Wednesday, January 6, 2016

The Virgin of Flames by Chris Abani

Paperback, 304 pages Published January 30th 2007 by Penguin Books (first published January 1st 2007)

This novel by Chris Abani is the literary equivalent of a Diane Arbus photograph—unsettling, terrible, grotesque, yet artistic. In the strange underbelly of L.A., the City of Angels, Abani finds a kind of hope that describes something in human nature. His dreams, his attempts to “attend his ghosts,” are difficult to look at, but of all the people we might choose to illuminate the depths of human nature, Abani is among the most courageous and compassionate.

Ambiguous sexuality and race, death and desire, religiosity and uncertain faith are themes Abani returns to again and again in his writing. His main character, Black, is conflicted about his desires, and his confusion leads him to seek out those who have made unconventional choices, in hopes they will illuminate the path.

Black is an artist, a painter, but not for money. He paints murals on the sides of buildings, a type of large-scale graffiti requiring long hours hanging from pulleys and ropes. One of the more significant artworks Black had created is a huge mural of graffiti copied from the walls of men’s washrooms around the country. Entitled “American Gothic—The Remix,” the sexist, racist, religionist trash etched into bathroom stalls convey a particular wasteland of the psyche. Those phrases are interspersed with lines from renowned poets, shocking in their clarity and beauty when paired with filth.

In the City of Angels, Black is plagued by the Archangel Gabriel, who sometimes appears as a huge human figure, otherwise as a pigeon. The appearance of the Archangel Gabriel and the Christian iconography/ideography shouldn’t surprise us: Abani was educated in a seminary in his youth, and thought he might want to be a priest. However, the Christian themes are dislocating in the context of a searching sexuality and Black’s painting of a fifty-foot veiled Muslim Virgin [Mary] on a building near a train tracks. Abani is reminding us that Islamic texts have recorded the Angel Gabriel appearing to prophets conveying news of the Annunciation or the incarnation of Christ, just as in early Jewish and Christian texts, showing commonalities these religions once enjoyed.

Many comments, observations, and philosophies expounded by the characters in this novel are in the record of Abani’s interviews. His background as a half-white Nigerian who initially moved to London and then to the United States has made him uniquely able to describe the experience of Black “going through several identities, taking on different ethnic and national affiliations as though they were seasonal changes in wardrobe, and discarding them just as easily.” Black’s friend, the “butcher-boy” from Rwanda called Bomboy, also seeks new identities, new documents, new names—furtively, on street corners out of sight of the police, in the no-man’s-land of east L.A., where cops and emergency services rarely respond to calls for help.

When Black discovers that men can “become” women with some genital fiddling, his sexual liberation is complete. Whiteface and a blond wig allow him to escape his race. In a stolen wedding dress drenched in blood and turpentine, Black inadvertently becomes an emblem—a horrible and disgraceful emblem—of desire and perverted hope. The finale of the book is classic L.A.:
the Virgin Mary appears hovering above the city in a virtual “snowstorm,” to the sound of trumpets, lit from above, flames licking her white dress, adored by a crowd of the poor, the lame, and the lonely.

Other work by Chris 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


  1. Thank you for taking the time to read my book and to write and post such a thoughtful and complex reading of it. Chris Abani

    1. Hey, it was my pleasure. I am working on writing up a blogpost that mentions all your work in the past ten years. I want to remind you that you agreed to answer a few questions, which I will post separately. Hopefully I will get the questions to you this month.