Few writers can inhabit multiple characters with equal intensity and vivacity, and most who can are, of course, playwrights or screenwriters...Sidik Fofana’s debut collection reveals him to have this rare gift...The collection introduces us to eight black residents of the Banneker Terrace apartments in Harlem...As the poem that introduces the collection asks, 'Everybody got a story, everybody got a tale / Question is: Is it despair or prevail?'...Fofana makes us feel viscerally the weight of life’s injustice...He doesn’t idealize or airbrush his characters, yet he enables us to know their wit, ingenuity, joy, and resilience.
... outstanding ... The brilliance of this debut, however, is that Fofana doesn’t let anyone go unseen ... masterfully paints a portrait of the people most impacted by gentrification ... Fofana brings his characters to life through their idiosyncratic speech patterns. Auxiliary verbs are dropped, words are misspelled, prepositions are jostled, all to create a sense of vernacular authenticity...Grammar is an instrument that Fofana plays by ear, to much success.
Fofana’s debut is impressive — his characters exude life and the different voices stay with the reader long after the book has been shelved ... Fofana’s characters are brutally human, and sometimes I worry for them, as I worry for the very real people who are facing the realities of rising rent, stagnant incomes, and impossible-to-attain mortgages ... does not shy away from complexity. The people in these stories are inconsistent, the way actual people are inconsistent, justifying their own mistakes and petty retaliations to themselves. I found myself wanting to argue with the characters, a sign of how real they became to me. Like real living people, everyone here exists in the gray of morality, ethics, and lawfulness ... While the tenants of Banneker haven’t faced the current post-Obama world, their struggles still feel relevant. The ups and downs of the economy and the pandemic have forced a lot of people to reexamine their lives. Many folks have had to move home, many have had to downgrade, and many are worrying about what will finally push them into crime or welfare ... Sidik Fofana captures eight unique voices in eight unique predicaments. There is no one story of gentrification, there are individual people with individual struggles. Stories brings those people, and their very real hustles and struggles, to life ... Still — Fofana’s characters are better than most of us at getting back up again.
... bodacious ... A less gifted writer might not have rendered the subtleties so clearly, but Fofana deftly steers away from stereotypes and into the psychological interior of each character's life. And he does this so powerfully through voice ... One of Fofana's implicit arguments is that there are as many different kinds of Black English as there are Black people, and that we are perfectly capable of describing the circumstances of our own lives. Some may call what a community of working-class Black folks do to stay in their building in a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood 'hustling.' Others may call it 'organizing' and still others may say it's 'breaking the rules.' But individually and side by side, what the stories show is that no matter what you call it, Black ingenuity, Black greed and Black generosity are just as vivid, just as multifaceted as anyone else's ... And that although many may be grappling with a scarcity of wealth and property, we have never been poor in our command of language.
It’s the particularity of those voices that makes Mr. Fofana’s debut a standout achievement. Each first-person story is written in vivid dialect, through which the characters’ backgrounds and personalities—and to an affecting degree, their destinies—are revealed. The conversational informality means that desperation is often delivered with wry humor ... American speech is an underused commodity in contemporary fiction and it’s a joy to find such a vital example of it here.
The chapters in Stories From the Tenants Downstairs are solely unique as each tenant’s struggles with rising rent cause different outcomes and each person tells their story in different formats and styles. This book shines a light on what millions of Americans are experiencing today: the exhausting, funny, desperate, and hopeful human experience.
Fofana, a public school teacher in New York City, acts as both storyteller and anthropologist, brilliantly capturing the scrapes, scents and spirit of this gentrifying neighborhood ... 'The Young Entrepreneurs of Miss Bristol’s Front Porch' exemplifies Fofana’s adeptness at capturing the cadence and syntactical uniqueness of Black Harlem ... Fofana skillfully employs phonetic spelling ... Stories From the Tenants Downstairs aches with powerlessness against tides of gentrification and poverty. At the same time, its boisterous cast of characters seems to embody a new power — the power in telling one’s own story.
The interconnected stories in Fofana’s spectacular debut collection feature a range of vibrant characters who are living close to the edge ... A range of emotions, from wistfulness to humor, envy, and vengefulness, colors these pages that are often filled with laugh-out-loud passages ... Above all, the characters’ voices are unforgettable, crackling with energy and spunk...The answers are as nuanced as the storytellers themselves, who have crafted their very own definitions of home.
... electric ... Fofana shows an ear for pacing and for evocative, frequently musical language. He expertly handles the structure of each story and of the collection as a whole, whose easy readability advances serious themes, including the challenges of poverty in its many iterations, gentrification, humor and hope and anguish ... This quickly shifting narrative introduces vibrant, appealing characters in brief but three-dimensional sketches, and paints a larger picture of existential efforts and persistence. Fofana's is a striking voice, and his protagonists will linger in readers' imaginations.
The portraits are conveyed in tight-woven, propulsive, rhythmically rich vernacular, and though the characters all connect, they each have a distinctive voice and story ... A singular accomplishment from a writer to watch.
The Banneker Terrace housing complex doesn’t actually exist at present-day 129th Street and Frederick Douglass Avenue in Harlem...But the stories assembled in this captivating debut collection feel vividly and desperately authentic in chronicling diverse African American residents of Banneker poised at crossroads in their overburdened, economically constrained lives...“Ms. Dallas” may well be the collection’s most caustically observant and poignantly tender story; the title character, Verona Dallas, besides being Swan’s mother, works as a paraprofessional at the neighborhood’s middle school while working nights 'at the airport doin’ security'...All these stories are told in the first-person voices of their protagonists and thus rely on urban Black dialect that may put off some readers at first, with the frequent colloquial use of the N-word and other idiomatic expressions...But those willing to use their ears more than their eyes to read along will find a rich, ribald, and engagingly funny vein of verbal music, as up-to-the-minute as hip-hop, but as rooted in human verities as Elizabethan dialogue...A potentially significant voice in African American fiction asserts itself with wit and compassion.
The residents of a low-income high-rise apartment building in Harlem form the beating heart of Fofana’s dynamic debut collection...The hardscrabble tenants of Banneker Terrace tread water while their greedy landlord imposes evictions...In 'The Rent Manual,' Mimi in 14D remarks on how the building houses 'a little bit of everybody,' including 'folks with child-support payments, uncles in jail, aunties on crack, cousins in the Bloods, sisters hoein'...In 'The Okiedoke,' Swan in 6B nervously awaits his friend’s release from prison, while in 'Camaraderie,' Dary in 12H, who is gay, has high hopes for his future while doing sex work to pay the rent...Fofana delivers the hardy, profane, violent, and passionate narration in Black English Vernacular, and finds the humanity in all his characters as they struggle to get by...These engrossing and gritty stories of tenuous living in a gentrifying America enchant.