Episode 119: Stories From A Great Inner Pain

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Heard On BETA
illustration of cat in moonlit window casting a guitar shadow
Illustration by Telegram Paper Co. © Abrams Books, 2018

Film critic Adam Nayman tells us what really ties the Coen brothers’ movies together. Also, Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah takes on racism with his surreal short story collection. And The Roches’ Suzzy Roche shares memories of her late sister, Maggie.

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  • Author Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah Pushes Satire As Far As Possible

    Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah pushes satire as far as it can go with his debut short-story collection, “Friday Black.” He explores the violence, injustice and painful absurdities that African-American men, women and children have to deal with every day.

    “Friday Black” has been described as “Black Mirror” meets Black Lives Matter. But Adjei-Brenyah told WPR’s “BETA” that he’s come up with his own elevator pitch for the book.

    “If you imagine three people sitting on a couch, and the first is like, you know, ‘I really like this. It’s really soft, you know, pretty good butt-feel, it’s like feels pretty great.’ And the second’s like, ‘Yeah, I also think this couch is like pretty awesome. You know, I feel like the lumbar’s good but it’s just, you know, it feels really great for me just, you know, to relax into it.’ And the third is like, ‘Yes, I also agree that the couch is nice but I think we’re overlooking the fact that it’s made out of corpses.’”

    In his review of “Friday Black,” Entertainment Weekly Associate Editor David Canfield writes Adjei-Brenyah’s book is part of a new pop culture trend called “new black surrealism.”

    Canfield said this new trend also includes movies such as Jordan Peele’s “Get Out,” Boots Riley’s “Sorry to Bother You” and Donald Glover projects like “Atlanta” and “This Is America.” According to Canfield, all of these works “derive political power from a kind of absurdist framing.”

    “I do think that there is sort of an absurdist framing and that framing comes from the absurdity that is racism itself,” Adjei-Brenyah said. “The absurdity that is the way oppressions just force humans to do the opposite of what you would hope and expect them to do with each other. And the comparison I think makes sense. I wrote this book before ‘Get Out’ came out, you know several years before ‘Get Out’ came out actually, but I remember going to the theater and being like, ‘Good, you know, this is allowed now almost.’ If they’re going to call it a trend, I don’t know if I would agree with that word per se. But part of that is just the powers that be in the media being more open to allowing black creators to tell their stories in different ways.”

    The opening story in “Friday Black” is called “The Finkelstein 5” and it features the horrifying image of a white man feeling so threatened by the presence of five black children outside a library that he uses a chainsaw to decapitate them all. This image is so violent that it seems like such an exaggeration. And yet upon further reflection, it doesn’t seem like it’s such an exaggeration after all.

    “I think a lot of my stories operate right in that space between familiar and hyperbole,” Adjei-Brenyah said. “But also, I think part of the reason for the chainsaw is that you can’t ignore it the way unfortunately, it’s almost become something to ignore young black people being murdered by a gun, for example. You know, for me, whether you kill someone with a chainsaw, a pickax or a gun, they’re just as dead either way. And I think this story sort of pushes on that idea that this killing is happening gruesomely all the time actually. Maybe not by chainsaw but how bad does it have to be for us to really take notice?”

    Adjei-Brenyah also introduces the idea of “code-switching” in this story — the idea that people change the kind of language they use when they’re communicating with people from different cultural backgrounds.

    In “The Finkelstein 5,” the main character, Emmanuel, adjusts the blackness in his voice to various points on a 10-point scale, depending on who he is talking to.

    He said he often creates the strong elements of surrealism in his fiction by “literalizing and concretizing” something that he thinks of as an abstract or mental experience.

    “Depending on where you are, things that might typically be associated with your being black can be used against you, can be used to deny you things, and also can be used to make you a threat. And so, in this story, the main character Emmanuel adjusts his voice, not only his voice but also his appearance. And I used a 10-point scale because … it sort of becomes also again a little bit absurd because I think blackness is not quantifiable. Blackness is so many different things. But the stereotype of blackness, the fear that people feel regarding blackness, is silly and reducible and based on things that aren’t real. And so the scale allows me to play with the idea of adjusting yourself to appease someone else’s gaze based on a paradigm that is inherently false in the first place.”

    Adjei-Brenyah continued, “And it’s not just black people. I think so many different people in so many different spaces and identities have to sort of shave away parts of themselves to present as whatever it might be to be successful, upwardly mobile, or even just safe in any particular space. For me, I’m sure I do (code-switch) and what’s fortunate is I think as I get further into something like success or something like maturity, I’m allowed to do it way less. Fortunately, I get to be myself 100 percent a lot more than I used to, and eventually, I think I’ll get to be myself all the time.”

    Listen to Adjei-Brenyah reading an excerpt from the title story of “Friday Black.”

  • Suzzy Roche Pays Tribute To Her Late Sister Maggie With Album, 'Where Do I Come From'

    Maggie Roche was a member of the trio, The Roches, along with her sisters Terre and Suzzy.

    The Roches created distinctive harmonies together for almost 40 years until Maggie died in January 2017 at age 65 after a long battle with breast cancer.

    Suzzy recently put together a collection of songs by Maggie to honor her memory and music. It’s called “Where Do I Come From.”

    As Suzzy told WPR’s “BETA,” her about a year before she could start the project.

    “When Maggie died, in the last couple of weeks, she asked me to do something with her music. And, you know, then she died and then four months later, my mother died,” Suzzy said. “So the whole year was just a complete black time for me. And it wasn’t until the next year that I actually started to think what am I going to do? And so Dick Connette from StorySound Records told me that he would help me. And so then I began the process of going through all the material and all the music that she had left and trying to put together something that I felt would represent her life’s work.”

    The two-CD set features four previously unreleased recordings, including the title track. Suzzy had to sift through many boxes of tapes and cassettes before she discovered “Where Do I Come From.”

    “I went through everything and I found that little song. I think it was probably the last song she wrote. It was very recent and I just was so struck by it.”

    “I do think that Maggie was having a very hard time in the last few years of her life,” Suzzy continued. “She was ill and she didn’t tell anyone. And I think she felt very alone. But I also know that she was very interested in the refugee crisis around the world and the migrants. And I know that because I found also among her things all these places where she was donating. So I think part of her really identified with the feeling of being misplaced or displaced from her own life.”

    Another one of the previously unreleased songs is called “Down the Dream,” which was recorded for the record “Seductive Reasoning.”

    “But this recording of it was a live recording in the studio. And the story as I heard it was that Maggie and Terre were over in England making a record and the record company called and had heard some of the tapes they were making and said, ‘We don’t really care for them. So come home.’ And I think that that recording was made the night that they got that news,” Suzzy said.

    There’s something uniquely special about the way that siblings’ voices blend together. The Roche sisters began singing together at a young age, and to this day, it’s hard for Suzzy to sing by herself.

    “I kind of crave the physical sensation of singing in harmony,” Suzzy said. “And we were very, very strict about rehearsing and making sure it was all very perfect. And I don’t think that that’s something that regularly happens. We were almost like a choir.”

    Does Suzzy agree with the description of her and her sisters’ harmonies as unusual? Yes.

    “We were very untrained for the most part, and so we were just going note by note. And everybody would get a note. Or sometimes Maggie would come in with a complete arrangement,” Suzzy said. “And I also hear things in harmony just naturally. I kind of like what the three parts do to the voice of a song because it sort of removes one personality and gives it a little bit of distance.”

    In a story for The New York Times Magazine, writer John Lingan described Maggie’s songs as “vignettes of emotional hypersensitivity.” Suzzy agrees with that description.

    “I think Maggie was extremely sensitive, which was part of her brilliance as a songwriter but it also caused her a lot of trouble because walking through the world could be a painful experience for her,” the sister said.

    Suzzy has described her sister as thinking differently from other people and frequently coming into conflict with societal conventions.

    “She has always been very unconventional. Even as a little kid, she was always coming up against the rules and the authorities. She wanted to be free and she wanted to be free to express herself without being categorized. She thought differently. One of the great wonderful joys of my life has been that I was privy to Maggie’s conversation,” Suzzy said. “She was very shy, but when she was with somebody that she trusted, she would just talk and talk and talk. She had the most unusual point of view.

    “I always felt that her songs were just, there was just something about them that was, you kind of can recognize greatness. I think that if she had been a solo performer, she may have gotten more attention than she got being in the group. But I don’t think she had the strength really to go out alone in the world.”

    Maggie’s songs often dealt with the relationships between men and women, and the experience of being a woman during the 1970s. These themes are especially prevalent in songs like “Underneath the Moon,” “The Married Men” and “This Feminine Position.”

    Suzzy called her late sister a “fierce feminist,” and also said her sister probably wouldn’t describe herself with that label.

    “We grew up in a family where we were not told that women were less than men. So when we got out into the world and realized, ‘Oh, that’s not the way it always works,’ I think it really hit hard,” Suzzy said. “And also, The Roches, we were fierce when we came out of the gate and then we ran up against, once again, conventions. And we were very unconventional. And then you can kind of see as Maggie got older that she softened and her philosophy became wider, I think and, you know, more mature.”

    Suzzy said it’s hard to identify a favorite memory of her sister because she has so many.

    “We had so many laughs and so many ridiculous things happened, you know, through many years. But the last two months of her life, we really, really got to spend so much wonderful together, quiet time,” Suzzy said.

    Every morning Suzzy would bring Maggie a blueberry muffin.

    “The very last moment of her consciousness, the last thing that she said to me was, ‘Thank you,’” Suzzy recalled. “She said, ‘Thank you for being here.’ And I said, ‘Of course. I love you.’ And that was the last exchange we had, so that is very still fresh in my mind even though it’s almost two years ago.”

  • Film Critic Adam Nayman Circles Around A Grand Unified Theory Of The Coen Brothers

    There is a particular shot in the 2009 film “A Serious Man” by Joel and Ethan Coen that film critic Adam Nayman believes is both the most indelible image of their collected works and offers up a perfect metaphor for his quixotic undertaking, “The Coen Brothers: This Book Really Ties the Films Together.

    The shot is of the film’s protagonist, Larry Gopnik, a milquetoast Midwest professor scribbling a series of mathematical equations on a chalkboard about the “Uncertainty Theory.” The shot then pulls out to reveal Gopnik so dwarfed by his complicated theorem that as Nayman writes, “it looks like an entire vast galaxy swirling above him.”

    “Within the movie, it signifies something about that character and his existential dilemma, but I definitely used it as way of illustrating my own. The determination to sort through and connect the movies and also the feeling that it might be too daunting a task,” Nayman tells WPR’s “BETA.”

    Undaunted, Nayman has produced the definitive work on the Coen’s filmography. It is an IMAX-sized coffee table book that just might break most coffee tables, as Nayman himself recently joked about on Twitter.

    The hefty tome, complete with gorgeous and arresting stills from the Coen’s films and interviews with their most frequent collaborators, features Nayman’s critical essays on each film as he attempts to identify a grand unified theory of their cinematic universe.

    “I think that recurrence and circularity are things that their movies are often about and recurrence and circularity are also things that define their career,” said Nayman.

    Nayman argues even though the Coens circle back to similar ideas in all of their films, they do so in original ways that offer fresh perspectives. Structurally, he states “they’re all quite similar, not to the point of being redundant, I think to the point of being obsessive.”

    The central motif of the circle can be taken quite literally as Nayman cites the hula-hoop from “The Hudsucker Proxy” or the tumbleweed from “The Big Lebowski.” Or the central motif can err on the philosophical.

    “(‘Inside Llewyn Davis’) has the line, ‘If it’s not new and it never gets old, it’s a folk song.’ Which is a very circular kind of reasoning about how either certain works endure or taste moves in cycles of fads and popularity,” Nayman said.

    Another distinct aspect of their catalog is the Coen’s ability to immerse and subvert classic Hollywood genres and tropes and to an extent, “Coen-ize” them.

    “I think that one of the really interesting tensions in their work is always between them asserting a certain identity,” Nayman said “and also honoring aspects of what (genre) they’re working in.”

    Nayman said a perfect example of this is their Oscar-winning adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s novel, “No Country for Old Men.” The Coens were completely faithful to the source material, but still left their own identifying mark. They saddled Javier Bardem’s depiction of the book’s villain, Anton Chigurh, with a ridiculously comical pageboy haircut.

    “There are little variations,” Nayman said, “that are very, very much theirs and I think can be tied to other films, but also just are not deferring to the source text.”

    In the wake of transcendent films such as: “Fargo,” “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” and finally “No Country for Old Men,” the Coens surfaced as household names. They also had cult success with “The Big Lebowski” which has launched ongoing screenings in theaters across the country and even a Lebowski Fest.

    “I would argue that in some ways they’ve bent aspects of the mainstream to suit them or they’ve bent aspects of the mainstream to meet them on their terms. That wasn’t the case for the first four or five films when they struggled to find a popular audience,” said Nayman.

    The allure of their films may be their ability to be watched repeatedly. Nayman chalks this up to focused storytelling and brevity in run times, but also to just the overall quality of the acting and the brothers’ severe attention to detail.

    “They also have a lot of high points like quotable dialogue or exciting moments that you look forward to watching again,” he said.

    One of the central themes Nayman lays out in his book is the motif of fear or uncertainty of the future that’s present in most of the Coen Brother’s films. In fact, he jokes, the only thing he was certain about while writing the book was their omnipresent uncertainty. Many of their films end ambiguously and have a lot of deference to the characters and their mortality.

    Nayman said this is an area that has been an evolution in their work beginning with “No Country” through their latest offering for Netflix, “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” — an anthology film of six vignettes that all meditate on mortality.

    “I think their early movies had death in them as a plot point and murder and violence because that’s the bottle that their working in,” Nayman said. “I think that now as they’ve gotten older, they deal with mortality in a way that I find quite serious. Not humorless and not ponderous or pretentious, but not funny.”

Episode Credits

  • Doug Gordon Host
  • Adam Friedrich Producer
  • Doug Gordon Producer
  • Steve Gotcher Technical Director
  • Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah Guest
  • Suzzy Roche Guest
  • Adam Nayman Guest

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