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Stateside

Grief and survival: adrienne maree brown’s debut novella is a heavy hitter

adrienne maree brown
Anjali Pinto
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Author and activist adrienne maree brown

“Every time I lose someone,” says adrienne maree brown, “I'm struck by how quickly I'm expected to be functional again, and it piles up in me.” She says she was struck, too, by the sagging weight of collective mourning. Loss is both monumental and universal, but society gives little space for grief.

brown’s debut novella, Grievers, imagines the reckoning of a compelled pause: “what would it look like if it was non-negotiable...if grief took its time?” In brown’s fictional Detroit, a mysterious and deadly illness is spreading rapidly, plaguing the city with grief. The protagonist of Grievers, Dune, is a young queer woman who must learn to survive in the wake of her parents’ deaths. Her mother was patient zero, and her father was a researcher who started the work of mapping the city’s loss. Dune takes up the task of investigating the epidemic’s cause and its hope for a cure.

brown drew inspiration for her Afrofuturistic novella from Octavia Butler, from Ursula K. LeGuin, and from 12 years of life and activism in Detroit, which, she notes, “has gone through so many iterations of pain and loss and economic abandonment and racial capitalism and just so much pain.”

brown’s version of Detroit pays loving homage to the real one. Among other goals, she wanted to capture the contours of the city in transition.

“I did a lot of walking around, driving around,” she said, “thinking about the places that I love and loved in the city that...were disappearing or were changing.”

She also sought to honor the multi-generational movement of Detroit activists. One of the characters Dune encounters, for example, is modeled on the civil rights pioneer Grace Lee Boggs, one of brown’s own mentors.

Though the novel is rooted in Detroit, its reach echoes far beyond, especially but not only in the middle of a pandemic that has taken so many lives and so much from the living.

“If you're paying attention to climate crises, there's grief there. If you're paying attention to economic or border issues, there's grief there,” she observes, and there’s longstanding grief that’s finally being given more appropriate attention and space. “This is a period where we have raised the level of awareness that we have of how much Black death is happening. And so there's just a ton of grief that is both specific and general.”

Though this is brown’s first published work of long fiction, she is already well-known as an activist, nonfiction writer, podcast host, and author of short fiction. Her book Pleasure Activism: The Politics of Feeling Good was a New York Times bestseller that struck a distinctly lighter chord than Grievers, but brown sees both books as a part of a shared larger project. She wants to help people feel satisfied in their lives. Working toward peace and joy includes processing loss and the inevitability of unfinished business.

How do I prioritize and hone in and find the things I can do in the life I'm given?,” she asks, “And how do I let that be enough?

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