Chris Abani

The acclaimed Nigerian novelist discusses his new novel on sex trafficking.

By Daisy Hernandez Nov 15, 2006

You have said that the inspiration for your new novella Becoming Abigail was two women you read about and saw in the news, one of whom was forced into prostitution. But there are many people every day in the news facing devastating circumstances. Why did these two particular women inspire you?

I don’t know why these particular women. That is the gift of art; that some unknown impulse pushes its way out of us. There are always catalysts, there are always things that ignite it, and we are never quite sure why.

Your novel, poetry books, and now novella all have a political context. Did you do research on sex trafficking for Becoming Abigail? How do you put aside the statistics to write the story?

Since Masters of the Board, everything I write does have a political context, you’re right.

I do a lot of research and try to immerse myself completely into the subject that I am writing about. The rest is just a matter of practice and of not holding back. The way I get past the research, past the facts of the matter to its heart is to collapse the distance between myself, as a writer, and the subject that I am writing about.

In Becoming Abigail, a young Abigail is obsessed with her dead mother. You have said in interviews that Nigerians are obsessed with death. In the character of Abigail, how do you see the story of Nigeria represented?

I don’t see the story of Nigeria represented. I don’t believe in representational literature. That is not art, that is being an artisan, or a native informant. I also said in interviews that the Igbo are obsessed with their dead, not Nigerians, and not necessarily death as a concept. We are not a nihilist or  fatalistic culture. We believe that an individual is a sum of all the people who have gone before them in their family, in their lineage. We believe that our dead intercede for us in the spiritual affairs. I have taken some ideas about what it means to be Igbo, specifically Afikpo Igbo, and woven this into a work of fiction that I think transcends any representational limitations. This is important because the Igbo are not limited. We believe our imaginations and souls to be boundless. At the core we are Igbo; in all other ways, including at the core, we are human. This is the paradox of Igbo. This is why there is the kola-nut ritual at the beginning of every chapter in GraceLand: to resist representation. Becoming Abigail is about how we become who we become.

Its location, its character’s identity—these are secondary. They spice the soup, but they are not the soup.

Your beautiful novel GraceLand, published in 2004, won you many awards and acclaim. In writing Becoming Abigail, what lessons did you draw on from having produced GraceLand?

First of all, thank you for the kind words about GraceLand. I don’t know what lessons I learned from writing one that transfers to the other. They are both so different, formally and linguistically, that there is little to transfer. I guess I knew, having written other books, that I could and would finish Becoming Abigail. But the rest is a mystery; the rest is faith. Most writers, I think, will confirm this, that every new book is a learning curve. That though we know how to write, we don’t know how to write whatever book it is we are writing. We only know how to write the book we have just finished. When I teach writing, I emphasize this.
I think one can learn how to “write.” The rest is just faith.

You grew up in Nigeria but have now also lived in England
and the United States. How has your awareness of
racism changed over time, and has it made an impact
on your writing?

How much space do you have? [Smile.]

But in a way it is still new to me, and I am doing my best to
sort it out as an individual, on the level, still. In many ways,
I still have a very unsophisticated response to it. As for my
work, it is there. Global racism is explored in GraceLand,
and I think in The Virgin of Flames, which comes out from
Penguin in 2007, really looks full-on at this American heart
of darkness. Maybe when that novel comes out, we can talk
more about this subject.

You know firsthand the political impact of fiction—you were jailed several times in Nigeria because of your novels. How do you see the relationship that Nigerianshave with fiction as different or similar to that of Americans? Are Americans too comfortable now to be affected by fiction?

No, nobody is too comfortable to be affected by fiction. I think that the American response to the idea of fiction is deeply rooted in this country’s Puritan beginnings, where the notion of literature, of “making things up,” is seen as a lie, as something unreliable, as “untrue.”

So there is an immediate distrust of the impact of literature. Subsequent  generations, regardless of race, accept this received narrative. What often surprises me is how much Americans are alike, regardless of race or previous nationality or class. America is a mythology that homogenizes.

The lie of this idea of truth is that it neglects the fact that every national identity, every physical country, every society, every people make themselves up in their mythology. We are products of narrative. Works of fiction, like say, the Bible or the Koran, are examples of these narrative mythologies.

Even the statement that fiction seems irrelevant in these times is a narrative. It is fiction. Curiously though, after 9/11, sales of books by Aghfani and Middle Eastern writers went up. We expect that the truth of the rest of the world is hiding in its literature but have the hubris that ours doesn’t.

Before your own arrests in Nigeria, how aware were you about the political impact a novel could have?

I was 15 when I wrote my first novel, 16 when it was published. I came out of a very middle-class, suburban home. I had some idea that what a person wrote in Nigeria could land them in jail. I mean, we had seen it happen to Wole Soyinka and Fela Kuti, among others. Yet I still didn’t understand its full impact, its full weight. When I wrote my novel, Masters of the Board, I wasn’t being political. It was a thriller by a 16-year-old boy. I had no way of knowing what that novel would do.

Some people would say, “If writing landed me in jail, I would never do it again.” What made it possible for you to continue writing?

In one of the poems in my book Kalakuta Republic, which is about that experience, there is a poem, “Dream Stealers,” which sums it up best.

Dream Stealers.

Refuse to give in to it, the nothingness
that smears ice on your soul
numbing life out.
Unlike Peters from Calabar who died after 2 days,

screaming: “They stole everything!”

And they will if you let them:
memories, dreams, hope.

Sometimes writing is the only mark of your humanity left. Sometimes the refusal to give in is the best resistance. Sometimes it is the only way to stay sane. Sometimes it is the only thing that makes sense. I don’t really have an answer that would satisfy.

How do you situate your writing, including your books of poetry, into the literature of the African diaspora?

I am not sure that a writer can situate their work anywhere, really. I think that most of that is done by critics, those whose work it is to study, analyze and catalog literature. But the content of my work, its subject matter, my nationality and race, the tradition that I allude to and reference in my work, the sense of connectedness to the nomadic soul of contemporary Africans and the “rootedness” to the continent, and finally, that melancholic sense of displacement, I think all add up to locate my work firmly within the African experience, diasporadic or not. But at another, deeper level, I hope my work is able to transcend this too, to be limitless, to connect in that way that James Baldwin so cherished, to the human moment.