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In Conversation with author Chris Abani
Posted on Apr 18, 2006
In 1990, 10 minutes into the production of his university play “Song of a Broken Flute,” Nigerian literature student Chris Abani found himself under arrest and forced to choose between his own life and the lives of all his fellow student cast members.
Abani, then 21, had already been imprisoned and tortured twice, both times for novels he had written that the Nigerian government regarded as subversive.
His first book, a political thriller published in 1985 when he was 16, envisioned a neo-Nazi takeover of the government. When a coup threatened to topple the country two years later, the authorities decided that Abani’s book had set the blueprint for the uprising and jailed him for six months.
His second novel landed him a full-year stay.
The third time around, having written a play that the government found subversive, Abani was given an ultimatum: sign a document confessing to treason (which carried the death penalty) or sign the death warrant of all his friends in the play.
Abani admitted to treason and was sent—without trial—to death row at a maximum-security prison. He languished there for the next 18 months—six of which were spent in solitary confinement in a six-by-eight-foot hole.
The torture he endured there inspired one of the five volumes of poetry he would subsequently publish: “Kalakuta Republic,” which the playwright Harold Pinter called “the most naked, harrowing expression of prison life and political torture imaginable. Reading them is like being singed by a red hot iron.”
Abani’s home of Nigeria, a former British colony, is the continent’s most populous nation, and also one of the richest, due to its massive petroleum deposits. From 1966 to 1999 (with a brief exception in 1979-83), the country was rocked by a succession of coups and counter-coups led by brutal and corrupt military dictators.
It was amid these continuing violent upheavals that Abani found himself imprisoned three times. And it was not until 1991, “alone, and with nothing,” that he managed to escape to London and continue his writings. In the late ‘90s he immigrated to Los Angeles, where he now teaches in the MFA program at Antioch University. He also is an associate professor at UC Riverside.
In 2004 Abani published his most accomplished and critically acclaimed work to date, “GraceLand,” a coming-of-age novel about a 16-year-old Elvis-impersonating youth living in a Nigerian slum who dabbles in crime and ends up brutally tortured by the government. The work won a slew of awards, including the 2005 Hemingway/PEN prize, and was named one of the 25 best books of the year by the Los Angeles Times.
Now 39, Abani is also an accomplished jazz musician who plays saxophone sets at his public poetry performances. Like most educated Nigerians, Abani speaks fluent English, but with an accent that reflects a pidgin combination of British and local Nigerian tongues. Truthdig Publisher Zuade Kaufman sat down with Abani at his home in Los Angeles to talk about his most recent work, “Becoming Abigail,” a novella about a teenage Nigerian brought to London and forced into prostitution by relatives.
Over the course of their conversation, Abani discussed how being tortured affected his writing; the over-romanticization of the word “exile”; and why the first Nigerian on Mars will probably be selling Coca-Cola.
Zuade Kaufman: You were born and raised in Nigeria, but you suffered in the hands of the government there. How would you say these tortured experiences impacted your creativity and what you write about?
Chris Abani: The particulars of my incarceration and what happened to me there, I’m still processing that and so I really don’t know to what extent it’s affected my creativity. The thing is that being that I had been a writer before I went to prison, it’s sort of difficult to gauge. It’s not like I became a writer because I went to prison—where you could really see what impact that experience has had.
It’s had more of an impact on me as a human being, as a philosophical being in the world, and so I think it’s shaped the questions that I ask of life and of myself. And I think one of those questions always is: Is redemption a possibility? And not in a spiritual sense, but in the sense of becoming fully human, in the sense that the Buddhists talk about becoming human. And how far into darkness can a being go and still find their way back to light. And how much is it necessary for there to be darkness for the concept of light to exist.
So I think that it has shaped me as a philosophical being, which I suppose inevitably shapes you as a writer, because I think those are the questions the writers carry through.
You’ve been living in Los Angeles for six years. Do you consider yourself a Nigerian writer living and working abroad, or a Nigerian in exile?
[Laughs.] Exile is a tricky thing because it’s so romanticized as a notion. If I was in exile now it would be a self-imposed exile, since officially I can return to Nigeria, but emotionally I don’t feel like I’m ready for that. So I like to think of myself now as a writer of the world and happen to be living and working in Los Angeles.
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