An Interview with Chris Abani

Rites of Passage, Fictional and Real:
Participating in a prodemocracy movement
Writing a third novel
Killing a chicken
Learning to wrap the cocaine

An Interview with Chris Abani

Rites of Passage, Fictional and Real:
Participating in a prodemocracy movement
Writing a third novel
Killing a chicken
Learning to wrap the cocaine

An Interview with Chris Abani

Tayari Jones
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In 1985, the Nigerian writer Chris Abani was arrested and imprisoned on suspicion of masterminding a political coup. The evidence: his first novel, a political thriller written two years earlier, when the novelist was just sixteen years old. Since then, Abani has been imprisoned twice more, sentenced to death, tortured by electric shock; he has also thwarted assassins, published two books of poetry, written eight novels (published two) and won numerous literary awards. His latest novel, GraceLand, was published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux in February.

Though Abani’s history makes for titillating copy, he should be best-known for his detailed, nuanced, and haunting prose. GraceLand is a sprawling coming-of-age tale that explores the underground world of the slums of Lagos, Nigeria. The author of this beautiful and searing novel, which explores the kidnapping of children for their organs, vigilante justice, civil war, incest, and Elvis-impersonation is not a world-weary and embittered man. Instead, Mr. Abani is thoughtful and soft-spoken—the parlance of California fusing with his British-Nigerian English.

This interview was conducted by phone from Abani’s Los Angeles home. He spoke of hard subjects: colonialism, exile, and war, yet he laughed at the interviewer’s jokes and made a couple of his own.

—Tayari Jones


THE BELIEVER: I noticed how many of the references in GraceLand are American. For example: Hugh Hefner, Elvis. With Nigeria being a British colony, I was surprised that the British references were so few. Why does the United States figure so prominently as opposed to Great Britain?

CHRIS ABANI: I think it’s a combination of two things. One has to do with the notion of assimilation. There is the old joke we postcolonials have. Q: What is the difference between the French colonials and the British? A: While the French would see a native African on the street as an animal, or try to civilize you or assimilate you, the British would simply not see you. British culture is not about assimilation. It is about maintaining the status quo.… The whole thing about American culture—because it is driven by capitalism—is this sense of global whiteness through global assimilation. It’s sort of a new wave of empire…. So I think that was why America had more of an appeal. And also the advent of television and movies. I mean, these were in existence long before I was born. But with my coming into awareness of them, the heroes—even black—were like Shaft. And Superfly. It was the first time we encountered people of color who had any kind of power. Omar Sharif was a big hit for us. It was easier to sort of find yourself or frame yourself in a global context because of American films.

BLVR: I read somewhere that your mother is English and she would call you for tea every day at four p.m. How did your bicultural experience shape your thoughts and ideas about Nigeria and your thoughts about colonialism? How does that figure into your equation?

CA: Well, that’s kind of curious. It might have been a slight exaggeration to say “every day.”Well, the thing is, my parents met in the fifties at Oxford. In those days the big thing was for every Nigerian to claim that he was the son of a chief. My father was very clear with my mother that he didn’t come from that kind of stuff, that
he came from working-class people. In fact, my father was the first graduate from his town and the first one to go abroad. And he knew there would be resistance to his bringing a white wife back and he prepared her in every possible way for the poverty and the differences. So much so that when my mother went there she was surprised that she could buy everything that she could buy in England. Like her marmalade and her tea. But certainly the thing is that my father was very insistent that I be raised as a Nigerian. And, more importantly, that we be raised as Igbo men. [The Igbo people are an ethnic group who live mainly in southeast Nigeria. Their traditional language is one of the Kwa group of West African languages.] So I went through every single rite of passage, every initiation, and I speak the language inside and out…. But when you grow up with a mother who is English, you are usually learning to read Western texts and comic books. I grew up on Marvel Comics and things like that… It’s confusing being biracial in Nigeria. You get treated with a fair degree of specialness and part of it is that you are seen to be weaker and not as strong as everyone else. Once someone using a stone or brick tried to crack my skull because he wanted to see if my blood would be red or white. [Chuckles] This was back in 1971.

BLVR: Wow.

CA: It was a strange balance. Growing up, I remember listening to all the stories of the Mau Mau uprising [A fifties tribalist guerilla movement in Kenya].As a seven-
year-old I hated these Mau Mau Kenyans who were killing all these white settlers because I thought they were going to come and kill my mother. And yet, I did not fully understand the implications of white settlement in East Africa until later. You have the ability to individuate your mother from the rest of whiteness. And then you are more a product of your environment than race. So I do have the same uneasiness that every other Nigerian would have with colonialism and global whiteness and with racism or white power. It is a very difficult thing to negotiate at home with a mother who has never seen you as “black,” but to have to say to her, “Oh, did you realize that what you just said might be construed as racist?” That kind of stuff.

BLVR: I feel like you’re almost anticipating my questions.You mentioned Kenya and Mau Mau and I was thinking about contemporary African writers and liberation movements. These are two of the themes I noticed in GraceLand. And also because I am an African American, I was thinking about liberation struggles here as well. I was wondering if you saw any link between the liberation movements on the African continent and civil rights in the United States. Earlier, you were talking
about global whiteness. Do you have any ideas—

CA: —About global blackness? I am glad that you picked up on these. All these subtle things that you do as a writer, you think that no one is going to get. Even
when Elvis wakes up, the book he is reading is Ellison’s Invisible Man.

BLVR: Yes, he is!

CA: The book falls and cracks apart down the middle. The actual physical book. That is very interesting. I grew up conflicted about this whole notion. Especially about Pan-Africanism. Especially since Nigeria’s independence came quickly and was inspired a lot by Ghana’s independence, which was led by [the Pan-Africanist] Kwame Nkrumah. Also in Nigeria was Nnamdi Azikiwe, who was also very into Pan-Africanism. But it is interesting that these guys were educated mostly in America. These guys had contact with Du Bois and Marcus Garvey long before they came back. You can see this link much more in music. Enslaved Africans
brought the roots of the blues with them to the United States and it made its way back to us in Africa. Sailors would come back and teach kids on the docks of Accra
and Mali all the American guitar movements, which later produced people like Ali Farka Toure, who plays this hybrid Malian music that sounds so much like the
blues. And he influenced people like Fela Kuti. There’s that dialogue going on the all the time… And I see a lot of it happening in literature as well. Invisible Man becomes such an icon. In the opening of GraceLand there’s that metaphor of the book falling off Elvis’s chest and splitting open. This not only represents the splitting of the diaspora but the ability to enter the text in a way that he wouldn’t be able to if he didn’t share that fundamental racial heritage.


BLVR: I spent a year in Nigeria in 1983, the year the civilian government of Shagari was overthrown, and the military regime took over. I was there with my parents my dad had a Fulbright. But I was only in ninth grade. Where I was in the north was a quiet town. I was very young. But the most conversation I overheard was
that people were excited because the coup d’etat gave us three days of uninterrupted NEPA [electricity].

CA: [Laughs]

BLVR: It was a big thing. And the currency was all changed to a different color. This is what I remember. But what did 1983 mean to you, both in general and
with your writing?

CA: Well, I was sixteen at that point. I was just finishingForm five, the equivalent of high school. And I had just had my first novel accepted for publication. It won the Delta Fiction Award. My novel actually opens up with a civilian president in power. A mimicry of Shagari. He is overthrown and all this kind of stuff. But how the country was taken over in my novel was not internal, but by Neo-Nazis of all people—don’t ask me why; I was six-teen and fascinated by a lot of subjects. I was born in Nigeria, but left for England halfway through the civil war and returned at the civil war’s end. I have memories of the soldiers always being in control of the country. [The Igbos] were considered to be the rebels. And there were army cantonments everywhere you went. Roadblocks and such. The Shagari Moment (1979–1983) was the first time, for many of us, that we considered the idea that the country had not always been under military control. That the stories our fathers had told us about democracy from 1960 to 1966 actually were true and we had this capacity to return to it. Unfortunately, Shagari’s corrupt government led to the sort of disillusionment of that dream, but the sub-sequent coup sort of marked the beginning of the notion of something we could fight for. I think the seeds for most of the activism were planted then. It’s not just myself but a whole generation of people who are now my age who, in one form or another, were involved with antigovernment and prodemocracy movements that will never be catalogued, their stories never told. And this is part of the sadness of it all. But that moment, whether we were fully conscious of it or not, marked us. So 1983 was kind of a dark time, and inversely a moment of power.

BLVR: What was the title of your first book, the one you wrote at age sixteen?

CA: It was called Masters of the Board, because the structural grid of it was a chess game. I sort of had a Nigerian James Bond trying to solve this web of international intrigue.

BLVR: Is it available now?

CA: It’s out of print.The Library of Congress has a copy, but I’m not very sure how the Library of Congressworks.

BLVR: Me neither.

CA: The blurb on the back of the book describes me as “Africa’s answer to [British political-thriller writer] Frederick Forsyth.” [Laughs] Crime thrillers were my thing. The novel is very male, very sixteen-year-old. Lots of guns. There is a particularly bad scene in my first novel where the guy goes to a restaurant and sees a woman he really likes and she is across the room. He does this amazing sketch of her and passes it to the waiter to give it to her, to get her attention. [Laughs] I was sixteen.

BLVR: Not bad for sixteen.

CA: It’s still a sophisticated book for that genre, but it’s not something I’m really proud of and I hope it never gets reprinted.

BLVR: Okay, then I won’t look for it! You mention your generation quite a bit. I want to know: who are the writers that you feel are doing important work in your generation? Who are the writers who you think paved the way? Since you do playwriting, I think of Wole Soyinka, the Nobel laureate. And: what do you think is the duty of your generation that is different than those who came before you?

CA: Well, I’ll start from the back and work my way to the front. The beautiful thing about being an African writer of my generation is that there is already a rich tradition to mine and build upon. People like [Nigerian novelist and African Studies professor at Bard College] Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka created a presence for Africa teach young African-American men and women who don’t realize that they are part of a tradition. I think for my generation the duty is not just to stand on the shoulders of that tradition but to further it. Like with craft and with language, exploring different forms. For example, a contemporary of mine, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, wrote a novel, Purple Hibiscus, which is a wonderful book. She does the opposite of what I do. She focuses in on a very detailed portrait of a family, while I try to cover a whole generation of people. There is also Helon Habila, whose narrative structure in Waiting for an Angel is highly innovative and original. Someone who I think is a very underrated is a writer called Festus Iyayi. I am not sure if he is my generation or bridges my generation and the one that came before. His novel Violence inspired what I did with GraceLand. He was writing about poor people in a way that is nonvoyeuristic. It’s just solid and real. His novel Heroes, which is about the Nigerian-Biafran civil war, is probably way up there with the Vietnamese book Novel without a Name, written by Duong Thu Huong. It’s about character, not about political ideology. Because for a long time what has driven a lot of African literature has been protest against colonialism or internal strife so the political ideology has sometimes overshadowed the craft and the art.


BLVR: As you know, right now in the United States, many creative writers—myself included—come through MFA programs. I want to know about the way that you came to study writing and what you think of this idea of teaching writing in the university.

CA: I am a self-taught writer in many ways. This may have been a good thing. I learned by reading as well as writing. I teach at the MFA program at Antioch University. It seems that people come with the idea that by taking a workshop they are somehow miraculously going to become good writers. And they don’t need to read and they don’t need to study. They say they don’t want to be read because they “don’t want to be influenced by it.” I want to tell them that they should be so lucky as to have someone read their work and say “Wow, this is like Toni Morrison,” or something. I want to tell them “You should be so damn fortunate.” [Laughs] Personally, I don’t think that you can teach people to write. I think you can teach people to read in a more nuanced way. For instance, to look at one of Toni Morrison’s books as a writer, say, and not as a cultural critic. To look and see how you can manipulate the body and objects and devices in ways you wouldn’t have thought about. My class is bizarre in that I do things like give them a deck of cards and say,“Build me a poem.” They look at me like I am crazy. But I want to teach the idea of convergence and simultaneity. I do that rather than the traditional workshop where people say things like “I don’t like this line,” or “That didn’t, like, work for me.” Who cares what works for you! [Laughs] I don’t care what you like. I had one of my students read a book and she said,“I didn’t know what life lesson I was supposed to learn from this book,” and I thought, “You’re here as a writer. This is not a book club!” It’s not about life lessons. It’s about taking this book apart and looking at the characters and seeing how it’s built. It’s very difficult to get my students to see themselves as craftspeople. The only way I can think of to do it is to trick them. Because I have been censored in my life and I am very leery of censoring anybody, I am very suspicious of this hierarchical rendering of experience—of whose experience is more fascinating than someone else’s. I just think that people are not pushed to go to the places where their stories are, so they just write generic stuff. What professors want, what publishers are looking for, what agents are looking for. But there are plenty of writers in this country who are writing things that will rip your guts out. Percival Everett, for example.

BLVR: Yes!

CA: His new book that’s coming out, American Desert, is about someone who has the DNA of Jesus and is trying to reproduce Jesus and each model fails because when they kill him, he doesn’t resurrect. [Laughs]

BLVR: That’s so Percival Everett.

CA: He’s incredible. And I must say, having come to the United States, the whole point of my journey here was to meet Percival Everett. Because he turned GraceLand from a verbal description into a novel in nine months. He’s my most amazing teacher.

BLVR: This summer, I met Minnie Marie Hayes, who edits StoryQuarterly, one of my favorite journals. She is a great fan of your work. She said that she likes to publish you because you have something to write about. She commented specifically on an excerpt from GraceLand when a little boy has to kill a chicken as a right of passage. She says,“Now that is a story.”

CA: Minnie Marie often says to me, “I can’t stand another cancer story.” But I think there may be a cancer story out there that she hasn’t seen yet. I don’t think that you can overwrite any given topic. Otherwise, we would have all been out of business after the Bible. But I do think that writers here need to be pushed to find their own raw edges. I think the problem of the MFA is that is smoothes things over too much. I think that the pressure on a first novelist in America is too much. In Europe you are given your first two novels to fail and find your voice and by your third book, you are ready to stand. But here in America if you don’t come out with this amazing masterpiece as your first novel, then that’s it. You’re done. It just seems so ridiculous to me. Writing is about growing. In GraceLand there are a lot of rough edges.


BLVR: Is it right to consider every African writer who is not on the continent to be in “exile”? What does that mean? And I was thinking about [Kenyan writer] Ngugiwa Thiong’o. He writes in Kenya, right? He’s home, right?

CA: Actually, he’s in Irvine.

BLVR: California? Since he writes only in Gikuyu, I just assumed that he must be based in Kenya.

CA: This is part of the dilemma of just being African. He was in exile. He still is in exile. Part of his project has been to recoup an essential Africanness that might have survived colonialism. In Kenya and South Africa it is very different than in Nigeria. We were never occupied in West Africa. Our language was never banned as theirs was. And also you have to understand that Ngugi is a Marxist and part of his belief is that your art has no consequence if it can’t speak to everybody. Part of his endeavor has been to create his art in his own language so everyone can have access to it. Then it is translated into English as a secondary project. And part of the irony of being African is that he lives in Southern California and does this. And this brings us to exiles. You have a lot of your intellectuals, writers, doctors, and professionals of all sorts who have had to leave—for economic reasons—to the West, and can’t return on a full-time basis to Nigeria because they cannot be sustained creatively, professionally, or economically. And so they have to live in exile in a way. Then you have a second generation born outside of the country whose African-ness, Nigerian-ness, or Igbo-ness is just a received narrative. And who have a sense of exile because they are not accepted by the mainstream community or by the home community. I was a political activist who had to leave Nigeria for my own safety, but there was never a government bulletin saying, “Chris Abani has to go into exile.”And even in Soyinka’s case—you just leave because you know if you stay any longer, you will die. So in this sense, I am in exile, but not entirely in exile. The whole thing about being African in the twenty-first century is that your identity occupies a liminal space that is difficult to articulate to a Western audience. If you are in exile, you can apply for a special grant because you are in exile. So you have to navigate through the expectations of these terms. And then there is the resentment at home from people who think that you are benefiting from occupying this liminal space and then you have to make clear in your own head who you are, where you come from. And what your writing will reflect. I consider myself to be in exile. But that’s just me. [Laughs] I went to a conference on exile and people were talking about Bridget Jones’s Diary and being exiled from their femininity! [Laughs]

BLVR: Let’s talk about GraceLand a little bit more.

CA: You’ve read it.Tell me. I know you have had some experience of being in Nigeria. But how would you relate to this book, just reading it as an African American?

BLVR: So now you’re interviewing me?

CA: In a way.

BLVR: Actually, it reminded me of Linden Hills, a Gloria Naylor novel.The mingling of the recipes with the narrative. I think that part of my culture as an African American is to identify with the struggles of African or dark-skinned people everywhere. Even if I hadn’t lived in Nigeria, I would have been able to relate to it. This fear of the police, this is rife in the world that I live. I’ve been terrified of police since I was three years old. But on another level, many of the relationships between the characters were just sort of—I hate to use the word “universal” because it usually means something else—but the idea of the son trying to please the father. I read that you consider this book to be a love letter to your father. Could you elaborate on that?

CA: Well, my father died in 2001. I had a very difficult relationship with my father, from when I was like six or seven. When I was a kid, Nigeria was still so steeped in tradition and the notion of masculinity as being trained to be a warrior, in many ways. Even though your fight may be a symbolic one in the Ministry of Education. So to have a son who wrote poetry, who was reading Baldwin at nine, and read about homosexuality and tried to defend the idea that love, no matter what kind of love it was, was acceptable—I’m not gay so he couldn’t beat me up for that. So my version of masculinity was something he couldn’t accept. And he totally hated the idea of my writing. He burnt my first draft of my first book. We had a lot of domestic violence. He really kicked the crap out of us. In 1991, when I left Nigeria, it was the last time I ever spoke to him. I went from hating him to pitying him to finally being able to understand that in some perverse way, there was actual love between us. I think that occurred when he died. One thing I tried to do in GraceLand: even though it is set in a ghetto and all sorts of terrible things happen, I tried to show a level of love in all of the interactions between the characters. For example, when Redemption is showing Elvis how to wrap the cocaine, you get the real sense of tenderness, that Redemption is teaching him something. Terrible thing, but there is not just the homoerotic thing, but a big-brother thing, like the Artful Dodger teaching Oliver Twist.

BLVR:That’s exactly what I thought when I read it.

CA: Yes, a very protective tender way, but they are preparing drugs. They are going to kill people. And Redemption goes out of his way to protect Elvis from the Colonel, but doesn’t tell them that they are moving dead bodies—people killed for their organs and body parts. And yet, at every single moment in that book, there are moments of frustrated love. Love that can’t find any way of expressing itself.


BLVR: I remember when I was growing up in Nigeria, there was all this vigilante justice. How someone could point at you and yell, “Thief,” and you could be killed by a mob. One of the most devastating scenes in GraceLand is when the carpenter is accused of being a thief and the crowd sets him on fire. There are at least five people who get burned alive in this book.

CA: It’s not just about the fire and the reality of what the fire does. Apart from that, it has to do with the symbolism of fire. We sort of set ourselves on fire. We sortof self-immolate every time we engage in those kinds of actions. I grew up in a very violent culture. It’s violent because it was colonized violently. Then there was the violence of colonial occupation itself. Intertribal wars and conflagrations. All of this stuff building up to a society that had just come through a civil war. I went to primary school with people—nine, ten years old—who had been soldiers, who had shot people. People would place bets—“Give me twenty kobo and I will stab myself in the leg.” You give them twenty kobo and they would do it.

BLVR: Twenty kobo? That’s less than a quarter.

CA: You put it in the context of when Nigerian currency had value. It was a little bit of money. Enough for a Coke and a snack. But I grew up watching this. And then there is corporal punishment at school, corporal punishment at home. There’s an old Fulani custom: before you could get married you had to have a hundred slashes with a whip. If you cried, you weren’t man enough. The book is soaked through with it. But the real question is how come at least 70 percent of our population seems to be immune to this violence.

BLVR: I noticed this with Elvis. He is walking and he hears someone screaming and he doesn’t stop walking.

CA: If you live outside of it, you wonder how people carry on. You wonder how people live in Sarajevo, but they do. I wanted to sort of exploring that. It is painful for me to write about it. You’re torn between representing what you know to be true, and worrying how it will be perceived by a Western reader. Will they think that we are all savages?

BLVR: Ah, that.What we call the invisible white man in the room. Peeking over your shoulder as you write. CA: And sometimes it becomes a censor. And that is disingenuous. What I do is similar to what Ngugi is doing, operating under that notion that African art must exist in an appreciative context that is outside of the power of Westernization to reduce or empower. We allow access to the Western reader, but also say we don’t care about what you think. This is what we are trying to show you. If you get it, fine. If you don’t get it, we don’t care.

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