Sunday, January 10, 2016

Song For Night by Chris Abani

Paperback, 170 pages Published September 1st 2007 by Akashic Books (first published January 1st 2007)

Abani’s work is so shot through with pain that the blessing, when it comes, also sears us. This novella, published in 2007, tells the story of a boy soldier called My Luck. “I have never been a boy. That was stolen from me and I will never be a man—not this way.” Separated from his platoon, he wanders, searching for them while avoiding enemies. He is fifteen. His friends are dead. His family is dead. He punctures the skin on his arm with each new important and personal death, raising bumps that he can feel when the nights are dark.

What makes this work exceptional is the clarity with which Abani describes such a scene, inserting moments of grace when we need it most. There is only observation, not pity. When the platoon commander forces the boy at knifepoint to commit an atrocity, his victim, an old woman, soothes him: "Better the ones like you live." Chapter headings are the signs the boy makes to have conversation after his vocal chords are cut by his platoon leader, to keep him from screaming out when he steps on a landmine. “Silence is a Steady Hand, Palm Flat” and “Mercy is a Palm Turning Out from the Heart.” He has not verbalized for three years.
"My Luck," she said. "My Luck, do you know what lonely feels like?"

"No, Aunty," I said.

"Lonely is a cold, itchy back," she said.

I laughed and snuggled closer, one hand scratching her back through her thin blouse, She sighed happily and my parents laughed. I keep that night close, like a well-worn photography of family, of a time when we were happy. My father died shortly after that night, and my uncle, my father's half-brother, became my father and my mother became his mistress, and I the burden that stared at him daily with a malevolence he couldn't beat out of me."
One cannot help but wonder how the author could spend the hours, weeks, months putting together such a description of misery and not be deeply damaged by it. But Abani in person is warm and funny and perceptive and insightful. Abani’s discussion with Walter Mosley on the eve of the publication of another book answers some questions and raises more. He’s seen plenty, in his time in Nigeria, London, and Los Angeles. I wouldn’t be surprised if each of these countries claimed him as their native son.

Abani published this through Akashic Books, a Brooklyn-based publisher. Perhaps using this publisher has something to do with his worldview: put your money where your mouth is. But as a result, we must seek out his work—it doesn’t come washing across our laptops like work promoted by the largest publishers. I urge everyone who has not yet had the opportunity to experience Abani’s work to seek him out. It feels relevatory. I would say to read his breakout bestseller, GraceLand, first, but perhaps you should first read this one. It has not gotten enough attention, and is so very worthy.

“Rest is a Chin Held in a Palm.”

Other work by Abani:
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)
The Face: Cartography of the Void (2014)

You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores

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