Sidik Fofana’s Stories from the Tenants Downstairs instantly appealed to me: a tightly linked set of short stories about the tenants of a Harlem apartment block ticked two of my literary boxes, and that cover sealed the deal. Fofana’s collection sees many of the inhabitants of Banneker Terrace threatened with eviction thanks to the new owner’s plans to gentrify their building and sell the apartments off at a stonking profit.
Is that all the next ten years got in store for us? Is we just gonna be some herbs, smokin roaches and rubbin our hands whenever the heat bill ain’t been paid?
The Rent Manual sets the scene as single parent Mimi counts down the days until her rent’s due coming up with ways to make money while promising herself she’s going to mend her extravagant ways. In The Okiedoke Mimi’s ex, Swan, is disgusted by the trick his two friends pull on the Chinese takeout delivery man, his head full of the hope inspired by a black president in the White House. Ms Dallas sees Swan’s mother, a teaching assistant at a failing school, clashing with the new white teacher who has no idea how to impose discipline on the pupils whose lives he doesn’t understand. Several of Ms Dallas’ pupils seize opportunities to make money: The Young Entrepreneurs of Ms Bristol’s Front Porch sees local boys pulling the carpet out from under Kadese’s thriving business selling sweets while Najee and his pals enjoy themselves dancing on subway trains before passing the hat until tragedy strikes in lite feet. My absolute favourite is the brief Confederation for the Like-minded in which a pavement chess player, moved on by the police, is irritated by the righteous indignation of the tenants’ liaison committee who see only his age.
Mr Broderick went to Harvard. You knew that cuz he say the word five times a minute
Each tenant is given a distinct voice in this meticulously constructed collection, often written in a vernacular which sings out from the page so that you can almost hear it. Fofana explores racism, ageism, poverty, inequality and the assumption of white superiority in stories which are often as funny as they’re poignant. Each of the tenants’ backstories are satisfyingly fleshed out, many of them with ambitions and plans thwarted by happenstance or sometimes each other. For all of them, the urgency of making enough money to get by is a constant, made all the more so by the eviction notices served by a company intent on making a hefty profit from the sale of apartments some tenants have lived in all their lives. It’s an impressive collection, so confident and assured it’s hard to credit that it’s Fofana’s first.
John Murray Press: London 9781529331875 224 pages Paperback (Read via NetGalley)