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In Conversation with author Chris Abani
Posted on Apr 18, 2006
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.
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.
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.
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