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Short 'Stories from the Tenants Downstairs' describe the gentrification of their home

SIDIK FOFANA: (Reading) Days left - 10 - money you got - $0 - money you need - $350.

DANIEL ESTRIN, HOST:

That is the first line of an electrifying debut collection of short stories by writer and public school teacher, Sidik Fofana. It's called "Stories From the Tenants Downstairs." All but one story are told by a different resident in a fictional high-rise building in Harlem. Many of the Black residents are struggling to get by, and they have very distinct voices. The first is Mimi.

FOFANA: (Reading) Banneker Terrace on 129th and Fred Doug ain't pretty, but it's home. Until now, it's been the same since you moved here when you was pregnant with Fortune. Twenty-five floors, 300 suttin apartments, four elevators that got minds of they own, laundry full of machines that don't wash clothes right, bingo room that the old folks hog up and a trash chute that smell like rotten milk.

ESTRIN: Author Sidik Fofana joins us now. Sidik, congratulations on your debut book.

FOFANA: Thank you. Thank you so much. Thanks for the invite.

ESTRIN: It is such strong writing. The voices of your characters really pull you in. Are these fictional versions of real people that you know?

FOFANA: Yeah, I would describe them - I'd mostly describe them as composites, and the emotions that characters are feeling - many of them are my emotions. I think of it as an exercise in looking at the external situations of people I know and I've grown up with and saying, how would I feel if this happened to me?

ESTRIN: Well, let's talk about the first character in the book, Mimi. She's in apartment 4D. She's a single mom. She's trying to make rent. She's trying to make an honest income, but she needs to compromise to get by.

FOFANA: Mimi kind of represents the tenant, the resident - you know, sometimes they have a struggle to make it by for the month. They get through it, and then by the 1, that struggle starts all over again. She's a waitress at a soul food restaurant, and on the side, she does hair. But one important thing to know about Mimi is that she's very independent, and she's very proud of the fact that she doesn't need much help.

ESTRIN: She keeps trying to do the right thing, and she ends up roped into the wrong thing.

FOFANA: Right.

ESTRIN: Well, there are seven other stories in your book about the tenants in Banneker Terrace. So we hear from Mimi's son's father, Swan. His friend comes home from jail. We meet Swan's mother, Ms. Dallas, who is working overnights at airport security, and during the day, she's working at a public school. So many different characters - what made you want to write about this community?

FOFANA: Well, I was always fascinated with the voices that I grew up around, always fascinated with vernacular. I grew up in a working-class neighborhood in Boston, and I lived in Harlem in my '20s. You know, a lot of the familiar things - the public buses, the corner store, the basketball courts, the cookouts - are a lot of the things that I encountered in Harlem. And it made me think that, you know, this is not only just a Black community that I grew up in, but it's an American story full of different voices. I was inspired to capture how the oral story is told on paper and how those voices could differ, depending on word choice and syntax. I was also just fascinated about gentrification and the forces of that.

ESTRIN: You know, you talk about voices in vernacular. I think the most arresting story in this collection is about Najee. His friends create a dance group that they call Lite Feet. And then we read his agonizing attempt to write a letter to one of their moms. Can you read the beginning of that story?

FOFANA: (Reading) Dear Ms. Singleton (ph), you know me already. But in case you forgot, my name is Najee. I'm 12 years old, and I'm writing this to tell you and everybody that I'm quitting Lite Feet. Never thought I would say this, but I wish there was never no such thing as Lite Feet, and I wish I never joined it. My life is a mess now. My own mother is scared of me. Does anybody want to read this? I doubt it. I'ma tear this paper up when I'm through.

ESTRIN: When you read this story, Najee's spelling is just all over the place. So is his punctuation - clearly not on grade level with his writing, but his voice is so vivid. And then by the end of the story, I mean, his pain - we won't give it away. But how did you conceptualize him and his story?

FOFANA: Well, over the years as a public school teacher, I've taught thousands of students - children who were physically challenged, kids who were homeless, kids who couldn't read but were musical geniuses, kids who were comedic geniuses, kids who didn't know a word of English but then became fluent in two years. And so Najee, again, is a composite of just the entrepreneurial hustler kid. And I've had, you know, several kids either dance on the train, you know, had shows outside of school. But more than that, I wanted to write a story about regret and how a kid can have regret, how that kid could be so regretful of a thing that he's willing to try something that he's not good at, and that is writing - writing a letter. And just the - maybe even the endeavor in itself is a powerful statement of remorse.

ESTRIN: Wow. You mentioned you're interested in gentrification, and these stories are of people who are being pushed out of these rapidly changing neighborhoods. I'm really curious to know, who are you writing these stories for? Who is your audience? Is it the people being pushed out, or is it the people doing the pushing?

FOFANA: I would say both and neither. It's the addressing the notion that gentrification is complicated. You could be the, quote-unquote, "victim" of gentrification, and within that cluster of people, there could be various opinions. You know, some people would be like, you know, I don't like that new people are moving into my neighborhood. Another person might be like, about time they cleaned up that playground. I kind of wanted to make a point that people are not product of a social issue or a social point. When I was growing up in Roxbury in Boston and when I lived in Harlem, I didn't wake up every day saying, oh, my neighborhood is gentrifying. I kind of woke up every day saying, I got to go to work.

ESTRIN: Yeah.

FOFANA: People aren't just the product of their, like, social issues. Even people who come into the neighborhood - they don't come in with their suitcases, like, let's gentrify. They come in saying, like, let's find a nice place to live.

ESTRIN: So this is your first book. What other stories do you have up your sleeve?

FOFANA: Well, as a teacher, I love the idea of stories like, "Thank You, M'am" and "Monkey's Paw" and "Cask Of Amontillado" and stories that are, like, three to 10 pages that, you know, you can read in one sitting with your class. In terms of subject, I have no idea. But in terms of length - shorter stories. But I mean, I feel like everybody always says, like, you know, working on a novel and whatnot. But I don't know. I'm just, like, a rapper who's like, I don't want to work on an album. I just want to work on a verse.

ESTRIN: Writer and public school teacher Sidik Fofana - his debut collection is "Stories From the Tenants Downstairs." Sidik, thank you so much for being with us.

FOFANA: Thank you, Daniel.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Daniel Estrin is NPR's international correspondent in Jerusalem.