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Chris Abani: Abigail and My Becoming

Posted on Apr 19, 2006
Becoming Abigail

By Chris Abani

Editor’s Note: The following is an original essay by Chris Abani on the origins of his new novella “Becoming Abigail.” Click here to jump straight to the full-text version of the first four chapters of the book. Click here to jump to his interview with Truthdig. (See the sidebar below and to the right for more information.)

. . . Hence she was unintended worship, a minute of possibilities as he wanders in what seemed to be streets and alleys
??Unintended Worship,? Adonis


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This is how ghosts inhabit you; haunt you until you respond to them. There is not deep fiction without ghosts. Without deep haunting, duende is nothing more than Britney Spears dancing to another asinine song.


Reading the roots of history heading towards a woman
??Unintended Worship,? Adonis


So. It is 1996 in London. Winter. I remember snow, so it was winter. There on the news was the pulped face of a young black girl. Nigerian. Brought over by relatives to be a domestic. Her bloody face was the result of an attempt to discipline her, presumably for some slight. I remembered that one eye was closed over completely like she had gone several rounds with Tyson in the ring. The other, a little lazy, stared in confusion at the camera. One eye closed in on another world, like Odin hanging from the world tree. The other as startled as a young doe. Even in that moment, I must have thought of Blake. But then I write fiction. So I may be lying. I couldn’t bear her stare so I changed the channel. ?Babylon 5? was on. Great.



A few months later, waiting for my friend at the South Bank Center, sitting by a big window overlooking the Thames, nursing a tea and flipping through an old newspaper someone had discarded, a story caught my eye. A judge in France presiding over an immigration case fell in love with a young woman brought before him. She was fleeing some injustice to women in Morocco. Anyway, she was underage and he was forced to retire. The full nature of their relationship was not clear. The girl tried to appeal his dismissal. Then she appealed the order keeping them apart. She was in love. Finally, with some misguided notion that if she were not around everything would go back to normal for him, she killed herself.



Are you part of my abyss, of my upheaval
??Unintended Worship,? Adonis


Did I mention that deep song comes from haunting? I did? Forgive me.


An old lover once asked me if I would die for her. I couldn’t say, Of course not, are you crazy? Not when the room was bathed in candlelight. Not when Coleman Hawkins was on the stereo. Not when she had made her daughter go stay with a friend. Not in that moment, London falling away in lights from the window of her high-rise council flat.

Instead, I pointed out the window, at a flickering train in the darkness, and said: ?Can you wish on a train moving through rain and night??

?Coward!? And even as she said this, I was already leaving on that train. There would be other nights and other trains, but this one was lost.


Ghosts leave their vestigial traces all over your work. Once they have decided to haunt you, that is. These ectoplasmic moments litter your work for years. They are both the veil and the revelation, the thing that leads you to the cusp of the transformational.

I call these ectoplasmic moments avataric manifestations.


I am your unexpected
You are the one who vanquishes my insides
Each of us a separate war
??Unintended Worship,? Adonis


Abigail first appeared as Jasmine in a short story called ?Jazz Petals? that I wrote for an anthology edited by Kadija Sesay called ?Burning Words: Flaming Images Vol. 1.? Jasmine (called Jazz for short) was a young woman of color who came to her lesbian sexuality through playing the tenor saxophone. She comes out to her mother in a scene where she has colored her hair purple; in retrospect I now see mirrors: the scene in which Abigail comes out to her father, this time not sexually, but as a human being.

I didn’t know at the time that I was recovering the ectoplasmic traces that the ghosts of those two young women in the news had left on my psyche.


?A lustful touch
cells swept away
I exclude you from
and pursue my wonder
??Unintended Worship,? Adonis


When speaking to my poetry students, I refer to these ectoplasmic moments as ?the wet spot of the soul.? A necessary condition of melancholy and displacement that produces the poet’s ache to make the poem.


I remembered Khalil Gibran as I prepared to write, and his line?to know the pain of too much tenderness.


Amitav Ghosh, on a stage in Durban, South Africa, expressed this thought in response to a question: What is often most important to me when writing, even in a historical moment, what matters most, is not so much the particulars of that historical moment, but the texture of the characters’ lives.

This was the epiphany I had experienced in looking for the texture of Abigail’s life.


Ndi Idume, my father’s clan, says that while the chicken is a sensible and industrious bird, one that in its own way is indispensable, humble even in its being, that at some point in a man’s life, because he is a man, he should be an eagle.


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By tina, May 16, 2006 at 4:58 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

i read graceland last year.  i read becoming abigail last month, in one day , in one sitting.
it is haunting, beautiful, poetic.

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By don schaefer, April 23, 2006 at 1:02 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Amazing. Thank you. I have to read more.

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By Victor, April 23, 2006 at 12:01 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

This is one great book.

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