-By Karilyn Prisco
I had the wonderful opportunity to interview Sidik Fofana about his recently published book, Stories from the Tenants Downstairs. It hit the shelves in August this year and has already sparked much attention and has received rave reviews. Luckily, I was able to wiggle my way into his busy schedule to chat a bit about his inspiration, passion for storytelling and everyday life.
Fofana is a graduate of NYU’s MFA program and a public school teacher in Brooklyn. His work has appeared in the Sewanee Review and Granta. He was also named a fellow at the Center for Fiction in 2018. Stories from the Tenants Downstairs, his debut short story collection composed of eight narratives about residents of a fictional building in Harlem, was published by Scribner in August 2022.
Why is NYC such a magical setting for literature?
New York is such a frenetic place. It’s a boiling pot of dreams. It’s bridges and architecture and people clustered. It’s a microcosm of the world. It’s Gotham City, the defining urban area of America. America’s Paris. America’s Hong Kong. You can tell so many different stories, so many worlds are packed in one. It’s fashion. It’s poverty. It’s graffiti, beauty and decay. It’s the city with the most people.
Have you always wanted to be a writer? How did you start writing fiction?
I always wanted to be a writer but I didn’t always know what it entailed. I remember being a kid on a train in Boston and two white people randomly started up a conversation with me. They asked me what I wanted to be and I said a writer. They said, “Who’’s your favorite writer?” and I said James Baldwin, having not read one word the man had written. They said, “Well, you do look like James Baldwin,” and I smiled. Maybe I should have been offended.
In college, if you asked me I would have said that I wanted to be a journalist, but I didn’t know what that entailed either. After college I wrote music reviews and things like that. Writing fiction came right outside of college. I knew I liked words and liked reading them in some form or another. My mother would point to an essay that I wrote about courage in sixth grade that won a prize and say that I was destined for it, but I find destiny to be a bit more fickle than your mother’s predictions.
How does it feel to speak as a different age, gender, or member of a different demographic group when writing? Had you set out to do that before picking up your pen?
It feels scary but exciting. It feels like I’m stretching the limit of my craft. When I first started writing these stories the voices I knew well were the voices of the young thug and the sassy urban black female, but as I thought more and more about residents in a given building, I realized people can fit all kinds of different definitions. In order to portray them accurately, I had no choice but to go across age and gender. I took it as a challenge. This day and age it’s tough because everybody has their own idea of identity politics, but I think the beauty of fiction is inhabiting other people and swimming around in their skin. A rewarding kind of literary ventriloquism, if you will.
Have you interacted with all of the types of characters in your book?
Most definitely. Most of the characters are composites of people who I’ve lived near or worked with. Composites of certain family members. The only person who I’ve never met was a gymnast from the hood, but I have been in the proximity of many urban prodigies. You ask, “How is it possible?” It’s always possible. Almost none of the characters are autobiographical, but I had to think about their tribulations and inject my own shot of humanity in them. So, yeah, I interacted with them in that way as well. Also, call me psycho, but every now and then I run into my characters on the street.
What do you feel about gentrification? What was your inspiration for writing about it?
I have no political feelings about gentrification whatsoever. I think our country likes to take a social topic and divide it until we pick sides. The liberals would be like you’re displacing people and bumping the rents up and long-term residents can’t afford to stay here and conservatives would say people have the right to move wherever-–it’s not gentrification, people are just finding a place to live and what about the landlords, they need to eat, too. I have no feelings either way. Some characters in the book actually take a stance that you wouldn’t think they would take. The old man who plays chess in the last story is literally moved across the street because of gentrification and he still loves it. He loves the fact that there’s a new restaurant there and that the parks have been done up.
I had a student whose parents bought their brownstone super cheap when no one wanted to live in that section of Brooklyn and now it’s valued at over a million dollars. Her family is very happy about gentrification, so much so that they plan to sell the house when she goes to college to pay for her tuition. It’s an ever-changing social issue. You don’t know if some cities are in the process of urban renewal or if it’s stalled. If you walk through the streets of Harlem, people seem to co-exist. Newcomers and long-timers altogether. I don’t think I’ve ever seen someone call out a newcomer and say why can’t you find a different neighborhood. These might be the type of conversations happening in living rooms, but for the most part people are cordial.
Who are your favorite writers who have influenced your work?
I have many favorite writers whose styles have influenced me, but in terms of very direct literary DNA—like if you read my stories you’d automatically know who I had read—it would be Sapphire, Junot Diaz, Ring Lardner, Alice Walker, Toni Cade Bambara, and Sherman Alexie. These are people who really deal with voice and have a really deep sense of first person narration. In terms of people who I just think are dope writers: Kiese Laymon, Hanif Abduraqqib, Elizabeth Acevedo, Jesmyn Ward, Jhumpa Lahiri, Mira Jacob, Jose Saramago, Frank McCourt, Jeffrey Eugenides, Ben Fountain, Adam Ross, Lorrie Moore, danez smith–I could go on–Michelle Obama, Barack…
What does your perfect NYC day look like?
It would be chilling in Union Square Park and then browsing the Strand or taking a walk with my wife and our son down Gun Hill Road in the Bronx where we live. Or a journey up the Highline, or through 125th Street in Harlem or picking up Ethiopian food in Fort Greene by the Barclay’s Center. Or hanging out in Bed Stuy with my boy Noah and his daughter. You know, like one of those days where you got a lot of time in the afternoon to kill and you find yourself roaming.
Kindle, Audible, Hardcover & Paperback available on Amazon.com
Upcoming Event: October 6 Rally Reading Series // Brooklyn, NY