In this wonderfully polyphonic collection of short stories, Sidik Fofana explores the everyday realities and struggles experienced by the Black residents of a high-rise in Harlem. The unrelenting push of gentrification and the looming threat of eviction sees this cast of characters struggling to keep up with their rents and to stay afloat. As they strive to make ends meet some harbor dreams of finding success and/or of leaving, while others are focused on the now, willing, but not happy, to burn their bridges if it means holding onto the life they have built so far. In the first story, we follow Mimi, a single mother who works as a waitress and makes some extra money doing hair. With rent coming up, Mimi is short on cash, so she finds herself doing her friends dirty. There is Quanneisha, once a promising gymnast whose career is cut short by a group of neighborhood girls, who finds herself in the position of having to help the person who she holds responsible for ruining her life. We also read from the perspective of older and younger characters, who often witness or find themselves falling deeper into difficult situations. Fofana captures the dynamics between the various tenants, demonstrating empathy to all, the ones who choose self-preservation, the more individualistic ones, the ones who seek to form a united front, and the ones who are to wrapped up in envisioning their future they loose sight and control of their present. Many of the characters find themselves or have no choice but to make choices that have bad repercussions, hurting the ones they care about, or landing them into deeper trouble.
The descriptions and the dialogues are all rendered with electrifying realism, as the author captures the rhythms of these characters’ conversations and their interior voices. I will say that there is one chapter that explores the tensions between a group of Black men and a Chinese-owned restaurant, and I found the repeated use of a derogatory term for a Chinese man, well, it felt unnecessary. Using it once, as well as the characters’ behavior towards this restaurant, already makes us aware of the main character and his friends’ prejudice, for instance, that accented english signifies stupidity, and equating politeness with weakness. Anyway, many of these characters are put in compromising positions where they have to reevaluate or question the kind of people they are, and whether they will or won’t take accountability for their life and the choices they have made. I appreciated that Fofana does not oversimplify their struggles or uses simplistic parameters of good/bad when exploring their actions and choices. Like many collections out there, Stories from the Tenants Downstairs had a couple of gems and quite a few compelling but not particularly memorable.
If you are a fan of the work of Ladee Hubbard, Anthony Veasna So, Danielle Evans, and Toya Wolfe then you should definitely add Stories from the Tenants Downstairs to your tbr list. Fofana is a clearly talented storyteller and I look forward to reading more by him.
My rating: ★ ★ ★ ½
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