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In Conversation with author Chris Abani
Posted on Apr 18, 2006
You’ve said you’ve noticed an interest in this subject recently.
Well, social anthropologists have been studying this phenomenon for years in much of Asia. There was a lot of sex tourism where men from Europe would go to the Philippines to have underage sex. And it was talked about almost in a jocular way and nothing was ever done.
But with the fall of the Soviet Union, the poverty of the Eastern Block has made it a European problem. The German government is so aware of its citizens going into, say, Prague to engage in illicit sex with minors that they have a law that allows them to prosecute even though the act [was not] committed on German soil.
And it has begun to crop up in the media quite a bit recently. There’s a movie starring Mira Sorvino, called “Human Trafficking,” which deals with this in the Eastern European context; and the movie “Lilja 4-ever,” which comes out of Sweden, also deals with the issue.
But that’s really what happens when a trauma becomes a Western trauma. As with much of the world’s problems, they become public—or much more of interest—the moment they begin to impact the West.
But I don’t really want to turn it into a political dimension, even though it inevitably always is. But whatever the situation is, at least there is a dialogue around this now. And there’s an attempt to deal with it. Which is only ever good.
Does anyone in America care about Africa?
Well, it’s difficult, because in many ways that word is really what the difficulty is.
No, they don’t care about Africa. I don’t care about Africa, because Africa doesn’t really exist. It’s a continental mass. Africa is hundreds of countries and thousands of ethnicities.
Let me reverse it a little bit. In Nigeria, when I was growing up, America acquired this real mythological status. It became an El Dorado in some ways. But no one really knew what it was. It was called U.S., U.S., U.S., but you don’t realize the complications. It’s really not El Dorado.
Much of the image of the amazingness of America comes from the movies into other cultures. And it’s much the same thing when you reverse it. Much of Africa is presented through poverty, through drought and war. [But] you’re not presenting people, you’re not presenting countries, you’re not presenting complexity, and so people can’t care about an amorphous mass called Africa. But people can care about a young woman from Nigeria called Abigail.
Why did you leave Africa, and do you think you’ll go back?
I didn’t leave Africa, I left Nigeria, and for political reasons. But I go back to the continental mass of Africa all the time. I was just in East Africa; I’ve been in other parts of West Africa since I left.
I’ve never, never left Africa, and I certainly never left what it means to be Ibo. That is something you carry with you.
Is there a Nigerian community here in Los Angeles that you’re connected to?
Yes, Nigerians are everywhere. There’s an old joke, particularly about the Ibos, that when you finally land on Mars, you’re going to find a Nigerian there who has a shop that is selling Coca-Cola—who took a speculative trip 20 years ago and has been waiting for everyone else to arrive.
We differ in many ways from a lot of other nationalities. Because we have 300 languages, English is in many ways people’s first language. Most patterns of immigration create segregated communities because of language access and educational access. But most Nigerians are educated and speak English, so when we arrive in places like the U.S., we don’t congregate into communities. We assimilate very easily.
And because English isn’t an issue, we assimilate based on class. And a Nigerian ambition is to always assimilate upwards. So we are scattered around the country. There are community groups which are based around particular ethnicities, but I don’t belong to any of those. I feel more a part of a community of Nigerian writers and intellectuals who live not just in the U.S. but across the world. It’s sort of a diasporatic, creatively exiled community.
And the Internet is really our meeting place. We have this amazing listserv. Every time I log onto it I feel a sense of pride, because if you log on and say, “Oh I was just in San Diego and I was in a park and I saw a lion,” the flurry of replies on average is just like—wow! [And you get] all these existential questions about what it means to be an African, and never having seen a lion at home, but having seen a lion here. Everything you say turns into this real philosophical debate—it’s incredible in so many ways. And it’s an invigorating place to be. So I belong to that, and I think that’s enough.
I carry what it means to be Nigerian, and I carry what means to be Ibo into all my relationships. I like to think of myself—if there’s such a phrase—as a “global Ibo.”
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