Imagine a world in which your life depended on your ability to kill. Your freedom contingent on another person’s destruction. All at the behest of state and corporate overseers for the entertainment of millions. This is the world of Chain-Gang All-Stars, Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah’s masterful new novel, where incarcerated people can opt out of decades long sentences by participating in televised gladiatorial death matches. Participants, or Links, are organized by prisons; each group is known as a chain and forced to fight other chains. If a person can stay alive for three years, they can commute their sentence. If not, they die a grisly death in front of cheering crowds. This contract, which has yet to free anyone, is put to the test by two Links, Loretta Thurwar and her lover Hurricane Staxxx, two superstars (and targets) of Chain Gang All-Stars, the crown jewel of Criminal Action Penal Entertainment (CAPE).
Art imitates life in Chain-Gang All-Stars. The punishment for being convicted of a violent crime is more violence. For every battle won, Links accrue “blood points” or currency that helps them purchase food, weapons, clothes, and medical care. Viewers record and attend the matches the way basketball fans devour March Madness. Corporations make millions by administering the games, brokering sponsorship deals, and producing high-tech surveillance and torture devices, one of which is surgically placed inside the Links wrists. And federal legislation makes it all possible. The games are the ultimate public-private partnership.
Chain-Gang All-Stars’ depiction of a racist, hyper-capitalist carceral state is an undeniable echo of our world, but it’s not the only one. At the heart of this book is the capacity of incarcerated people to resist and rewrite the rules of their imprisonment. Adjei-Brenyah’s characters, like incarcerated people in Alabama and Pennsylvania, organize strikes. They call for the abolition of prisons and immigrant detention. As they are compelled to participate in a program that considers their deaths sport, the main characters adopt a pact of nonviolent conflict resolution among their fellow Links. Together, they consider many of the same questions we’re grappling with as a society. Can people change? Can we build something new in place of the old? Is it possible to reconcile harm, forgiveness, and love?
I spoke to Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah about violence, the profitability of suffering, and the promise of abolition.
nia t. evans: Chain-Gang All Stars, a highly popular and profitable program where incarcerated people are forced to battle to the death in exchange for the promise of freedom, is a political, corporate, and media collaboration. Together, they convince the public that these kinds of programs or what they call “hard-action sports” are in the interest of public safety. Did our current public safety discourse inspire your creation of this program?
Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah: Absolutely. We sort of know now just how much corporations have influenced the way we are governed. There’s overt explicit stuff, like lobbying, but there are also more subtle things that we aren’t always privy to. The bottom line is if someone can make money off it, anything is fair game. That’s one part of it, but I also think, culturally, we want to see individuals suffer. There’s a lot of suffering going around, and we don’t have the vocabulary or the ability to engage that suffering outside the terms of creating more suffering.
That’s one of the most fucked up, fundamental pieces of the prison industrial complex. It doesn’t allow us to grow the muscle as a community, society, civilization that would help us deal with those who do harm. Instead, we just continue the harm cycle.
nte: This book forces readers to contend with our collective investments in violence. The carceral state has trained many of us to see violence as a matter between individuals and the violence of the criminal legal system as accidental, unavoidable, or even justifiable. Can you talk about how this book works to redefine the nature of violence?
NKAB: It’s so interesting to watch as the state is so willing to unravel personal histories and nuance when they kill others. When the state kills its citizens, it’s there’s a deep dive into a whole set of circumstances. There’s a capacity to hold multiple truths at the same time. But when it’s someone who isn’t wearing a badge or is a privileged civilian, suddenly you’re on your own. You’re just this evil person who erupted from the ground to cause harm. That’s why storytelling matters because bad stories are central to the state’s ability to get us to feel okay about murdering us.
I call the police in the book soldier-police for a reason. We have a highly militarized police force. And we’re trained to think that if not for these people who are killing us, we will be much less safe than we are. It’s a big part of the state’s campaign to make us feel impotent. I like to poke holes in that idea in my writing. I try to make sure that the people who are being subjected to these things, like the Links in Chain-Gang All-Stars, are depicted as humans with as much capacity for love and goodness as anyone else. I want to make sure we don’t forget that people who have committed so-called crimes are human just like all of us. And no matter what label we assign to them, they are capable of feeling great love and great pain just like anyone of us.
nte: What led to the decision to foreground this story in the love between two queer incarcerated Black women?
NKAB: Loretta Thurwar and Hamara “Hurricane Staxxx” Stacker are the heart of the book. When I started this story, I thought it would be one of the short stories in my first book, Friday Black. I had this woman named Loretta Thurwar standing in the center of this huge arena. She was looking back, sadly, at the fact that she’d been forced to kill many people she was close to. I don’t know where that came from exactly, but I knew it had to be.
I had an awareness about how a Black woman in an American context can be both loved and crushed at the same time. Sexualized and spit on. It’s this weird thing that happens when a Black woman does pretty much anything in the public eye. You’re always waiting for the cultural tide to turn on her. The analog I’ve been giving is Serena Williams. There’s a certain kind of edge of violence in the way people perceive her. People are always willing to reduce her to her body or disrespect her even though she’s the GOAT.
And I wanted Thurwar to be the kind of person who enacts change. Men are so often seduced by the promises of capitalism and power in general. I found it hard to believe that a man would be that kind of position of power and still think the system was worth changing. I also wanted to give Thurwar a counterpart who truly understood her, someone who embodies love and that became Staxxx. At one point, I thought maybe Loretta would be with a man, but I just didn’t believe it when I tried to write it. And that’s how they came to be.
nte: Many narratives about incarceration tend to privilege state actors or civilians, but this story prioritizes the interiority of incarcerated people. How did you prepare to write these stories? What archival material did you turn to?
NKAB: The research definitely grew over time. There’s a huge former prison in Philly, the Eastern State Penitentiary. They had a project of collecting letters from currently incarcerated people. I did a deep dive into that. I was pretty far into the book when I read Solitary: A Biography by Albert Woodfox. I read a lot of memoirs by currently incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people. Those sources helped me get the voice. I also work with a group from where I’m from called the Rockland Coalition to End the New Jim Crow. Many of the members are formerly incarcerated and they were really generous about sharing their experiences. What I was struck by was how they were just people who were feeling greatly in a terrible system, in a really particular kind of hell. That might be super obvious, but it gave me the context I needed to write this book.
nte: There is an abolitionist collective in your story, the Coalition to End Neo-Slavery, working to end the games and free the participants. How did current abolitionist struggles inspire your depiction of that group?
NKAB: It was important for me to represent them as humans trying. Sometimes we think of resistance groups as magical people who are born with all these gifts and they can see things and possibilities we can’t. But I wanted to make clear they are just humans trying. They have doubts and fears just like anybody else.
That said, I think they are sensitive to great horror. And a lot of times personally afflicted in ways that are direct and indirect. They’re people who find community in people who care. I tried my best to pull on what I knew from groups I’ve been a part of and the energy of the movements I see, but ultimately, they are people who feel motivated to action by love. That’s how I think of them. People who feel motivated enough in their regular lives to do something about what they care about. And they dedicate their time and energy and are willing to bend other parts of their lives around that thing.
nte: I want to talk about one of my favorite characters, Dr. Patricia St. Jean, or Doc Patty, as Thurwar calls her. She sets out to make something that eliminates suffering, but her work is stolen and becomes a tool for torture, pain, and domination. What was it like to write that character?
NKAB: I’m glad you brought her up. No one’s asked me about her yet. There was a time when I wondered if I was doing too much by having her in the book. When we were in the early rounds of editing and I hadn’t fleshed her out enough, it felt she might be superfluous. That’s why I like feedback, even if it’s bad feedback, because it teaches you what you care about. And I was protective of Patty from the beginning. On some level, she’s a personal character for me. A couple of months after my first book came out—I had been working on Chain Gang All-Stars for at least two years—my dad passed away. He had cancer. He had the long-ish kind that included several years of suffering. And he had really bad neuropathy from chemo. He was in pretty much constant pain for a while. And we tried everything—marijuana teas, lots of stuff. In many ways, Patty comes from that time.
I wanted her to be someone who was seemingly very disparate from the group and then we discover how connected she actually is. I wanted her to be brilliant and really motivated in a serious way by losing her dad. Patty’s journey is, to me, the story we see unfolding again and again in our society, that technological advancement without more ethical growth will inevitably lead to terrible things.
I am confident in our ability to make and do great things. We can get to Mars if we want to, but I don’t think we should until we figure out how to build compassion among each other.
Patty is motivated to help others, but also harbors a lot of guilt and stress she doesn’t have an outlet for. She’s someone who has both the ability and drive to change the world, and, in many ways, that possibility is robbed from her. And I think that’s what the world does. Especially when it can and there’s money to be made.
nte: Has writing Chain-Gang All-Stars changed or complicated your relationship with abolitionist politics and literature?
NKAB: To be honest, when I wrote the book seven or eight years ago, I was writing hoping I was an abolitionist. I thought I was, but abolition wasn’t in the cultural zeitgeist the way it is now. I think I believed in a shallow way, but then I did the work and realized it was the most important thing I could say next.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: our ability to respond compassionately to poverty, mental health, crises, addiction, and so many other crises is destroyed by the very fact of prisons existing as they do. Them existing as they do at all stops us from being able to respond with heart to those things. So, I became an abolitionist in writing this book. It became a channel through which to grow my relationship with abolitionist thinkers and movements. And it gave me like an ideological like bedrock to know what the fuck I mean when I say abolition. And by that, I mean, we need to add things as much as we remove them. And I’m so grateful to the book for that. It made me a smarter, better, more complete person. And because of that, this time around, I feel like I already won. I feel vaguely ashamed of even those eight years ago not 100% identifying as an abolitionist in a meaningful way, even if I agreed with the ideas theoretically. But the book got me there. So, regardless of the external markers of success, I feel like I already won.