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Chris Abani: "Terror is a state of complete understanding..."

It's been more than a week since Nigerian born novelist and poet Chris Abani delivered the concluding talk in the 2010-2011 BABEL Lecture Series, but his ideas continue to resonate throughout this community.

Abani, who spoke last Friday night at Kleinhans Music Hall, may not have been the most widely known international author to appear in the four-year history of the lecture series, but the impact of his presentation ranks with that of any literary figure to appear in this city in recent memory in terms of its ability to point the way forward to a new kind of literature of witness and ethical engagement for the 21st century.

As Abani's readers long have known, you don't have to dig very far into almost anything the award-winning 44-year-old author has written to realize you're in the company of a richly inventive and lyrical thinker with a profound commitment to literature as a form of ethical inquiry and an extraordinary capacity to re-contextualize the African post-colonial experience in 21st century narrative terms.

Take his 2009 essay "Ethics and Narrative: The Human and Other," which was part of the "Dismissing Africa" issue of the literary journal "Witness." The lecture portion of Abani's Babel Series appearance last Friday drew heavily from the essay.

Those familiar with the "Why I Write" essay that is the typical fodder of literary journals everywhere might expect some vaguely self-serving statement of high-minded but hopelessly abstract narrative principles, anchored by a few homiletic anecdotes. But that's not Abani's approach to writing.

Instead, he begins the piece by launching into a graphic account of how as a young boy growing up in Nigeria, he was obliged to engage in the ritual sacrifice of a young goat as part of an Igbo coming-of-age ritual. His writing captures all the primal urgency of blood sacrifice, but from the perspective of a mature artist whose hand still retains the muscle memory of slitting the throat of that animal -- "a kid killing a kid," as he describes it. The story is visceral and hardly what you'd expect in this kind of an essay, but it's what Abani has to say about that traumatic memory of his childhood over three decades ago on another continent that is truly astonishing:

A lot has happened between then and now. A lot of blood. Not all [of it] animal. The thing is, my knowledge of blood, of the terrible intimacy of killing, has taught me that though I have never killed a man, I know how, I know I could. The only thing that terrifies me is that I may not feel sorry. And even as I make this terrible confession, what can it mean? What does the moment offer? Affirmation of something already suspected? Or something else, the recognition perhaps that we all stand at the edge of the same abyss?

This is what the art I make requires of me: that in order to have an honest conversation with a reader, I must reveal myself in all my vulnerability. Reveal myself, not in the sense of my autobiography, but in the sense of the deeper self, the one we keep too often hidden even from ourselves. This revelation is not designed to engender sympathy, or compassion, or even pity. These sentiments, while generous on the part of the reader, obscure the deeper intent, the deeper possibility. The point is to dissolve oneself into the journey of the protagonist, to face the most terrifying thing in narrative, the thing that has been at its heart since the earliest campfire and story. To dare ourselves to imagine, to conjure and then face all of our darkness and all of our light simultaneously. To stand in that liminal moment when we have no solid ground beneath us, no clear firmament above, when the ambiguity of our nature reveals what we are capable of, on both sides. The intensity of that confrontation is the only gift the 
writer has to offer, the only redemption that is possible.

...To accept that all acts, every intervention in the world, requires judgment and that judgment by its very nature conjures up the specter of shame. Between these two things, so far, the only language we have of defining self does violence to another... 

Abani himself is no stranger to violence, censorship, book banning, incarceration and even torture for his vividly imagined but unsentimentalized fiction. His first novel "Masters of the Board" (Delta Books), a political thriller written while he was still a teenager and published in 1985 when he was just 19, described a fictionalized takeover of his homeland by a paramilitary group of Neo-Nazi zealots.

Through a bizarre set of coincidences (including an actual failed coup shortly after its release) and some predictable authoritarian paranoia, the novel proved so credible that it came to be viewed by authorities in Nigeria's then military-run government (itself the product of a previous coup in 1984) as a kind of blueprint for another insurrection. Between 1985 and 1991, Abani was arrested and imprisoned three times in his native country for his activism and the political content of his work, ultimately surviving over a year on death row in Nigeria's infamous Kalakuta Prison. After another change of regimes, he was permitted to emigrate to London in 1992.

He remained in London's Nigerian expatriate community through much of the 1990s, earning a master's of arts in Gender and Culture at Birkbeck College, University of London, before moving to Los Angeles in 1999, where he obtained a master's of arts in English and a Ph.D. in Literature and Creative Writing at the University of Southern California.

It was there he completed his breakthrough novel "GraceLand" (FSG/Picador, 2004), the coming-of-age story of Elvis Oke, a motherless teenage Elvis impersonator living in the Maroko ghetto of Lagos, Nigeria, who, cast adrift by his mother's death and his father's alcoholism, supports himself by performing for tourists in "white-face" and unwittingly finds himself working for a cadre of ruthless and violent urban criminals.

Set in the slums of Lagos -- Africa's second-largest city -- beset by the vortex of explosive population growth and the surreal influence of de-contextualized Western cultural idioms and archetypes as conveyed by film, radio and television, the novel speaks powerfully to the "cross-pollinations," mash-ups and heartbreaking contradictions of abject poverty in a globalized economy with an emerging, youth-driven, international urban pop culture.

"GraceLand" received both the Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award and the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award and was shortlisted for several other top international literary prizes. More importantly, it set a new template for the second-generation, post-colonial English language novel and inspired comparisons to Abani's fellow countryman and literary fore-bearer Chinua Achebe's 1958 classic "Things Fall Apart."

Abani's follow-up to "GraceLand," his 2006 novella "Becoming Abigail," explores the themes of isolation and exile in the Nigerian expatriate community in the London of the 1990s in which he formerly lived. The protagonist, a motherless teenage Nigerian girl, is lured out of her homeland by devious relatives who promise employment, but instead attempt to force her into prostitution. Written in a more spare and interiorized style than "GraceLand," it resonates with the stark lyricism of Abani's five books of poetry.

To identify Abani as primarily an "post-colonial " writer, or even as a writer who concerns himself chiefly with the Nigerian diaspora, however, would be a disservice to the range of his subsequent work. Now a resident of East Los Angeles, where he has lived since 1999, most recently as Professor of Creative Writing and Literature at the University of California-Riverside, Abani's 2007 novel "The Virgin of Flames" (Penguin Books) presents a hallucinatory vision of contemporary Los Angeles as a sprawling, globalized city with enormous disparities of wealth, ethnicity, and cultural experience, not unlike the Lagos of "GraceLand."

Abani's protagonist Black is a mural artist of Nigerian and Salvadoran Catholic descent living in a dilapidated apartment above an trendy tatoo/ritual scarification parlor in East L.A. called "The Ugly Store," where his beautiful female friend Iggy caters to the Hollywood elite and celebrity wannabes while he works on his vast canvases depicting the iconography of urban decay in scenes that are both sacred and profane. When not tracing the course of the buried Los Angeles River, "iridescent in its concrete sleeve," or trafficking with Bombay Dickens, a former machete wielding boy soldier in Rwanda who has turned his limb-severing skills into a profitable business as a Lexus driving halal butcher in East L.A., he is obsessing about a transsexual exotic dancer named Sweet Girl, who serves as his model and muse.

The "virgin" of the title is a composite of the legendary Virgin of Guadalupe, Black's own mother, who accidentally immolated while transfixed by  a sermon, and his transsexual muse.

Steeped in the poetry of decay and ritual blood-letting, and rich with the music of self-invention and cultural juxtaposition, "The Virgin of Flames" presents Los Angeles as a Third World city -- or rather, it collapses the difference between First World and Third World narratives of contemporary urban life. It also confirms Abani as one of the great transnational urban visionaries of our era.

Abani's most recent novella "Song for Night" (Akashic Books, 2007) is perhaps one of the most singularly harrowing narratives about the human cost of war ever committed to print. It tells the story of My Luck, a mute 15-year-old Igbo boy soldier in a war-torn West African nation that closely resembles the author's own Nigeria. Recruited at age 12 into a squad of human mine detectors who are sent out ahead of more experienced troops, he undergoes crude surgery to sever his vocal cords so that his cries of anguish when he meets his inevitable dismemberment will be inaudible to the other boy soldiers.

And that is precisely where Abani's narrative begins, with the detonation that flings the boy's body skyward. My Luck survives, but is abandoned by his fellow soldiers, who mistake his unconsciousness for death. The novella follows his attempt to find and rejoin his peers, not only through trails and roadways, but also through the path of memory: ghastly scenes of unspeakable violence and human depravity, rape, torture, and taking pleasure in the suffering of others.

My Luck is no innocent in any of these atrocities -- indeed, he is an instrument of terror -- but the greater his separation from his brutal conditioning, the more his voiceless humanity reasserts itself. He recovers his tender feelings for his loving Catholic mother (who died resisting his "recruitment"), his religiously observant Muslim father, the family elders and a young girl named Ijeoma who is killed by a mine explosion.

Abani's writing here is spare but unsparing, dark with a kind of grisly lyricism reminiscent of Samuel Beckett's late plays, but without the absurdism. If Beckett's plays are about how language itself permits us to endure when nothing else will, Abani's mute boy warrior is the witness who will never testify, but whose terrible story must be told.

In "Ethics and Narrative" Abani quotes the late poet Larry Levis: "Terror is a state of complete understanding..."

Then he describes how "Song for Night" was the newly released book that he read from to his mother while she was on her deathbed.  There is a break in the essay, the equivalent of a narrative pause, and then he writes this:

This sometimes happens to us, that we write the song that sings our mother across to the other side. That the narrative is beyond even the ethical work we wanted it to be. That it is sometimes a good yarn, that it sometimes brings comfort to others, that it sometimes makes our people proud of us. It doesn’t matter in the end; integrity will find its own way.

As terrifying as things we see are, perhaps more terrifying are the things that, once seen, cannot be unseen. This is a difficulty I think we all recognize in the most instinctual way, and perhaps this is why we all look away as often as we can from the things that have the power to unmake us. We do this in every way, every day.

But what if you cannot? ... What do you do with all that anger, all that rage that burns through you? How do you not pass it on to your kin, if not in words, then in blood, in the silence of the heart where unknowable things become illuminated even without thought? The point of the purposeful narrative, of the ethical story, is to draw all the courage, kindness, goodness, and hope from the world into the open, where everyone can share it.

To be human requires no action. What is required, though, is harder: the non-judgmental (and I don’t mean non-discerning) daily accounting of our lives and narratives to ourselves.  It is owning all the power and privilege we have wielded that day, as well as its true cost...This is the core of my aesthetic: belief in a deeper humanness that is beyond race, class, gender, and power, even as I know that it is not possible. And yet I strive for it in every way, even when I fail. In the end, we may never know. Perhaps it is enough...to know that it will always be hard. May we cry, but may we never die of heartbreak.

You can read all of Abani's essay here.

--R.D. Pohl

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