home to our apartment at this time. That day he’d begun in earnest to prepare a trial he’d been thinking about for a while. He was a defense attorney, something I’d known, though it was rare that he’d speak about the specifics of any one case. That day he was talkative. I viewed him as a paragon of Truth and Power, and so I was excited, elated to listen. He said he had a difficult case and that his client had committed murder. I remember how he looked, looking at me. Searching, close. I sunk further into our couch. I remember knowing even then to hide the colossal disappointment I felt. Murder equaled “bad guy,” and so by my child logic, my father was a villain or, at best, an accessory to one. A henchman.
I said how I felt in the nicest way I could summon. “Why are you helping somebody bad? Someone that would do that.”
And he said, “It is not that simple.” He said more after that, but there was a world-reframing kind of truth in just those few words. And this new novel is a direct extension of that reframing. He said to me as a child that “it is not that simple,” and our justice system currently is genocidal in its simplicity. This book calls to question that approach. In that moment when my father told me who he was defending and began to tell me why, he gifted me a curiosity toward nuance, which is another way of saying “being a writer.”
Chain-Gang All-Stars is my “debut” novel, but it’s a debut in the sense that it is the first novel-length story I am presenting to the world with the force of the publishing industry behind it. But when I think about how it came to be, and when I’m asked, “When did you know you could write a novel?” I think about my actual first novel. A book that will never come out. A book I wrote over 10 years ago, working daily through the summer on a Lenovo netbook in an apartment we would soon be evicted from. I thought that book would change my family’s life. I thought by force of will I’d be able to create something special. I thought it would heal the sicknesses that ailed my parents in swells over the years, I thought it would remove the pressures that had rendered such difficulty into their lives. I worked on it with the focus of someone fighting for their life. It was not good. And though that book will never come out, it was then that I learned to weave a great energy into a practice. Taking massive desire and placing it into actions with consistency is discipline. Nothing physical came of the book. We still got evicted. Maladies would still reign over us. But also everything came of it. It taught me what it felt like to finish a project. It taught me what it was to nurture discipline over days and months and years. And that, being a careful nurturer of discipline, is another way of saying “being a writer.”
It has been many years (seven) in the making, this new “debut” novel, and I’ve been thinking a lot about what people have asked me and what I ask myself. What do I think makes someone a writer? What do I think allowed me to write this new novel and why? I think we all have our own answer because art is born of each of our particular essences. We are all chaotic systems, like the weather, and any particular offering an artist presents is one of many possible storms. But for me, when I think about Chain-Gang All-Stars, I think about what happens when I write toward faith. I started the book hoping I was an abolitionist, believing deeply that we as a society can do better than making those who do harm suffer. Now that the book is done, now that I’ve done the research, now that I’ve considered the question of what it means to be a compassionate society, I know I am an abolitionist. It was a trust fall into faith. It required me to allow my curiosity and desire for nuance to move me through the world. The idea that “it is not that simple” is a simple lighthouse I am still following. Because it’s not that simple, but also it could be. What if compassion were the rule that governed us above all things?
When I think about how this book came to be, I think about the other books that have already come and those yet to come. I think about what can be forged from a willingness to excavate those questions that linger in my chest. I think of how finding the discipline to do that work, to accept that questions may be answered by more questions, is my answer. I’ve discovered myself writing this book. Learning more about the world through it has given me something real to believe in. And someone with something real to believe in is another way of saying “being a writer.”
Photo of Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah by Alex M. Philip.