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Book Review: Unforgettable voices in “Stories from the Tenants Downstairs”

Interconnected narratives and characters can be excruciating to sift through as a reader. Often confusing and forgettable, this writing style has the potential to be an author’s downfall. But that isn’t the case with Sidik Fofana’s debut collection “Stories from the Tenants Downstairs.”

Through eight interconnected stories, Fofana illuminates the struggles of Banneker Homes, a low-income Harlem apartment building on the verge of gentrification. Mimi is a single mom hustling to make rent by waitressing and hairdressing. Then Swan, the father of Mimi’s kid, is excited about his friend’s prison release but fears it might come in the way of his future. Ms. Dallas tries to help her students, but the white, Harvard-educated teacher pushes back against her teaching style. The five other interconnected stories range from students in Ms. Dallas’s class to an older man who plays chess on the corner–all unforgettable to the writer.

Each of the eight stories showcases uniquely decisive voices with such clarity that the collection seems almost biographical. Fofana doesn’t downplay the joys or pains of living in Banneker Homes, leaving readers to root for even the most unlikely characters. Few authors can pinpoint and fully embody their characters' voices, but Fofana excels without any gimmicks. Honestly, each chapter of “Stories from the Tenants Downstairs” was an extraordinary dive into the hopes and fears of this community while also allowing each protagonist to flourish.

Fofana’s writing style is like a chameleon–evolving to fit the character but distinct in his own right. Reading the short stories from a child’s perspective was incredibly well-done. It captured the voice of a kid raised in Harlem ideally.

A captivating observation of the highs and lows of the human experience, “Stories from the Tenants Downstairs” is a triumph in storytelling. Powerful, expressive, and beautifully human, this collection should be a quick read for anyone who cares about the communities directly impacted by gentrification.

Thank you, Simon & Schuster, for the ARC, and follow @bergreadstoomuch for more!

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