The apartment building provides an arresting riposte to the perception that urban living grows ever more atomised, not least in New York City. It also makes an irresistible backdrop for fiction writers and Sidik Fofana’s bravura debut, Stories from the Tenants Downstairs, shows just why that might be.
Comprising eight interconnected tales, it’s set in Banneker Terrace, a low-income, high-rise in Harlem. Fofana draws his narrators from among the residents of its 300-plus homes, and while all may be black, their intensely vernacular voices testify to the rich multiplicity of their roots and backstories, their dreams and disappointments.
There’s Quanneisha in 21J, a sometime gymnast who came this close to making the national squad and whose talent got her a private school education, a college scholarship (until she dropped out) and a way of talking that makes her neighbours look at her oddly now that she’s back in the neighbourhood.
In 6B, meanwhile, Swan is excited to reconnect with his friend, Boons, freshly released from jail, but his outlook has been changed by President Obama’s election and this creates the subtlest of tensions as Boons sets about scamming a free meal from the local Chinese takeaway.
Other residents include aspiring hairdresser Dary, who cannot shake off his family’s views on his sexuality and whose pop star obsession will see him go viral in all the wrong ways, and teenager Kandese, who found her obese father’s dead body and is now making a killing selling candy.
Stoking the tension throughout is Harlem’s rapid gentrification. Banneker itself has recently been sold to a property company intent on turning a profit and it’s only a matter of time before rent rises are followed by eviction notices. The threat couldn’t be more real for fiercely independent Mimi, who’s raising Swan’s son alone. “Days left: 10… money you got: $… money you need: $350”, begins The Rent Manual, the book’s opening story.
Mimi’s voice, like those of her neighbours, reels the reader in with its rhythmic, idiomatic immediacy. There’s huge variety in their diction, from the assertive bustle of Verona, a high school assistant who clashes with a do-gooding teacher fresh from Harvard in Ms Dallas, to elderly Mr Murray, who lives to play chess with passersby and whose colourful metaphors bring a sense of perspective to the collection’s finale.
Fofana, himself a schoolteacher, displays great dramatic range here, too. There are stories that end shockingly, such as the epistolary Lite Feet, whose 12-year-old narrator, Najee, once danced through subway carriages for tips and now conveys, through his misspelled outpourings, a crushingly adult burden of regret. Then there are moments when there is feeling and story enough to fill a novel, yet it is all compressed into the merest of nods as lift doors close.
What unites so many of these characters – and they can seem so real that word jars – is that they feel unseen, unheard. As Najee writes at the start of his letter: “Does anybody wanna read this? i dout it. imma tear this paper up when i’m threw.” The stories that do get told, it’s observed on more than one occasion, aren’t truly representative. To quote Mimi: “Folks with child-support payments, uncles in jail, aunties on crack, cousins in the Bloods, sisters hoein. That’s what everybody wanna concentrate on.”
Fofana’s triumph is in allowing these people to burst from the page as individuals who may perhaps be fated, but who are also gloriously flawed, funny and bold, rather than being mere victims of their social challenges.
• Stories from the Tenants Downstairs by Sidik Fofana is published by John Murray (£16.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply