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UAlbany alumnus Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah gets national exposure for his new novel

"Chain-Gang All-Stars" announced as Read With Jenna's May selection


Remember back in April when we changed our Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah event from in-person to virtual? The request came from the publisher, so we wondered if there was something going on behind the scenes with the launch date of his new novel Chain-Gang All-Stars, the story of two top women gladiators fighting for their freedom within a depraved private prison system.


Now we know. During this morning's "Today Show" telecast, host Jenna Bush Hager welcomed Nana to the show as she announced his novel was selected as this month's Read With Jenna book club selection, an honor that instantly gives Nana exposure to a national audience.


Nana, a UAlbany alumnus, published his first short story collection, Friday Black, in 2018. He has returned to the Writers Institute several times to discuss his writing and meet with students. Praised by George Saunders as "one of the most exciting young writers in America," He was a National Book Foundation's "5 Under 35" honoree, the winner of the PEN/Jean Stein Book Award and the Saroyan Prize, and a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle's John Leonard Award for Best First Book, along with many other honors.


The Read With Jenna book club started in March 2019 and has named nearly 50 books as its selections. The club is affiliated with bookshop.org, which has raised more than $25,000,000 to support local bookstores.


Congratulations, Nana, and thank you, Jenna, for calling attention to Chain-Gang All-Stars. We'll post our April 6 video conversation with Nana soon, but in the meantime, you can listen to this WAMC interview from earlier this week.



Jenna Bush Hager says her May 2023 pick 'pushed' her — in a good way

“I have to say, it’s not like anything I’ve read before," Jenna tells TODAY.com.

By Elena Nicolaou, Today Show


Jenna Bush Hager says that her May 2023 book pushed her — in a good way. “I have to say, it’s not like anything I’ve read before,” she says.


Her selection? Chain Gang All Stars, a novel by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah. Adjei-Brenyah’s short story collection, Friday Black, was lauded; this is his debut novel.

Jenna says the premise is both shocking and conversation-starting.

"My Dad woulda loved this. Al Roker was that dude growing up," Nana posted on Twitter this morning.
"My Dad woulda loved this. Al Roker was that dude growing up," Nana posted on Twitter this morning.

”It’s about female gladiators in a future world where there’s a sport unlike any we’ve seen. Prisoners are meant to fight each other in order to get their freedom,” she says. While violent, Jenna says there’s a “love story at its heart.”


“It’s about where we find entertainment. How violence has become so much part of who we are as a culture. It’ll make you have conversations about the prison industrial complex. It pushed me, for sure — but that’s the incredible thing about reading,” she says.


Speaking to TODAY.com, author Adjei-Brenyah says feeling challenged is the point of his book. He hopes to incite awakenings about the nature of the prison industrial complex in the U.S. and imagine other possibilities. industrial complex in the U.S. and imagine other possibilities.


As difficult as you may find some passages to read, the author said they were tough to write. Specifically, the beginning of the book features a series of violent encounters between prisoners as part of the Chain-Gang All-Stars game.


“There’s a lot of harshness in my work. But I think it's because I'm actually pretty sensitive and sort of queasy myself. I don’t like horror. Because of that, I'm really sensitive to all the ways that humans still do that,” he says.


If you find it to be too much, Adjei-Brenyah says he understands, and encourages you to investigate that feeling.


“I don't want someone to traumatize themselves or hurt themselves to read my work. If you can't do it, It's OK. Because I am using some hyperbole to make a point. If you can't deal with this, I would say, "I hope that energy of outrage can motivate you to do something, because there are real people being subjected to this type of thing in real life.” Read more


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