Stories from the Tenants Downstairs

Scribner. Aug. 2022. 192p. ISBN 9781982145811. $26. F
DEBUT From public school teacher and NYU MFA graduate Fofana, these eight linked portraits plumb the lives of tenants in the Banneker Homes, a low-income high-rise in Harlem threatened by gentrification. 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. Go-getting Mimi (Apartment 14D) has big dreams but struggles to pay the rent, given her relentless purchase of validating luxury goods; a countdown of the funds she scrapes together, bit by bit, ratchets up the tension. Swan (Apartment 6B), who fathered Mimi’s child, gingerly welcomes a friend home from prison, while his mother, teacher’s aide Verona Dallas, gives us a hawk-eyed view of a wholly inadequate inner-city school and the abysmal ignorance of a pretentious new white teacher. Particularly wrenching are the children’s stories: the aspirations of teenage gymnast Quanneisha B. Miles (Apartment 21J) are wrecked by rivalry at Banneker, and after a tragedy that quietly sneaks up on readers (as tragedies do in life), preteen subway dancer Najee Baily (Apartment 24M) writes an urgent letter of explanation and apology that’s all the more heartbreaking for being misspelled.
VERDICT A singular accomplishment from a writer to watch.
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