Chris Abani has never not been a writer. How long he’s been a literary contortionist is another matter. His fiction reveals an innate and intimate sense of how the human mind, body and soul move. An exceptional choreographer, Abani’s characters and conversation are brilliant performances of back-bending and forward-bending skills. As he stated himself, “I don’t know how to talk in straight lines.”
His novel, GraceLand was chosen by Saint Mary’s College of California as the Freshman Year Experience book. During two morning Q&A sessions on Wednesday, October 14, 2009, Abani spoke candidly about the necessity of the physical, the differences and similarities between Nigeria and America, and his love for reality television. GraceLand, chronicles a dark page of Nigeria’s history as we follow a young boy learning to live and love in the turbulent eighties. Opening with a nod to Langston Hughes’ “A Dream Deferred,” Elvis, our young Nigerian protagonist, desperately wants to be a dancer, and in the midst of war and political revolution, this dream dries up, festers like a sore, and decays with the death that surrounds him. Many of the students were curious about the recurring themes and images in the book, and Abani, with great patience, humor, and profound insight, explained, in detail, how he set out to portray a homeland he loves, despite his exile: “”Nigeria is the New York of Africa, brash and busy. We face West and are very outward looking.” Yet, he deliberately deterred and deconstructed any romantic notions western audiences may have: “Postwar Nigeria is like when the zombies attacked.”
Students were very interested in hearing about his imprisonment. Accused of treason for his writing, held in solitary confinement, and sentenced to death row, Abani was honest in sharing: “In a maximum security prison language doesn’t exist . 87% of the prisoners’ only crime is poverty. Everything I learned about the world had to be changed. Writing is the only thing that stayed with me.” Someone asked how he endured it, and Abani explained succinctly what kept him strong, “Rage is different from anger. You have choices to make. You can either live in that hole for the rest of your life or you choose to get out.” Quick to point out that he wasn’t blameless, he argued no one is fully innocent: “[We] need to recognize [our] complicity.”
One lesson that’s stayed with him and is at the core of his art is “how easy it is to become a terrible person.” Abani touched on the idea of putting the bomb in the figurative tea kettle, not for the sake of an explosion but to study the hand and the mind that felt compelled or forced to erupt. Abani reminded us, that to be a good writer, its necessary to understand “how evil we can all be.” At the same time, he pointed out that “everyone is dealing with pain and trauma, and there is no hierarchy.”
When asked about his last visit to Nigeria, Abani relented he hadn’t returned home in years and has “to be connected to Nigeria by proxy.” One of the most lasting images and powerful symbols in GraceLand is the kola nut, and students were quick to inquire what gave this seed such significance. It’s like tea at a Japanese tea ceremony. Abani offered, “He who brings the kola brings life.”
The kola nut is a way of cementing whatever conversation is being had. GraceLand deals with a culture that can feel distanced for Western audiences, so the kola nut is a tangible entry point, something physical that makes the culture and people real. This symbol forces readers to make a deeper connection with the characters and helps the reader wrap their mind around the surrealist violence that permeates the story. This kind of physicality pushes past any kind of romanticizing of the Other and what might seem exotic. You get to a place where you feel you consume a culture.
Abani soon turned his gaze west and bluntly stated, “”In America everyone tends to not think of Africans having class. ” He added, “America is one layer of lies.” In his writing, bodies become ways of seeing these lies in actions; “the black male body in America is a body of violence.” Masculinity is also a performance. Abani questioned what it means to be a man, especially in the U.S. where he believes masculinity is defined “by what you are not and not what you are.” Drawn to freakish bodies and bodies that are altered, he’s always conscious about physicality: female, gay, transgender, conjoined twins, “anything that’s considered a nominative.” Abani mentioned Lacan’s symbolic order and spoke of finding a way for bodies to become emancipated in the language. There is “always a way in which bodies are supposed to perform.” Despite where the character comes from nationally or culturally, the experience, the emotions, and the physical reactions are inherently shared across borders, from each continent, and through time.”Elvis is a body. The space between what is imagined and what is real is so flimsy,” all of this is revealed through the body. Abani’s work doesn’t so much put the body in conversation but forces the body into an artistic dissection. He is a choreographer of contortionism.
Despite the critique, Abani also celebrates the U.S.: “America is something you invent everyday,” and, as a writer and activist, he’s profoundly aware of the exigency to invent. He doesn’t see his work as controversial but writes to challenge himself and discover what it means to be human because “the beauty of art is it doesn’t recognize boundaries.”
More twitches of sinew and flesh from Abani:
“Rituals have to adapt to technology.”
“I love accents. I collect them.”
“Who you are is a reflection of how other people see you.”
“Writers are magpies. We steal everything. Can’t remember what’s true and what isn’t, which is beautiful.”
Each story has “its own internal logic that makes you believe in the content of the book. This is what the writer is going for”
“The thing about making art is that you never know where the art is going.”
“Its an amazing gift that someone would take the time to read your work and show up to ask questions.”
“Every book is difficult. The only thing that keeps you going is knowing you’ve done it before.”
“I grew up reading in a non-hierarchical way, so Silver Surfer was at the same level as Raskolnikov.
“I’m equally Nigerian and equally English.”
Bio from Abani’s website:
Chris Abani’s prose includes Song For Night (Akashic, 2007), The Virgin of Flames (Penguin, 2007), Becoming Abigail (Akashic, 2006), GraceLand (FSG, 2004), and Masters of the Board (Delta, 1985). His poetry collections are Hands Washing Water (Copper Canyon, 2006), Dog Woman (Red Hen, 2004), Daphne’s Lot (Red Hen, 2003), and Kalakuta Republic (Saqi, 2001). He is a Professor at the University of California, Riverside and the recipient of the PEN USA Freedom-to-Write Award, the Prince Claus Award, a Lannan Literary Fellowship, a California Book Award, a Hurston/Wright Legacy Award, a PEN Beyond the Margins Award, the PEN Hemingway Book Prize & a Guggenheim Award.