The work of Chris Abani crosses national boundaries. He calls himself a “global Igbo,” referring to his lineage, and to the fact that he has so many foreign influences on his experience as a Nigerian. Brought up privileged in an educated middle-class household with a white British mother and an Oxford-educated Igbo father, Abani had access to western music, American novels, Bollywood films, Indian mysticism as a youth. He was a precocious fourth son, starting to write in his early teens.
His face, which he talks about in his memoir, The Face: Cartography of the Void, has a kind of universality so that people often mistake him for Lebanese, Arab, Indian, Dominican, Cuban, Hawaiian, or Maori. When his Korean manicurist in L.A. called his face “comfortable,” Abani writes
"Comfortable face. I liked it. Made me think of a well-worn armchair that I’d like to collapse into after a rough day. A face made for sitting in. Where one could sip a sweet spicy ginger tea and talk about love and books and karaoke. A face worn in by living, worn in by suffering, by pain, by loss, but also by laughter and joy and the gifts of love and friendship, of family, of travel, of generations of DNA blending to make a true mix of human. I think of all the stress and relief of razors scraping hair from my face. Of extreme weather. Of rain. Of sun. I think of all the people who have touched my face, slapped it, punched it, kissed it, washed it, shaved it. All of that human contact must leave some trace, some of the need and anger that motivated that touch. This face is softened by it all. Made supple by all the wonder it has beheld, all the kindness, all the generosity of life.It is not just the face of Chris Abani that is comfortable. He makes us comfortable about ourselves, about the world, about our fears and aspirations. Abani’s fiction reveals the insides of characters who are often different in some way, their very differentness expressing their underlying and universal humanity. We are all different from one another. It is our differentness that makes us the same.
At the same time, Abani makes us uncomfortable. In an essay he wrote for Witness magazine entitled, “Ethics and Narrative: the Human and Other,” he writes
"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."When we go to dark places in ourselves, Abani suggests, we can come back, better. “When you are at your worst, you can see yourself most clearly.” At your worst, you can see your choices most clearly, and choose goodness, compassion. This is a man who has seen the darkness in humans and who still [mostly] likes us, who can laugh, make jokes, love others deeply. We feel safe with him, and if he can’t save us when something bad happens, at least we shared something real with another for awhile. Abani writes fiction and poetry—how real and important can that be? Quite real enough to reveal both the dark heart and warm center that most humans harbor.
“Language actually makes the world in which we live.”Language, and literature, at its best, can be transformative. We can create our world anew by what we say, what we think, what we read, what we write. But we therefore have an obligation to use words [and actions] that do not harsh the environment, but gentle it, that explain and improve the world.
Abani is a black man, but his writing has few markers for what passes for “black” in America. In a 2014 interview with Rumpus Magazine Abani tells Rumpus interviewer Peter Orner that having grown up in a black-majority country, he was not defined by his race until he left Nigeria and went to Britain and the United States.
Though he has lived in the United States for some ten years or more, Abani does not write in the style of white or black America, though he clarifies in an NPR interview, “Africa could never have the literature it does without the influence of black Americans.” African literature makes no attempt to fit into the Western canon: African writers are having this conversation over here, and if you want to join in you must make accommodation. Interestingly, Abani finds writing in America freeing, partly because of the language, which is constantly influenced by our immigrant population, and because of the vitality and variety of experience and geography.
Abani’s students, and we readers, often “forget he is black” because he assumes the right to speak with his own voice and deals with universal themes. But Abani observes and occasionally writes of the oppression of black people in this country: "Slavery [in America] is not really over". In this memoir he mentions that when he is stopped while driving, the cops seem surprised and almost “offended by his [British] accent.” He recognizes that as an educated middle-class African, he has a privileged position in American society. “Race in America has more to do with social position than it has to do with biological race.”
Abani now teaches writing at Northwestern University in Chicago. Daria Tunca of the University of Liège in Belgium has compiled a wonderfully complete bibliography of Abani’s work (and short biography) which includes links to interviews, readings, and Abani’s website. I share my favorite links below because I feel his work is essential reading/listening. Somehow the issues we face in the world are pointed to by this big man with the small voice and small toes. And he gives us some answers: You reflect my humanity back at me. Ubuntu.
A few links to important talks, essays, writings:
NPR Illinois Radio Interview (2006)
Kate Durbin Interviews Chris Abani (2007)
TED talk on the Stories of Africa (2007)
TED talk “On Humanity” (2008)
Witness essay, “Ethics and Narrative” (2009)
Chris Abani with Walter Mosley in Conversation (2010)
The Rumpus Interview with Peter Orner (2014)
• Becoming Abigail (2006)
• Hands Washing Water (2006)
• Virgin of Flames (2007)
• Song for Night (2007)
• There Are No Names for Red (2010)
• Sanctificum (2010)
• The Secret History of Las Vegas (2014)
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