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In Conversation with author Chris Abani

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Posted on Apr 18, 2006
Chris Abani
Zuade Kaufman

Nigerian novelist, poet and jazz musician Chris Abani, photograhped at home in Los Angeles

By Zuade Kaufman

(Page 2)

How does Los Angeles compare to Africa?

Well, the climate is a lot like eastern Nigeria where I grew up—around the Abakaliki Basin. And even though Nigeria is a former British colony, architecturally it takes more from America. If you drive through a small town in America, it literally is like a small town in Nigeria, the way the power lines are overhead, and all that sort of stuff.

The other thing I love about Los Angeles is that it’s so much like Lagos, which used to be the capital of Nigeria. Lagos is a city that constantly seems threatened, as if it’s about to fall apart, and it’s sort of held together purely by a sort of collective will, as it were. Los Angeles is the same way. It’s beset by natural disasters all the time. There’s really no reason for its existence. It’s in the desert, they have to bring water in. And yet it constantly flourishes and grows. So it’s almost like being back home in different ways.  So I love it here.

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Does Los Angeles nurture you?

Yes, I think it does. I’m gainfully employed here, which is always a big relief.  It nurtures me that way. But it also nurtures me psychically. Los Angeles never becomes Los Angeles. It’s always becoming Los Angeles. And so when you live in Los Angeles, you’re always becoming something. And so it’s this amazing place of invention and reinvention. It nurtures me in that kind of artistic way, allowing you to expand and to discover things all the time.

Why did you write “Becoming Abigail” now?

“Becoming Abigail” has stayed with me for a long time. When I was living in London I had read a newspaper article [about] a Nigerian couple [that] had brought over some distant relative ostensibly to help as a nanny and then tried to subject her to prostitution. And when this young girl had refused, they chained her in the back garden in winter, and the neighbors found out and called the police. And it was sort of an isolated incident that stayed in the back of my mind.

[But I read that article] with a great deal of shame, because during the  ‘80s there was a huge influx of Nigerian immigration to the UK—which makes sense given that Nigeria used to be a UK colony. But this immigration was different from the black immigration of the  ‘50s and  ‘60s to the UK, because most of these immigrants were educated middle-class Nigerians whom you would call economic refugees: doctors, lawyers, writers and intellectuals who couldn’t find employment in Nigeria, and had moved en masse to seek work.

It was a difficult conundrum for the English because these were not the working-class immigrants that they had experienced during the ‘50s and ‘60s. These new immigrants were a literal challenge to the existing middle class in terms of competition. So there’s always some way in which negative media has been spun about us. And so being a Nigerian in that kind of context, every time you read something negative that might have been true you sort of felt—at least I did—some sort of collective shame.

I had [also] read some other article about a judge [in France, who] had sat on an immigration case that involved a 15-year-old girl, and had fallen in love with her, and an illicit affair developed with consequences to both. And I don’t want to discuss [either article] because they’re so connected to the core of the book that it would be giving the book away. But these two stories sort of overlapped, and initially I wrote this as a 2,000-word short story.

And Abigail, this character, just wouldn’t go away. She just kept coming back. Recently, just out of interest, I decided to do a lot of research on the issue of sex trafficking. A lot of my books have this social dimension to them, they connect directly with the world, with real situations. But rather than trying to deal with them as a polemic situation or as a warning about the dangers of this stuff, I always look for the human element of these dimensions; and so that research brought this all together.

For me it was one more way of looking at the notion of the core of becoming human. Because this young woman has so much taken away from her and yet she continues to be human. Even though she exists as a fictional character, when I read it sometimes I think: “Where does this come from, because I don’t remember even writing half of it.”

She humbles me as a person, and that is sort of the impetus behind this work. [That,] and all these amazing people in the world who will not be broken, so that’s why I went there.

Some of my initial [work], like some of the initial books of poetry, dealt with me as a political prisoner and activist, and some of them dealt with my family at war, but more and more, I’ve been breaking away with all my books towards these larger questions:  Though [the books] have a social dimension, [they] are more connected with ideas of redemption and the human element—and the becoming.

It always seems like I’m more interested in that moment of when we’re becoming something, rather than the moment when we’re made something. It’s sort of linked to my discovery of Diane Arbus as a photographer. It’s so funny that I should be so consumed by this idea of masculinity but so influenced by female thinkers and writers. All [Diane’s] subjects were so far outside of what we would think of as normal; for her, humans in extreme situations served as metaphors that offered us the possibility of finding out the ways that we become who we are. And that really is becoming. That’s really why I wrote “Becoming Abigail.” But I think that you will find, as a reader, that it doesn’t matter what gender you are, you’re always caught by the remarkable spirit of this young woman in this moment of becoming. Everyone wants her to become something different, which I think is great, because then the book is functioning as a mirror to their own desires and their own becomings.



Next page: “I don’t care about Africa, because Africa doesn’t really exist.”

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By Premie Zereuwa, November 2, 2007 at 10:36 am Link to this comment
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hallo Chris, have you got any new stuff?.

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By Christopher Nwachukwu, November 24, 2006 at 8:28 am Link to this comment
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Chris has not lost his ability to mesmerize…both in facts and fiction and pseudo-voodoo inclinations.

He certainly has the quality talent to be a world writer from Nigerian…  not a Nigerian writer   who paints   bizzare colours on his Nigerian   fictional characters and   mark grotesque   strokes on that African country,  Nigeria.

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By Travis F. Smith, October 22, 2006 at 6:40 pm Link to this comment

dsf

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By Orikinla Osinachi, October 21, 2006 at 9:52 am Link to this comment
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Chris Abani is my compatriot and he is from the gifted generation of Ben Okri, Biyi Bamidele, himself, myself and Helon Habila. And I am proud of him.

His next novels will surpass “Graceland”.

God bless.

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By PREMIIE ZEREUWA, August 8, 2006 at 8:30 pm Link to this comment
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hallo from nigeria bawoni Abani is being a longest time…can you get back to me with my email? from kings college.

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By Kyle from Heritage, May 14, 2006 at 3:25 pm Link to this comment
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Ote kwana, Chris.

What a wonderful interview and commentary.  I admire your ability to maintain your humanity in the chaos of the world.  Dalu.

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By suenos, April 21, 2006 at 11:53 am Link to this comment
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I read “Graceland” last summer and thought that it was brilliant inspite of its masculine affectations (typically I prefer a feminine narration) and after reading this interview - I see why I enjoyed Graceland so much - Chris is such a humanist and I don’t mean that in the classical sense but in his willingness to share himself in his work.  Such generosity is admirable and I definitely plan to read “Making Abigail”.
-s

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By iyke, April 19, 2006 at 10:12 pm Link to this comment
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Chris explains with poetic eloquence and style. I am very proud to be called one of his.

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By Robert, April 19, 2006 at 6:16 pm Link to this comment
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I would like to give Chris a big hug.  But short of that, I will read his writing.  He is a big man in the greatest sense of the word.

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