Chris Abani: The Acclaimed Nigerian Novelist and Poet Discusses His New Novel on Sex Trafficking, Representations in Literature and Why Fiction Might Actually Matter
Hernandez, Daisy, Colorlines Magazine
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. …