The soul of a community is nearly impossible to capture in a handful of moments from the lives of its members. Yet Stories from the Tenants Downstairs, Sidik Fofana’s debut story collection set in an apartment building in Harlem, rises to that very challenge, offering a hold-no-punches glimpse into a place that, despite its marginalization, thrives on its own terms.
Fofana’s eight linked stories overflow with raw humanity. The residents of Banneker Terrace live on the edge, most struggling to make the monthly rent, further threatened by a recent wave of gentrification that encourages evictions to make room for wealthier tenants. The system shows little leniency for those who’ve lived there most of their lives and call Banneker home. Yet they never seem to lose hope or their sense of pride.
The characters in these stories are vibrantly portrayed in their struggles to survive. For Mimi, a self-employed hairdresser and part-time server at a soul food joint, time is a “countdown” until the day the rent is due (“days left: 4 … money you got: $150 … money you need: $240”). Except for an unprofitable rent party, she does not ask anyone for help. She is determined to scrape together enough money for one month’s rent, knowing she’s already five months behind and on the verge of eviction. Swan, the father of Mimi’s son Fortune, knows it’s time to grow up and help his mother and son, yet the only job he can find is working at a chicken restaurant downtown, where he is expected to wear a bird suit. Swan’s mother, Verona, a paraprofessional at the local middle school, is demoralized after she is assigned to a seventh-grade classroom with a Harvard-educated newbie schoolteacher who knows little about how to reach the students and even less about empathy. The administration’s ineptitude put the school at risk of closure and threaten Verona’s livelihood. Kandese, an orphaned teenager living in a homeless shelter, is sent to live in a small town where she establishes a profitable business reselling stolen candy.
Shattered dreams have often disrupted the lives of these characters. Dary, a gay man, imagines becoming the personal stylist of a celebrity he idolizes but, unable to find steady work, is forced into sex work to make ends meet. Najee, Verona’s charge at the middle school, constantly bullied by other students and put down by his teachers, finds joy riding the subway trains and dancing for money until a tragic accident happens. Neisha, who aspired to attend college and become a professional gymnast until she was injured in a fight, finds herself back at Banneker working for the tenants association. She is called upon to help the young woman who caused her injury avoid a pending eviction.
The conflicts faced by the residents of Banneker aren’t solely with the outside world. The older women who run the tenants association behave like the village elders, revered for their defiance of the efforts to evict powerless tenants. Yet not everyone is on board with their fiery activism. Younger residents like Mimi slam them as righteous busybodies, a “gang with they nasty purple toenails and they earrings shaped like Africa and they wrinkled skin smellin like black soap.” Mr. Murray, an older tenant who is arrested for loitering in front of a nearby restaurant, becomes the unwilling symbol of a movement targeting the gentrification of the neighborhood when he simply wants to be left alone.
At the root of Fofana’s robust characterization is his use of language. He allows his characters to speak in their own voices, to be brutally frank and introspective, even call themselves on their own bullshit as much as they condemn the wrongdoing of others. In one of the most touching stories in the collection, Najee, barely literate, writes in the only language he knows – chains of uncapitalized names, misspelled words, and broken sentences, vividly conveying his struggle not just with learning but also with simply being understood as a human being. By using unfiltered expression, Fofana makes the reader struggle along with Najee and feel his frustration.
In imaginative ways, Fofana blends the themes of activism and empowerment, the dehumanization of being judged, the threat of gentrification, and sorrow over broken dreams. The residents of Banneker Terrace are poor but not so destitute that they can’t survive. They are righteously bitter over their mistreatment, but it does not define them. They have regrets, but they have hope, too. There are even moments of humor, including a hilariously elaborate plot launched by Swan and his associates to swindle a local restaurant out of a meal of Chinese food to celebrate the return of their friend Boons, who was just released from prison.
The physical setting is close and connected. There is no private space. The characters constantly move upstairs and downstairs, mirroring the highs and lows of their lives. The building’s four elevators have “minds of their own,” unpredictable and erratic, reflecting how the residents of Banneker can depend on no one but each other.
Fofana’s collection will be compared with Gloria Naylor’s The Women of Brewster Place for its apartment building setting, fragile sense of community, and novel-in-stories vibe. Yet it also captures some of the richness of Dinaw Mengestu’s The Beautiful Things that Heaven Bears in its indictment of gentrification and its impact on the lives of people already struggling. It is a masterful work, worthy of relishing in a single sitting, yet containing individual stories that the reader will want to revisit and revel in for just a while longer.
Stories from the Tenants Downstairs
By Sidik Fofana
Scribner Book Company
Published August 16, 2022