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BABEL series author Abani's "Graceland" removed from high school reading list

Nigerian born author Chris Abani may not be the best-known name in Buffalo's 2010-11 BABEL lecture series lineup, but he's packed a lot of intrigue into his 43 years. He is also no stranger to censorship, book banning, and even incarceration for his lyrical and vividly imagined work depicting the influence of Western cultural idioms and archetypes on the abject poverty and violent juxtapositions of contemporary African urban life.
Between 1985 and '91, Abani -- who will visit Buffalo next April 15 to speak in Kleinhans Music Hall -- was arrested and imprisoned three times in his native country for the political content of his work, ultimately surviving over a year on death row in Nigeria's infamous Kalakuta Prison. 
That's why the news this past week that his Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award winning 2004 novel Graceland had been removed from 10th grade recommended summer reading list at Mandarin High School in Jacksonville, Fla., based on the objection of one parent to one seven-sentence passage on page 295 of the Farrar Straus Giroux soft cover edition of the book is particularly unfortunate. As many critics have pointed out, Abani is a path blazing second generation post-colonial writer, and his work speaks powerfully to the "cross-pollinations," mash-ups, and heartbreaking contradictions of a globalized economy and international pop culture.
The fact that one concerned parent -- abetted by a solicitous and moralizing local television reporter (who was even offended by the book's cover) -- might object to one particular paragraph in a 321-page novel may not be all that surprising, but the failure of any teacher or school administrator to speak in defense of the book, or to explain why it was included on a 10th-grade summer reading list in the first place is reprehensible. The unidentified but extensively quoted "outraged mom," after all, actually took the time to read the book, or a least scan it for objectionable content. The school administrator who served as district spokeswoman on this matter admitted that she hadn't.
The passage in question is an explicit description of the interrogation of the novel's protagonist, Elvis Oke, a motherless teenage Elvis impersonator living in the Maroko ghetto of Lagos, Nigeria, who unwittingly finds himself working for a cadre of ruthless and violent criminals. The interrogation escalates from the threat of torture to a graphic description of sexual molestation. Read in context, the scene is about humiliation and social control. Taken out of context, it's easy to see how it might be used to misrepresent what the book is about by those who would either rather not know about the vicissitudes of life on the streets in a major third-world city, or are opposed to Abani's anti-authoritarian political views.
In some respects, being included on a list of authors whose books have been banned or challenged is a distinction many lesser writers might envy, and it certainly has resulted in a spike of interest in and sales of his books (as the Florida Times-Union has reported), but I doubt that Abani -- who now lives in Los Angeles, is a professor of English at the University of California-Riverside and winner of the PEN USA Freedom-to-Write Award -- sees it that way. Writers write to be read, or at least to transform the reality they understand their words to be a part of.
In "Dismissing Africa," an essay published last year in the journal Witness, Abani wrote:
"This is what I know about being human -- that we all desire to live without fear, or disease, or affliction, but that we all refuse to give up our crutches. James Baldwin said it better: 'I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain.'

"In making my art, and sometimes when I teach, I am like a crazed, spirit-filled, snake-handling, speaking-in-tongues, spell-casting, Babylon-chanting-down, new-age, evangelical preacher wildly kicking the crutches away from my characters, forcing them into their pain and potential transformation. Alas, or maybe not, I also kick the crutches away from my readers. And many have fled from the revival tents of my art, screaming in terror."
That's the kind of brilliance and candor that readers have come to expect from Abani. It's too bad they don't read him that way in Jacksonville.
--R.D. Pohl


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