Mar 12, 2014
Chris Abani: Abigail and My Becoming
Posted on Apr 19, 2006
By Chris Abani
Then one night I saw a young Chicana woman read Neruda in Spanish, read: last night I wrote the saddest lines….
Then one night, two days after I arrived in Marfa, Texas, on a Lannan Foundation Residency, woken by the melancholic call of a train whistle, Abigail stepped out of the shadows of my mind.
It began with that train. I know, I know, those damn trains. It was 4 a.m., and displaced from sleeping on the couch, I began to write to Randy Crawford’s ?Rainy Night in Georgia,? and with it, as with Proust’s Madeline, came memories. One memory was of watching a film called ?Ashanti? in Nigeria in the ‘80s. The film was about sex trafficking and starred Beverly Johnson, Omar Sharif and Peter Ustinov. There it was again, the ectoplasm, the residue of an old ghost.
And with this memory came all of the emotional memory of childhood. Of dusty savannahs sighing into the horizon with a loss there are no words for, no smells for. Of being teased as a sensitive child. Of watching that body hanging from an orange tree, hanging from the shame of something done in an unspeakable war. Of playing in burned-out tanks and in chapels that smelled of bat droppings. Of being invisible. Of carrying a core of melancholy so deep that none of the love lavished on me could melt it.
This is how the transubstantiation began. Maybe this was what drew me to the church as a child, to the incense and candles, drew me into the priesthood as a young man and now, much older, draws me still toward the unspeakable, the ineffable. The unspeakable name of God is hidden in the human body. This is law.
And regardless of my attempts, my body is all over this book. My soul is interwoven with Abigail’s soul. My heart is her heart.
Three weeks later, I had the first draft done. Months later, the book.
When asked, I often say that I write to find my own humanity, that I am in a desperate battle to redeem myself, to make myself beautiful in the world. And yet in finding Abigail, I feel reluctant to claim my humanity, I feel undeserving. I feel awe in the face of her. She is the meteor and I, her space.
This is the best compliment I could have received. In a way, I am not sure I deserve it. But I take it. I take it.
This is how I came to Abigail. This is how I came to this becoming. There will be others. And no doubt I will return to this essay and flesh it out, shape it more, become more.
But for now I ask you, in all humility, to do something to save these young women. Come, buy this book, meet this extraordinary young woman who came through it, follow her in ?Becoming Abigail.?
The lines of poetry, reprinted here with permission, come from ?Unintended Worship,? from the book ?If Only the Sea Could Sleep: Love Poems by Adonis? (Green Integer 77, 2002).
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