Chris Abani

[WRITER]

“I AM IN EXILE, BUT NOT ENTIRELY IN EXILE. THE WHOLE THING ABOUT BEING AFRICAN IN THE TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY IS THAT YOUR IDENTITY OCCUPIES A LIMINAL SPACE THAT IS DIFFICULT TO ARTICULATE TO A WESTERN AUDIENCE.”
Rites of Passage, Fictional and Real:
Participating in a prodemocracy movement
Writing a third novel
Killing a chicken
Learning to wrap the cocaine

In 1985, the Nigerian writer Chris Abani was arrested and imprisoned on suspicion of masterminding a political coup. The evidence: his first novel, a political thriller written two years earlier, when the novelist was just sixteen years old. Since then, Abani has been imprisoned twice more, sentenced to death, tortured by electric shock; he has also thwarted assassins, published two books of poetry, written eight novels (published two) and won numerous literary awards. His latest novel, GraceLand, was published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux in February.

Though Abani’s history makes for titillating copy, he should be best-known for his detailed, nuanced, and haunting prose. GraceLand is a sprawling coming-of-age tale that explores the underground world of the slums of Lagos, Nigeria. The author of this beautiful and searing novel, which explores the kidnapping of children for their organs, vigilante justice, civil war, incest, and Elvis-impersonation is not a world-weary and embittered man. Instead, Mr. Abani is thoughtful and soft-spoken—the parlance of California fusing with his British-Nigerian English.

This interview was conducted by phone from Abani’s Los Angeles home. He spoke of hard subjects: colonialism, exile, and war, yet he laughed at the interviewer’s jokes and made a couple of his own.

—Tayari Jones

*

THE BELIEVER: I noticed how many of the references in GraceLand are American. For example: Hugh Hefner, Elvis. With Nigeria being a British colony, I was surprised that the British references were so few. Why does the United States figure so prominently as opposed to Great Britain?

CHRIS ABANI: I think it’s a combination of two things. One has to do with the notion of assimilation. There is the old joke we postcolonials have. Q: What is the difference between the French colonials and the British? A: While the French would see a native African on the street as an animal, or try to civilize you or assimilate you, the British would simply not see you. British culture is not about assimilation. It is about maintaining the status quo.… The whole thing about American culture—because it is driven by capitalism—is this sense of global whiteness through global assimilation. It’s sort of a new wave of empire…. So I think that was why America had more of an appeal. And also the advent of television and movies. I mean, these were in existence long before I was born. But with my coming into awareness of them, the heroes—even black—were like Shaft. And Superfly. It was the first time we encountered people of color who had any kind of power. Omar Sharif was a big hit for us. It was easier to sort of find yourself or frame yourself in a global context because of American films.

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

To read the full piece, please visit our store to purchase a copy of the magazine.

Tayari Jones is the author of Leaving Atlanta. Her second novel, The Untelling, will be published next year.

STAY CONNECTED
News on Facebook Photos on Instagram Stuff on Pinterest Announcements by RSS Sounds on Soundcloud Exclusives on Tumblr Updates on Twitter

Subscribe to our mailing list