An Interview With Poet and Fiction Writer Chris Abani

Ron Singer

Akashic Books recently published poet and novelist Chris Abani’s sixth book, the novella Becoming Abigail. Abani’s previous book, the novel GraceLand (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2004), won the 2005 PEN/Hemingway Prize, a Hurston/Wright Legacy Award, a Silver Medal in the California Book Awards, and was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize.

GraceLand takes place in Abani’s native Nigeria and chronicles the life of a teenage boy named Elvis Oke. Becoming Abigail is the story of a teenager who is brought from Nigeria to London by relatives who attempt to force her into prostitution. Shifting from the present to the past in short chapters titled either “Now” or “Then,” the novella details how Abigail’s life has been marked by tragedy since her mother’s death during childbirth.

Although Abani pursues a busy schedule of readings and conference appearances, he has three new books forthcoming—the poetry collection Hands Washing Water (Copper Canyon, October), the novel The Virgin of Flames (Penguin, 2007), and the novella Song for Night (Akashic, 2007).

Poets & Writers Magazine
caught up with Abani during the PEN World Voices Festival in New York City.

P&W: Were you stung by criticisms of the bric-a-brac, as some reviewers called it, in GraceLand—the kola-nut rituals and the recipes?

CA: No, they were there for a reason. A book like GraceLand has an almost surreal violence in everyday life, a casualness. It’s very easy for Western readers to exoticize the situation and to evacuate themselves from the text. The ritual of the kola nut running through this book, it’s the voice of the Western reader, the voice of the anthropologist who thinks that [you can] reduce a culture to one ritual. You never think of Faulkner as being representative of America. If we even think of representation, it’s a more regional representation. And part of it was to aid the readers, force them back into the text to make a human connection. The readers have done very well with it. The critics, however, who like to decide what is or isn’t African literature, what form it should take, were particularly upset. But, then, that’s a risk you take as a writer. Every book comes to me differently and requires a different form. Abigail required another way—that’s just the way the book came.

P&W: It seems like the “Then” parts of Abigail are not as localized or specific as either the sections in Lagos or Igboland in GraceLand. What happens to the writer in exile as the years pass, in terms of drawing on the mother lode of the motherland?

CA: Well, it depends again, it’s sort of…

P&W: It’s partly the book, isn’t it?

CA: It’s also the ways in which particular writers are read. To be a native informant about Nigeria isn’t my job. If people want to find out about Nigeria, there are anthropological books.

P&W: Or they can read Nigeria Today Online.

CA: Right. I’m in a generation that’s lucky. Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, and others have built that foundation for us. We no longer have to represent Nigeria. There’s a clear picture of it, a very positive picture. It allows us new writers to have this aesthetic freedom, privilege, the aesthetic moment, the moment of making art over any kind of political insurgency. And so this book is a book about becoming. It’s about a young woman caught between the death of her mother, filling the space of her father’s grief, filling her own space, identity, being trafficked in this way for sex, and caught in this moment of what she’s doing. But it’s also playing on all of those nineteenth-century books from England that are set around the hysterical woman standing by the River Thames about to do something.

P&W: “Ready to do something.” George Gissing.

CA: Exactly. Becoming Abigail opens with that acknowledgment in, I think, the second paragraph, where it talks about Queen Victoria and those other things. In a way, it’s a book about liminal spaces. When she remembers Nigeria, when the “then” happens, it’s the “then” of her memory, her desire, her longing.

P&W: So we don’t know the full names and the markets and stuff.

CA: It’s not necessary.

P&W: Yet, right near the end, the specifics come out about her. And we learn, for instance, her last name: Abigail…what was it?

CA: Tansi.

P&W: And why do I think that sounds like Chris Abani? But maybe I shouldn’t...

CA: No, you shouldn’t, because Tansi is one of the oldest Igbo names.

P&W: Is it a name that carries a specific significance?

CA: Yes, the first possibly canonized Nigerian saint is the Reverend Father Tansi, who died in a monastery in England.

P&W: When was that?

CA: The '50s or '60s. And Cardinal Arinze, who was up for Pope this time around, has been pushing for it, and I think Tansi has just been beatified. So…there’s a lot of playing with Christian symbolism, it becomes more and more specific. As [Abigail] begins to gain an agency over her body, the body begins to solidify, so the names become clearer. Her references to Igbo culture become clearer. Towards the end, the body, which was ephemeral before, is beginning to collect and solidify. And yet, just at the moment when it all comes together, it transcends into this ephemerality once more.

P&W: There’s also some Igbo religion near the end.

CA: Right.

P&W: The idea of the reincarnation with wealth. Is that something you believe?

CA: Well, it is. In GraceLand it works its way through the whole book, where the mother’s diaries are the preparation for the next life. But it goes back to my idea around how the grotesque or the surreal or the painful—sometimes ritualized through art—becomes a preparation for death. Or the afterlife. I grew up very much in rural areas with a very clear sense of my traditional culture, its belief systems. I try to build some of that into my books. With Tutuola, Soyinka, Okri, back then, and Adichie now, Helon Habila, Helen Oyeyemi, and me, one’s nascent religion begins to emerge. My experience of personal difficulties is that, when put up against the wall, the human being becomes very atavistic, returns to the primal, almost the genetic knowledge.

P&W: Where do you stand vis-à-vis Catholicism?

CA: Well, I was raised Catholic. I went to a seminary to become a priest.

P&W: What age?

CA: Ten. Against my family’s…my mom thought I was too young to make that kind of a decision.

P&W: It was your decision?

CA: It was. I was drawn to this notion of how the ineffable works. But I got, sort of, asked to leave at twelve, because it was clear very early on to the priests that dogma was not my thing. I became involved in other religions—Tibetan Buddhism, Hinduism. I’d bring this into conversation, which is not acceptable. I returned briefly, for a few months, when I was about eighteen. They very wisely said, “Whatever you’re pursuing, whatever this means to you, it’s not to be found here."

For me, now, Catholicism is as complicated as race. It’s sort of the colonial moment, the devastating colonial moment, the erasure of traditional religion. Side by side with that, in the Biafran War, it was the Catholic missionaries who would often put themselves between bullets and young Biafran children. The first people to help internationally were not the Red Cross, it was Caritas, a Catholic relief agency. Portuguese Catholic pilots were flying planes into Biafra. So all of this stuff, the ways in which it manifests itself, is powerful for me. Catholicism is the most beautiful way, or metaphor even, to unravel the complicated human psyche. This way in which divinity is embodied, and that very embodiment becomes a complete confusion, and leads to all the complications and contradictions.... I’m no longer a Catholic, but, you know, you’re never no longer a Catholic. I think the only other religion that has similarities probably would be the Judaic tradition.

P&W: I noticed that in your previous interviews nobody went into the subject of your own sexuality. Was that because you didn’t want them to?

CA: Oh, hell, I wanted them to go there! [laughs]

P&W: So let’s talk about that.

CA: For me sexuality is a funny and fascinating thing. Part of what I’ve been noticing, when I first arrived in London, or even here, is that the masculinity is very fragile. It has so many rituals. In this country, in the '40s or '50s, I suppose, it was very different. It might have to do with social change, in terms of masculine power, patriarchy. In those days, people took pride in how they looked, how they dressed, how they presented themselves. Now, almost, if you’re a clean man in America, you’re a homosexual, and if you’re not a homosexual, then you must be metrosexual. [laughs] I mean, these desperate attempts to contain, as if it’s a virus, as if it’s catching. And I had to go back, when I was writing these books, about the ways in which I was stereotyping Africa by privileging masculinity as a much more developed thing or much safer, the way that back home men walk hand in hand in the street, there’s a lot more physical affection, and not because they’re gay in any way. But that’s only one aspect of it, just as you can’t read American culture by taking one aspect of it. So I went back in the books to play with an ambiguous sexuality and to question the ways in which masculinity and its violence might be informed by this desperate fear of our sexuality and what happens if you start to tamper with that. I grew up very Catholic, which doesn’t allow for gayness.

P&W: Does Igbo culture?

CA: No. Ir probably did before the advent of the Christians. It’s part of the problem. And I remember Chimamanda Adichie talking about this. That much of what we call contemporary Igbo culture is not ours, it’s sort of what we’ve taken on from Victorian England.

P&W: A syncretic culture.

CA: Yes. I remember reading James Baldwin’s Another Country at ten, being completely blown away, and not even realizing it was about homosexuality until much later, and then realizing the power of the ways in which James would write, with this illumination in his book. It was about love. What was perverse for him was not the particulars the relationships took, but the absence of love. And that was a big liberation. It started me looking at the Catholic Church and realizing there was a lot of absence of love, there’s no real love in this religion of flagellation, of guilt, of attrition. So I tried to make some of my characters sexually ambiguous. Elvis, this teenager, sexually ambiguous, masculinity, you know, he plays with make-up, in these different ways. And certainly with Abigail, the ways in which incest is not about sex, it’s more about the tragic ways in which loving, and not loving, manifest themselves.

P&W: Do you think Nigeria will ever tolerate gay people?

CA: It’s torn, you know. The government just passed a law saying that same sex marriage is illegal, but that’s not even the full extent of it. Another law says you can’t even protest, that it’s criminal to have a dissident view of this. But Nigerians, lawyers, journalists, men, women, gay, straight, bisexual, northern, southern, have come out in droves to protest this stuff. Even in this country, we still have this raging debate about how homosexual couples shouldn’t adopt children because they’re bound to become homosexuals. As if, I mean, first of all, not only is that completely ridiculous, it’s not the way it works, because most homosexuals come from straight families. But, then, the idea that that is something so terrible…. Nigeria has a lot of problems, just like everywhere else in the world. What’s happening is that in the last ten to fifteen years, even prior to [military dictator Sani] Abacha dying [in 1998], Wole Soyinka and others were pushing certain conversations that haven’t happened for a long time. Conversations about ethnicity and how that affects how we interact in Nigeria…

But these conversations are happening, and conversations about homosexuality. Not in the usual way in which Nigerians will say, “Oh, that never happens here.” It’s not only that it happens here, but we should start talking about homosexuals having rights. However contentious the conversation is, the fact that there is a conversation is a really, really big development. And that already tells us that we’re on the way to resolution.