Chris Abani’s Search for a National Literature

Chris_abani_2 The following article was originally published in the spring issue of Centrum’s Experience magazine. Chris Abani’s workshop is sold out, at this point, but he will be giving a reading from new work at the Joseph F. Wheeler Theater on Friday, July 18, at 7:30 pm. The reading is free. Follow this link for more information about the 2008 Port Townsend Writers’ Conference.

"If you want to get at the molten heart of contemporary fiction, Chris Abani is the starting point."
       —Dave Eggers

Here is a legend—a true one—that surrounds Nigerian-born author Chris Abani. In late 1985, after the publication of his first novel at the age of sixteen, a political thriller entitled “Masters of the Board,” he was arrested for trying to overthrow the Nigerian government.

This novel, although written at such an early age, wasn’t even Abani’s first publication. At the age of ten he’d won a writing competition for eighteen-year-olds, rolling down the aisle “like a little round basketball” to claim his prize.

“The shock on people’s faces brought home to me the impact that writing could have,” Abani says. “In the Nigeria of the time, it was considered that one shouldn’t write until their education was finished, usually in their late twenties or early thirties. But here was this child who wanted to write.”

Born at the beginning of the Nigerian civil war, Abani fled with his family during the conflict and didn’t return to the country until 1970, at the age of five. Known abroad as the Biafran War, the Nigerian civil war featured genocide against the Igbo language group—and other eastern Nigerian language groups—by the state of Nigeria. Millions of Igbo were killed.

After the war, the family moved back to land that had been held by the Igbo rebels, and Chris Abani grew up among “the detritus of war: burned-out tanks squatting in the middle of soccer fields, live grenades getting passed around in school, people hanging themselves because of what they had done.”

The government discouraged the teaching of the civil war in the schools, not wanting the eastern Nigerian youth to re-foment the revolution. Abani only learned the recent history of his own country from a Pakistani teacher, who, as part of a unit on the Jewish Holocaust, taught the Igbo genocide, as well.

Growing up surrounded by war, and drawn as he was to thrillers and comic books—“plus, I couldn’t play soccer well,” he says—Abani wrote his youthful spy thriller, in which neo-Nazis take over Nigeria to institute a Fourth Reich. In addition to international locations, the novel featured several national government buildings and locations.

In 1985, a Nigerian general named Mamman Vatsa tried to overthrow the government, failing spectacularly. The Nigerian government alleged that Vatsa used the plot of Abani’s novel to select targets for destruction and the teenaged Abani was arrested—“every time there’s a supposed coup attempt in Nigeria, everyone involved, and lots of people who weren’t involved, are often arrested as co-conspirators,” Abani notes—and held on charges. He spent six months in prison, beaten during his time inside. After his release he became an activist, fighting for increased civil liberties in his homeland.

“The resistance movement I became a part of was much bigger than me,” Abani says. “My whole generation was, and is, involved. Especially in the last years of the nineteen-eighties, when the oppression became unbearable. We had lawyers fighting for women’s rights, and trying to get people out of prison. We had people trying to outlaw Islamic sharia law. We had people working against sexual trafficking, a whole range of people just working all the time. Resistance is not necessarily sexy. It’s not stockpiling arms but doing small things on a daily basis, good people trying to set up educational facilities for street kids, even just ten kids at a time. It’s just everyday Nigerians doing what they can. We’re talking about forty years of military mismanagement of a country that can’t be reversed overnight.”

Because of Abani’s activities in the years after his release, he was re-arrested and returned to prison. This time, he was held for over a year and tortured extensively before being released. Many of the precisely detailed torture scenes in the novel “Graceland,” about a Nigerian youth who works as an Elvis impersonator, come not from research but from direct experience:

Elvis hung from the metal bars by the window, feet dangling six inches from the floor, suspended by handcuffs. The pain was excruciating, building up in slow stages, getting worse with each passing minute. At first all he felt was a slight ache in his shoulders, which spread until his whole body was one mass of pleasant sweet aches…twenty minutes later his arms were shaking and the pleasant aches were replaced by painful spasms as the weight of his body became unbearable…his arms went numb and his fingers began to swell like loaves of bread. The rest of his body was torn by a searing-hot pain and he stretched downward, trying to bring his feet into contact with the ground. That only made it worse…he was concerned with one thing and one thing only—stopping the pain.

Among the torture sequences, a detailed description of a beating with the inner tubing of a bicycle tire is followed with a description of how a “concentrated solution of Izal, an industrial disinfectant, was poured over the beaten area” to both increase the pain and sensitize the area for the next bout of flogging, in which “no questions were asked; only confessions were heard.”

Later, Elvis feels “his feet touch the floor”; his body a “single sheet of flaming pain.” “He sat on the floor in front of a tin plate of rice and reached for the spoon, but neither arm would move. They dangled uselessly in his lap like a pair of broken wings.”

After that second time in prison, Abani found himself changed. He didn’t speak about any of his experiences for several years. “I spent six months in solitary,” Abani says. “So when people would say, you know, ‘How are you,’ I’d sort of look at them, and not know what to say. I had to learn to talk about the weather, learn to have human conversations again. But my own ego was cured. Torture and imprisonment changed me from having a naïve idealism to having a real sense of political understanding, so that I felt that what I did from then on was for the right motives—it wasn’t about the self, nothing was about the self. It was for all of us. People had paid in blood for the right for people like me to exist. I learned that being human in the world meant to do things even though you were afraid. It became a very liberating moment for me, as a person.”

“Hope is not a hallmark card,” Abani says. “It’s more real. It’s a plunge into the ocean, but it’s the realization that there is a current, and that it will hold you up. But I had to learn how to confront memory, and confront what happened, and confront what was so buried and warped that I could only, for a long time, come at it from the side, and try to articulate a new way forward.” 

Abani found his way forward through poetry. In his first collection, “Kalakuta Republic,” which he published in 2001, he bore testament to his experiences, as well as to those of others. “Through narratives, stories, we try to make sense of what it means to exist in this often-painful life,” he says. “Art is essential. It’s what is human in us.”

But Abani resists being pigeonholed into only writing about that experience. As a writer he extends beyond that, into what it means to be an African writer.

“Part of the conversation about African literature is that writers are trying to write their way to what it means to write an ‘African’ novel,” Abani says. “Whether that’s Nigerian or Sudanese or Igbo or Yoruba, African literature comes very much out of the oral tradition and Homerian-type epics, passed down from storyteller to storyteller. But when the African novels began to emerge, in the early twentieth century, they took, because of our European colonial influences, very Dickensian forms. It was Chinua Achebe and Amos Tutuola who combined that novel form with African life—including old fairy tales, contemporary city scenes, a genie walking down the street buying tires for his new car—to establish a new tradition. It was necessary for them to write Western literature, for political reasons and otherwise, and it’s only my generation that has the luxury to really return to the play of the imagination. The form of the novel is more elastic and more visionist to us. We can play with time, blur the boundaries between what is perceived as to be real and unreal.”

In “Graceland,” Abani writes about spirits of the road who dance about the buses, trying to “pluck plump offerings” as retribution for the “sacrilege of the road” which had severed these spirits from their roots when it was built. Later in a novel, a newspaper editorial claims that one of the presidential candidates holds the key to the Atlantic Ocean and that, if provoked, he could “unlock the sea and flood the whole country.” In another scene, a helicopter, a “disembodied heavenly voice,” descends out of the sky to command a gathered crowd to vote for a certain presidential candidate. The crowd, delighted by the coins and dollars bills pouring and floating from the sky, repeats, in a call-and-response manner, that they will.

“My aunt used to come home, sometimes, and throw away tomatoes she had bought,” Abani says. “I would ask her why, and she would say, ‘a ghost sold them to me, and I didn’t want him to know I knew he was a ghost.’ Those intersections of what is real and what is not have always fascinated me. And we see that here in the United States, as well. We live in a country in which we have a president who believes that a god talks to him. And no one thinks that’s absurd. The fabulous and the real intermingle. The Latin American writers made a determined attempt to carve a new literature exploring these questions, much the same way we carved, and continue to carve, Nigerian literature. 

“In order to write, you need to be open to possibility,” Abani says. “If you can tell a good story, with compelling characters, you can take readers on a journey, and they’ll go with you. Maybe critics will feel you are overstepping the bounds of what you’re ‘allowed’ to write about, but you have to do it in order to keep growing as a writer. I was in a Jamaican restaurant in Los Angeles one time, and a song by Air Supply was played overhead. And everyone got up to dance. All these black Jamaicans dancing to a white band from the nineteen-seventies. There was no contradiction in the mixing, nobody in the room was self-conscious. It really brought home to me that art is the only true dialogue in the world. If you leave people alone to dialogue through music, and literature, and painting, things like racism and homophobia vanish much sooner. This is what the power of art is: it lets us share our experiences and find what is human in each other. The things that separate us are the false things in life.”

Good art transcends political writing, Abani notes, pointing out that his novel “Graceland” has been received as less a novel “about” the Nigerian regime as a novel of how a young person acquires a conscience. It’s also about satirizing what the West thinks Africans should write about, he notes. “It’s a novel in whiteface,” he says.

His novella “Becoming Abigail” explores the questions of what love means, and what are the different forms that love can take. And his most recent novel “The Virgin of Flames”—his first work centered in the United States—explores the liminal interstices of both African and African American life in Los Angeles. 

“A lot of Africans don’t understand the difficulty of being an African American,” he says, “not to mention living as a black person in the city of Los Angeles, which is often not the city that people want to believe it to be.” 

And in his most recent novella, “Song for Night,” the story of a voiceless child soldier in an unnamed west African country, Abani explores what it means to have one’s childhood stolen.

Who taught me to enjoy killing, a singular joy that is perhaps rivaled only by an orgasm? It doesn’t matter how the death is dealt—a bullet tearing through a body, the juicy suck of flesh around a bayonet, the grainy globular disintegration brought on by clubs…I have never been a boy. That was stolen from me and I will never be a man—not this way. I am some kind of chimera who knows only the dreadful intimacy of killing.

“The kid, the voice, sort of took over my brain,” he said, “I spent four weeks just writing feverishly to get the first draft of that novella. People want to infantilize children all the time, but child soldiers, death, brutality, killing, are difficult things for people to accept. I give myself permission to explore these different facets. Whether it be in mainstream or indie publishing. It feels so humbling to go to these new places, and if it disturbs people, then maybe they need to be disturbed.” 

Abani believes that most people would “really like to believe that the world exists outside of ourselves. But based on how we see things, we’re constantly changing the world. Just to take the classic example of eyewitness accounts,” he says, “Six people will see six entirely different things. I sincerely believe that life is being made up all the time, and that language is the most powerful thing that we have as human beings to create the world. Things that are outside your experience or you don’t want to see you won’t see, because you’ll block it out. At a reading someone will raise their hand and tell me that a character I’ve written cannot exist. But these characters exist all the time. What I write can disturb people, because they believe that what they see is what the world should be, and if they’re confronted with something else they just block them out or erase them from their value system.”

Abani is always seeing the world in stories. “I could be walking someplace, and see a man and a woman screaming at each other on the corner of the street,” he says. “I don’t know if it’s a man and a wife, a brother and a sister, a pimp and a prostitute, or just two people who happened to bump into each other. The possibilities intrigue me. I write to allow people to explore their own humanity. I write to question my own limitations. I write to see things in new, human ways.”