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Chris Abani: Abigail and My Becoming
Posted on Apr 19, 2006
By Chris Abani
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I wanted a narrative where it would be hard to connect to it any emotional?and in some ways conceptual?framework that had not itself been generated by the narrative.
In a sense, when I say that I was seeking to create a text devoid of my own emotional interjections, not as textual topography, but as imaginative topography, I mean that I intend to ?translate? the experience of this character as closely as I can. But since the root of ?translate? in Latin really means to betray, then again, I ask you, how can you trust me? What I mean to say is, I won’t lie. I won’t.
But if I have lied, if I have in some way betrayed Abigail, I hope it is to you.
At the core of this book is a human being.
At the core of this book is the tragedy of sex trafficking.
Third-fastest-growing industry, after arms and drugs, is the trafficking of young women for sex.
You won’t find it listed on the GDP or GNP of any nation. Everyone pretends that it doesn’t happen.
In writing this book, I have tried to stay away from the quantitative, from the cumulative, from numbers, statistics, and all sure attritions to our attention and compassion. I have tried to remove any sentimentality and polemic.
This is the story of a human being.
In the end it doesn’t matter how many young women are victims of this trade.
One is already one too many.
Another anthology opportunity from Kadija came up: to be part of Penguin’s ?IC3,? a definitive collection of black British voices. I returned to the haunting, to the ectoplasm. This time it had a shape, a form, and a name: Abigail. I had 2,000 words and so I wrote what became the first full form of ?Becoming Abigail.? As a short story. As a poem.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but this idea, this story of a young girl forced into prostitution by her relatives in a foreign country who had brought her there under false pretenses, was only the dim outline of a form still barely glimpsed.
I still did not have the compassion for this voice, the words for this kind of tenderness, the courage for this kind of betrayal.
In ?The Duino Elegies,? Rilke said that terror is but the onset of a beauty we are yet to comprehend. He says it better.
So, here I am at the World Republic of Letters Lannan Symposium in Washington, D.C., trying to write this between panels and presentations and talks and readings. It strikes me as odd but appropriate that this book should again be connected to the Lannan’s.
Last night, I heard of a poet called Adonis for the first time. With embarrassment I admit this because one could argue that he is the foremost Arab poet, after Darwish. I am embarrassed because his words are so striking. Yet last night, in an improvisation that would have made Coltrane happy, he read with a Jamaican poet, Mark MacMorris. Mark read in English, Adonis in Arabic.
When Mark read from ?Unintended Worship,? I felt something happen, a gift from Abigail, and why not? If we must believe in ghosts, then we must also believe in their corporeality. The poem was Abigail, in so many ways, and I was glad I had not read Adonis or heard of him. I was glad because I can feel some ease knowing that what I translated came from my own ectoplasmic haunting and not from another’s.
It feels good to know that one has kin in this enterprise.
When I went to Berlin finally, the wall had fallen. Yet there was still the notion of a conceptual wall, perhaps in this way more impenetrable because of its invisibility. The wall is a yellow line in the road. I stepped over it many times, ignoring the angry cars. On either side I was Chris. One either side I was not Chris.
This was Abigail.
Ben Okri wrote an exquisite novel at age 21 called ?Landscapes Within.? It changed me. It changed me to know someone so close to my age, someone publishing novels when I was, could write so well about the interior of another’s soul. It made me want to stop writing thrillers and write literary fiction. I did.
Ben rewrote that book 17 years later as ?Dangerous Love.? In the introduction he claimed that since Renaissance artists saw nothing wrong with revising their work as their skills improved, he saw no reason why he couldn’t do the same. Again Ben taught me something about the courage of being the kind of artist you want to be.
So. Two years after ?Becoming Abigail? was published as a short story in an anthology, I realized that while I had found the kernel of the narrative thrust, I had yet to find the texture of her life. I had yet to write ?Becoming Abigail.?
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