[Reading Room] The Era by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah

This story was featured in The Best American Short Stories 2019, edited by Anthony Doerr

The Opening

“Suck one and die,” says Scotty, a tall, mostly true, kid. “I’m aggressive ’cause I think you don’t know sh*t.”


I’m used to not knowing what’s going on at the start of a story. I expect it.

But this story slid under my skin with that weird ‘mostly true’, quickly followed by the kid unexpectedly explaining himself to the victim of his insult.

Something about it seemed off, but it happened so fast that I didn’t have time to figure it out. It hinted to me that we were in the ‘not-now’.

It’s important to orient the reader in the first few lines (something I learned from Mary Robinette Kowal), with the ‘who’, the ‘where’ and the ‘genre’. I’m fairly sure this is goign to be a story featuring kids, and it’s not going to be realistic contemporary fiction.

For the first story in a collection of literary short stories (which can be, for my taste, a little relentlessly contemporary and realistic) this was a very promising start.

I still don’t know if I’m going to like the story, but the fact that it has both confused and informed me in the first two lines is a promising start.

The author quickly confirms my suspicions about the setting with this next couple of paragraphs.

We’re in HowItWas class.

“Well,” Mr. Harper says, twisting his ugly body towards us. “You should shut your mouth because you’re a youth-teen who doesn’t know sh*t about sh*t and I’m a full-middler who’s beeen teaching this stuff for more yeras than I’m proud of.”

There’s so much I love about this: the use of a couple of non-standard vocabulary words to show us we’re definitely not in the here-and-now; the fact that the teacher still manages to sound like a teacher, the way people use not just odd words, but that even when they’re talking in standard English they are communicating in non-standard ways.

This is a great way to intrigue me and force me to read on.

I often talk about the need to create tension or suspense or ‘ask a question’ at the start of the story, to pull the reader in. This is a fabulous example of how that ‘suspense’ doesn’t have to have anything to do with a body on the floor, or an action-scene, or really anything life-altering. It can just be: I wonder why the character is doing/saying that?

And all of this in the first 7 lines.

The Plot Thickens

The story quickly widens out so that some of our curiosity about the setting is satisfied. (It helps that the protagonist is in a History class; it gives them the opportunity to review a few things for the reader’s benefit).

We also quickly learn more about the character. By the third page of the story we’ve been shown how the character is different from the other children in the class. The author does a good mix of showing and telling here. We watch as the kids ‘read’ a textbook in various different ways. The differences between them are then explained to us briefly, in a conversational (“telling”) way.

It’s a great illustration of how there’s a place for each type of exposition in fiction. If the author hadn’t told us why each child reads differently, they would have had to spend a lot more time painting the picture, and we might have got frustrated because we’re not familiar enough with this world yet to understand the inferences. Also, this is a short story. The author doesn’t have time for all that!

Sometimes it’s OK to tell.

General To Specific

The meat of the story introduces some of the flaws in this ‘ideal’ society, at first in general ways: we meet characters who don’t fit in with the ideal, some who are named and some who are lumped-together as a group (the ‘shoelookers’).

Gradually we begin to meet individuals who matter to our protagonist. We learn the identity of some of the outcasts, and begin to see them as individuals.

The story moves from the general to the specific when the issues in this ‘ideal society’ begin to affect our protagonist in very specific, personal ways. In turn, our protagonist must begin to act, make choices, deal.

In the end, everything becomes specific and personal-a big tonal shift from the beginning of the story.

The Ending

This story started with a society and a protagonist it was hard to have much empathy for. It ends with me pumping my fists in the air, rooting hard for the main character and cheering their choices.

In my Openings & Endings workshop, I talk a lot about the importance of emotion. I find it important to feel something as I exit a story. This story certainly made me feel.

It’s a quiet kind of story, one underpinned by large and terrifying thought-experiment. It reminds me of writing by authors like George Saunders and Jim Shepard, who mange to take big ideas and dystopian societies and somehow tell stories that don’t feel grim and depressing.

Note to writers: what emotion are you leaving your reader with as they walk away from your final paragraphs?

Read the story in Best American Short Stories 2019

Have you read this story? What did you think? Leave a comment!

The Reading Room is a series of posts where I review short stories with a writers’ eye.

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