Abani, Chris 1967(?)- (Christopher Abani)

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Abani, Chris 1967(?)- (Christopher Abani)

PERSONAL:

Born December 27, 1967 (some sources say 1966), in Afikpo, Nigeria; immigrated to England, c. 1991; immigrated to the United States, 1999. Education: Imo State University, B.A. (magna cum laude), 1991; Birkbeck College, London, M.A., 1995; University of Southern California, M.A., 2002, Ph.D., 2004.

ADDRESSES:

Home—Los Angeles, CA; London, England; Lagos, Nigeria. Office—Dept. of Creative Writing, University of California, Riverside, CA 92521. Agent—Ellen Levine, Trident Media Group, LLC, 41 Madison Ave., 36th Fl., New York, NY 10010. E-mail—[email protected]; [email protected]

CAREER:

Writer, novelist, poet, playwright, musician, and educator. Antioch University, Los Angeles, CA, instructor; University of California, Riverside, started as visiting assistant professor, then associate professor, and professor of creative writing.

AWARDS, HONORS:

Delta Fiction Award, Nigeria, 1983; Middleton fellowship, University of Southern California, 2001; Freedom-to-Write Award, PEN USA West, and Prince Claus Award for Literature and Culture (Netherlands), both 2001, both for Kalakuta Republic; Imbonge Yesizwe Poetry International Award (South Africa), 2002; Lannan Foundation literary fellowship, and Human Rights Watch Hellman/Hammet grant, both 2003; Pushcart Prize nomination, 2005, for short story "Blooding"; Silver Medal, California Book Awards for Fiction, Hemingway Prize, PEN New England, and Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Fiction finalist, Commonwealth Writers Prize shortlist, all 2005, and IMPAC Dublin Literary Award shortlist, 2006, all for GraceLand; Pushcart Prize nomination in poetry, 2006, for "A Way to Turn This to Light"; Chicago Reader Critic's Choice, and New York Times Editor's Choice, both 2006, both for Becoming Abigail; New York Times Editor's Choice, 2007, for The Virgin of Flames; PEN Beyond the Margins Award finalist, 2007, for Becoming Abigail; Distinguished Humanist Award, University of California, Riverside, 2008.

WRITINGS:

FICTION

(As Christopher Abani) Masters of the Board (novel), Delta of Nigeria (Enugu, Anambra State, Nigeria), 1985.

Sirocco, Swan (Nigeria), 1987.

GraceLand (novel), Farrar, Straus & Giroux (New York, NY), 2004.

Becoming Abigail (novella), Turnaround (New York, NY), 2006.

The Virgin of Flames (novel), Penguin (New York, NY), 2007.

Song for Night (novella), Akashic (New York, NY), 2007.

POETRY

Kalakuta Republic, introduction by Kwame Dawes, Saqi Books (London, England), 2000.

Daphne's Lot, Red Hen Press (Los Angeles, CA), 2002.

Dog Woman, Red Hen Press (Los Angeles, CA), 2004.

Hands Washing Water, Copper Canyon Press (Port Townsend, WA), 2006.

Also author of plays produced in Nigeria, c. 1980s, including Song of the Broken Flute.

ADAPTATIONS:

GraceLand was adapted as an audiobook, Recorded Books, 2004.

SIDELIGHTS:

Chris Abani is part of a new generation of Nigerian writers working to convey to an English-speaking audience the experience of those born and raised in that troubled African nation. Abani began writing at a very young age and published his first novel, Masters of the Board, while still a teenager. The plot of the novel, a political thriller, proved uncomfortably close to actual events; it mirrored a coup that was carried out in Nigeria not long after, and Abani was thrown in jail for six months on suspicion of having helped organize this attempted political overthrow. He continued to write after his release from jail, but was imprisoned again two years later, after the publication of his novel Sirocco. The author was again released after a year of detention, but following another two years of writing, during which he composed several antigovernment plays that were performed on the street near government offices, Abani was once again imprisoned and placed on death row. Able to escape after eighteen months, thanks to the bribes his friends paid to prison officials, the writer immediately went into exile and settled in England for several years. Since 1999, Abani has been a resident of the United States.

Abani's poetry collection Kalakuta Republic takes its title from a wing of the infamous Kiri Kiri prison in Lagos, Nigeria, where Abani and other political prisoners were incarcerated and tortured. Poems in the collection describe, in graphic detail, the horrors the writer witnessed there, particularly the various methods of torture used upon the inmates. Guards sodomized prisoners with rifle barrels, nailed them to tables by their genitals, and performed other ruthless types of torture—in one case a fourteen-year-old boy was so brutalized that he died. In his review for the New Statesman, Robert Winder commented that "the steady parade of torment he describes …, along with a sense of blank bewilderment in the face of such cruelty, is acutely drawn and held very tight." Tanure Ojaide, writing in World Literature Today, noted that Abani "portrays the experience in indelible lines that haunt the reader as well as himself." Ojaide added that the poet "succeeds in elevating art and humanity above the meanness and inhumanity of tyrannical leaders and their cohorts."

Abani's novels include Sirocco and GraceLand, the latter published in 2004 and focusing on a teenage boy named Elvis Oke. The novel is set in 1983, and Elvis is trying to survive in the destitute town of Moroko, a slum on the outskirts of Lagos. His mother, Beatrice, died of cancer when Elvis was a young boy, but the teen still clings to the woman's diary; the old-fashioned Nigerian recipes and bits of herbalism tucked in the pages of Beatrice's journal serve as chapter dividers in Abani's novel. In flashbacks, the reader glimpses fragments of Elvis's childhood and life in a rural Nigerian village. They also witness the devastating effect Beatrice's death had upon Elvis's father, Sunday, who turns to alcohol to cope. By Elvis's adolescence Sunday has finally found some solace in a relationship with a woman appropriately named Comfort—although she is nothing of the sort to Elvis. A high-school dropout, the teen now makes money performing as an Elvis Presley impersonator for Western tourists, despite the fact that he has few skills as a singer or dancer. According to John C. Hawley in a review of GraceLand for America, the teen's "hopeless impersonation of his namesake for white tourists is painful to imagine." Abani's story takes a turn when Elvis's friend Redemption convinces the boy that there is more money to be made in crime. Despite his initial moral qualms, Elvis is pulled into moneymaking ventures that grow successively more depraved as time passes. "GraceLand draws a searing picture of a country devouring its own children," Dinaw Mengestu commented in New Leader, adding that "what you learn about Nigeria [in Abani's novel] will make you want to weep." A Kirkus Reviews contributor interpreted the novel similarly, commenting that "Abani paints a compelling portrait of a society in frightening chaos." However, Charlie Dickinson, in an online review for the Hackwriters Web site, focused on the more positive side of Abani's tale, writing that the author "delivers what might be the ultimate tribute to the King, if the Elvis myth is really about a dirt-poor boy finally catching his dream and making good."

In the novella-length Becoming Abigail, Abani tells the story of a woman who is sent to London from Nigeria by her father because of her self-mutilation and other disturbing behaviors, which have been fueled by feelings of guilt based on the fact that her mother died while giving birth to her. In her weakened state, Abigail also suffers sexual abuse from her relatives, and when she arrives in London to stay with her cousin Peter, she soon finds that her humiliations have just begun. Abani was inspired by a news story he saw about a woman who had been forced into prostitution. He augmented his knowledge on the subject of sex-trafficking considerably before setting out to write Becoming Abigail. In an interview for Colorlines, he explained: "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." Writing in Essence, Janice K. Bryant cited the author's "moody lyrical prose." Kevin Greczek, reviewing Becoming Abigail for Library Journal, noted that Abani "offers a lyrical yet devastating account" and that his "abundant talent is clearly evident throughout." A Publishers Weekly contributor called the work of short fiction "a searing girl's coming-of-age novella."

In Abani's poetry collection, Hands Washing Water, he "explores place and humor, exile and freedom with poems of experience and imagination," commented Karla Huston, writing in Library Journal. The collection centers on a series of poems in the form of letters between two lovers during the American Civil War. Other poems center on music, and all involve a dedication to language and communication. Abani's works in this volume look carefully at "injustice and liberation from it," Huston concluded.

Abani's novel The Virgin of Flames is set in Los Angeles, where troubled and impoverished mural artist Black lives a difficult inner-city life. While wildfires rage in the hills around the city, Black works in a spaceship he has constructed on the roof of a combination coffee shop and tattoo parlor. His work in progress is a fifty-foot painting of the Virgin of Guadalupe. When Black dons a wedding dress and burgundy lipstick to act as his own model, reports of sightings of the virgin surge in the city and the faithful flock to the coffee shop in hopes of a glimpse. In other aspects of his life, Black takes his pleasure with a variety of female prostitutes, pursues an infatuation with a transsexual stripper, confesses his lack of ambition to a successful Rwandan businessman, pals around with a drug-addled dwarf, regularly receives the archangel Gabriel as a visitor, and struggles to retain an ever-weakening grip on his own sanity. Black also must deal with conflicted feelings toward his parents, who he discovers dressed him as a girl until age six in order to keep evil spirits from killing him, as they did all other males in his Igbo family. "Black hovers precariously on a kind of sexual abyss, unsure where he fits in," observed a Kirkus Reviews contributor, who concluded that the novel is a "bleak, searing and sad portrait of outcasts." In the book Abani "touches on the far reaches of psychic pain, religious and sexual, and creates a hallucinatory despair," stated a Publishers Weekly reviewer. "Abani's feverish portrait of a haunted artist embodies post-9/11 anxiety and the longing for peace," commented Donna Seaman in Booklist.

In Song for Night, a novella, Abani tells the story of a fifteen-year-old Igbo boy named My Luck, a child soldier in West Africa who works as a mine diffuser along with the other boys in his platoon, all of whom are approximately the same age. They travel through areas where the enemy has preceded them, and examine the ground for mines. Those they find they must diffuse. My Luck is mute, his vocal chords having been severed by soldiers when he was twelve so that he will not prove a distraction to the other diffusers if he sets off a mine and begins to scream. In an interview for NPR's News and Notes, Abani explained: "A lot of my work has, I think, has always been trying to give voice in a way to people who don't always have a chance to speak. So I felt, why not start with the conundrum where someone can tell the story directly but doesn't have a voice?" Abani heads each chapter with a description of gestures—a sort of make-shift sign language—that the teenaged soldiers have invented to communicate with one another. When a mine explodes in My Luck's face, he is left for dead and as a result becomes separated from his platoon. From there he experiences a profound journey, both physical and spiritual, as he seeks out his lost compatriots. My Luck is both a victim and a perpetrator of the war; he himself acknowledges that not everyone can be an innocent in the proceedings, or the war itself would never take place. While he yearns for his simple child's life from before he became a soldier and struggles to hold onto memories of more enduring pleasures that embrace life, he has also become mired in the death machine that is the war, developing a taste for rape and killing. Maud Casey, writing for the New York Times Book Review, observed: "The novella deftly frustrates any easy morality…. Abani attains a calibration as delicate as it is essential. As a result, Song for Night contains, at once, an extraordinary ferocity and a vulnerable beauty all its own." A reviewer for Publishers Weekly remarked that "Abani finds in his narrator a seed of hope amid the bleak, nihilistic terrain." Hazel Rochman, in a contribution for Booklist, noted that "the horror of what happens to this Igbo boy is intensified by his confusion and his tenderness."

Although Abani's writing is inextricably linked to suffering experienced under Nigeria's military dictatorship, the author once stated of literature: "The art is never about what you write about. The art is about how you write about what you write about. I was a writer before I was in prison." In an online interview with Southern California Poetix Web site contributor Carlye Archibeque, Abani further commented of his work: "The problem is we're looking for something that doesn't exist. We're looking for authenticity. There is no such thing as authenticity. There is either good art or bad art."

BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:

PERIODICALS

America, August 2, 2004, John C. Hawley, "Oke's Odyssey," p. 26.

Black Issues Book Review, May-June, 2005, Michael Datcher, "West Coast Kinfolk: In Los Angeles, Chris Abani and Kamau Daaood Stand out as Strong Limbs on the Family Tree of Literature," p. 34.

Booklist, November 15, 2003, Bill Ott, review of GraceLand, p. 570; December 15, 2006, Donna Seaman, review of The Virgin of Flames, p. 20; August, 2007, Hazel Rochman, review of Song for Night, p. 39.

Colorlines, November-December, 2006, Daisy Hernandez, "Chris Abani: The Acclaimed Nigerian Novelist and Poet Discusses His New Novel on Sex Trafficking, Representations in Literature, and Why Fiction Might Actually Matter," p. 6.

Entertainment Weekly, February 2, 2007, Whitney Pastorek, review of The Virgin of Flames, p. 128.

Esquire, March, 2004, review of GraceLand, p. 54.

Essence, May, 2006, Janice K. Bryant, review of Becoming Abigail, p. 85.

Kirkus Reviews, November 1, 2003, review of GraceLand, p. 1281; November 15, 2006, review of The Virgin of Flames, p. 1139.

Library Journal, January, 2004, Edward B. St. John, review of GraceLand, p. 151; February 1, 2006, Kevin Greczek, review of Becoming Abigail, p. 68; November 15, 2006, Karla Huston, review of Hands Washing Water, p. 74.

Los Angeles Magazine, January, 2007, Robert Ito, review of The Virgin of Flames, p. 76.

Mother Jones, March-April, 2004, Michelle Chihara, review of GraceLand, p. 86.

New Leader, January-February, 2004, Dinaw Mengestu, "At the End of Lonely Street," p. 27.

New Statesman, May 21, 2001, Robert Winder, review of Kalakuta Republic, p. 52.

New York Times Book Review, January 28, 2007, Karen Olsson, "The Recycled City," review of The Virgin of Flames, p. 8; September 16, 2007, Maud Casey, "Broken Boy Soldier," p. 14.

Philadelphia Inquirer, March 21, 2007, Dan DeLuca, "Chris Abani's Novel The Virgin of Flames and Collection of Poetry Hands Washing Water."

Publishers Weekly, November 17, 2003, review of GraceLand, p. 39; January 9, 2006, review of Becoming Abigail, p. 30; November 6, 2006, review of The Virgin of Flames, p. 37; June 25, 2007, review of Song for Night, p. 29.

World Literature Today, spring, 2001, Tanure Ojaide, review of Kalakuta Republic, p. 309.

ONLINE

Chris Abani Home Page,http://www.chrisabani.com (July 12, 2007).

Hackwriters,http://www.hackwriters.com/ (July 12, 2007), Charlie Dickinson, review of GraceLand.

Lavin Agency,http://www.thelavinagency.com/ (July 12, 2007), author biography.

New Zealand Electronic Poetry Centre Web site,http://www.nzepc.auckland.ac.nz/ (July 12, 2007), Author biography.

PEN American Center,http://www.pen.org/ (July 12, 2007), author biography.

PopMatters,http://www.popmatters.com/ (March 22, 2007), Dan DeLuca, review of The Virgin of Flames; Dan DeLuca, review of Hands Washing Water.

Prince Claus Fund for Culture and Development Web site,http://www.princeclausfund.nl/ (July 12, 2007), "Chris Abani."

Southern California Poetix,http://www.poetix.net/ (July 12, 2007), Carlye Archibeque, author interview.

Truthdig,http://www.truthdig.com/ (April 18, 2006), Zuade Kaufman, "Chris Abani: The Truthdig Interview."

OTHER

News and Notes (radio interview program), November 7, 2007, National Public Radio, author interview with Farai Chideya.