What is our responsibility to one another as members of a community, and what is gained, lost or untranslatable about this connection through the language we speak? Through eight intertwined stories, Sidik Fofana's bodacious debut, "Stories From the Tenants Downstairs," invites the reader to investigate these questions.
All communities are both fraught and grounding, and the working-class Black folks who live in Harlem's Banneker Terrace are no different. There is Mimi, the tenant in 14D, whose story, "Rent Manual," is structured around every ingenious and desperate scheme to get rent money. "Little bit of everybody here," Mimi says, describing her neighbors. "Young people with GEDs. Old people with arthritis. Folks with child-support payments, uncles in jail, aunties on crack, cousins in the Bloods, sisters hoein."
Mimi, like all the characters in the book, is endlessly resourceful and hard-headed and often takes advantage of others to get what she wants. It's a kind of dog-eat-dog pragmatism that may lead to pain and endless amounts of absurdity, but it also ensures survival.
A less gifted writer might not have rendered the subtleties so clearly, but Fofana deftly steers away from stereotypes and into the psychological interior of each character's life. And he does this so powerfully through voice.
Each story in the collection is a lesson in how language defines character — and, therefore, reality. In "Camaraderie," Dary, a gay hairstylist whose dreams of becoming a styling superstar eclipse real life, tells us, "My aunty who's in her grave said, Too much love will kill you. She said that cuz of what my mother was doin. How I woke up in the mornin one time and she was in the livin room on her knees with a stranger."
And in "lite feet," a young street dancer writes a letter to his dead friend's mother in order to apologize for his untimely demise: "dear ms. singleton, u no me already, but in case u 4got my name is najee. I'm 12 years old and i'm ritin this to tell u & everybody that i'm kwittin lite feet."
Everybody in Banneker Terrace is running from something and is also in the middle of conjuring something to run to. And the way they do so is by describing their experiences their own way, in their own words.
One of Fofana's implicit arguments is that there are as many different kinds of Black English as there are Black people, and that we are perfectly capable of describing the circumstances of our own lives. Some may call what a community of working-class Black folks do to stay in their building in a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood "hustling." Others may call it "organizing" and still others may say it's "breaking the rules." But individually and side by side, what the stories show is that no matter what you call it, Black ingenuity, Black greed and Black generosity are just as vivid, just as multifaceted as anyone else's.
And that although many may be grappling with a scarcity of wealth and property, we have never been poor in our command of language.
Shannon Gibney lives and writes in Minneapolis. Her new novel, "Botched: A Speculative Memoir of Transracial Adoption," will be released by Dutton in January.
Stories From the Tenants Downstairs
By: Sidik Fofana.
Publisher: Scribner, 211 pages, $26.