Chris Abani visited Norman, OK as a juror for the 2008 Neustadt International Prize for Literature. He nominated Ngugi wa Thiong’o to win the award, though he was eventually happy to vote for winner Patricia Grace. The interview took place on a warm evening in late September, after a meal of Indian food at a local Norman house. Abani was a gracious interviewee, filling the patio with his laughter.
Laura Brink Do you consider your audience when you write?
Chris Abani I write as though I’m writing for myself. I’m not smarter than the average person. So most people that read my work kind of get it or don’t get it. But I never take readership into account, at all, in that way. And beautiful things happen. In the Dominican Republic, which is where my first books of poetry were published, which were about my time as a prisoner, someone took a copy to Cuba. And in Cuba there are not a lot of books so they pass [them] around [and] every person that reads it signs it. And so somebody went to Santiago and saw someone reading the book and said, “Can I see it?” and saw 200 signatures in the book, in the margins. So they took photographs of that. And that for me is so much more powerful than anything you could attempt to do. And it’s been the same with the books I read growing up, you know. Baldwin, James Baldwin’s book just blew my mind as a twelve year old. He didn’t know who I was, you know, so that’s the beautiful thing about it.
Sarah Shook I know in Graceland a man is giving a speech and he says that the novel shapes the author. And I guess I never thought of it that way, I always thought of it the opposite way. So which one of your novels or poems has shaped you the most?
CA (Chuckles) Every one that I write at that particular time. They all shape me. I— I don’t know. I think that there’s so many layers, or maybe I’m just a really messed up human being that I have so many layers I have to sort through! But I think each book addresses something very different in me. And I think cumulatively they’ve changed me. I can see that Daphne’s Lot, which is a book about my mother, sort of changed my relationship to women significantly. And that sort of filters through Abigail and other works. Graceland changed my relationship to my father and that filters through The Virgin of Flames. So they all kind of have these strands running through them. But whatever book I’m working on at any particular point in time, that’s the one that shapes me the most. Just like everything else brings you to that place—you’re always shaping yourself.
LB What do you think—this is a very general question—but, what are your thoughts on translation of literature? Are your works translated? How do you feel about that?
CA I think it’s absolutely incredible! I mean a lot of my work is in Italian, Romanian, Hebrew, Spanish… What else is it in? Croatian, German. I’ve lost count, at least ten or twelve languages. And there is nothing more amazing than receiving the book in—oh, French as well—but you see the book in the mail, and you open it and you don’t understand any of it, and it’s incredible. And The Virgin of Flames just came out in Italy and I was doing a book tour there. And you go and you read a bit in English and then the Italians read in Italian. And the section I read in English, when I heard them reading it in Italian, I was like, “Wow, damn! That sounds better than mine does!” And so I think that translation is sort of an amazing thing. You know there’s not just translation in terms of language, but in terms of cultural context, in terms of even age. It’s interesting, in almost all my books the protagonists are teenagers—except for I think The Virgin of Flames where he’s in his thirties—but everyone else is at that point where they’re just sort of becoming. Like Graceland somehow has caught on in American colleges, so there are all these young people who completely identify with this fictional Nigerian kid in this way that completely humbles me, you know what I mean? It’s a remarkable thing. I wish though… In America, there isn’t a lot of translation from other countries into English. I don’t know why that is, but that, I think, is a real loss for American readers. ‘Cause you know, it’s not even about learning about other cultures, as much as what you learn about yourself from encountering other literature, that’s really important. And you know, it helps recover languages that often are lost. I can’t do it though. I tried several times. I end up changing it, so that it becomes mine. Instead of like translating what’s there, I start going, “Oh, wouldn’t it be better if we did this?” Then I end up with a book that’s got nothing to do with the book that I translated.
LB Do you ever fear that some of the power or passion of what you’re saying is lost in translation?
CA I hope so. I sincerely hope so. I think misunderstanding is a wonderful way to read the world. (Chuckles) When you think about it, some of the most memorable moments of your life are from when you misunderstand someone. You know, someone says to you “Oh, pass me the sugar” and you say “Oh, I love you too!” and they’re like, “Uh, no. I said pass me the sugar.” But yeah, I think misunderstandings are brilliant, and I don’t believe in the absolute sacredness of the text. I like the idea that you can imagine something and conceive it in one language and that in moving into another language it changes. There is a very essential core that I think never changes, but I love the idea that it can become something different, it can become something new. That would be amazing, I never thought about that. Wouldn’t it be great if they translated Graceland and he wasn’t an Elvis impersonator, but a clown in a circus? That would be (Laughs), that would be completely… Yeah, I love the idea of misunderstanding as a new way of reading things. And I think that we live, particularly in America, because of all the ways in which class is fraught and race is fraught, so that not enough misunderstandings happen, so not enough conversations happen across class or gender or race. ‘Cause everyone’s become so afraid to say the wrong thing, to commit the faux pas. But it’s like, faux pas is really the way we get to talk to each other. Even within one race or one gender, usually what brings people together are moments of, you know, those kinds of things. So, yeah, I never worry about that.
SS How was it for you growing up? I know you spent your childhood in Nigeria, but your mother is British and your father is Nigerian. Did you make many faux pas?
CA Yeah, I mean, it’s a privilege to be bicultural, biracial, and bilingual from childhood. It means I can completely understand what it means to be Igbo, and I can say it in English. Whereas, if you only had one language growing up, and you had to learn another one, you have all these other levels of translation to work through. But you know I grew up in the seventies in Nigeria, with American popular culture. All the shows you were watching here, we were watching there on television. It’s funny when I come over here and I’m talking to American friends, they’re like, “How do you know about that?” Dude, I was watching that stuff growing up, and the Brady Bunch and all that. There’s that and all the music. So I grew up in a fairly multicultural society. I had Indian teachers in high school, and even in primary school, I remember, everyone was about eight. That part of town had an Indian teacher teaching them English, and so they would go around (imitates an Indian accent) talking like that all the time, not because they were mimicking the teacher, but that’s how they had been taught English. But in America I think it’s definitely that there is a hierarchy of value placed on things that, growing up the way I did, there wasn’t a value placed on. So it just seemed very natural. Being biracial, you know—unfortunately the legacy of colonialism means that of course, if you have whiteness, the more people revere you. Which was great for me growing up, because there is a lot of privilege with that. But it meant that there was also disconnect with the heart of the culture. I grew up in mostly rural areas, so I mean, I’d be out hunting squirrels with my slingshots, and at four my mum would ring the tea bell and I’d have to come sit on the veranda with her, sipping tea and eating cucumber sandwiches and listening to “Chattanooga Choo Choo.” And my friends are sitting there with dead squirrels going, “Oh, drinking tea!” So it’s a beautiful thing. It gives you a really bifurcated way of looking at things. So there’s never one way to look at anything. So you’re both inside and outside. And, you know, it wasn’t really ‘til I moved to the West that the whole thing of your mother being white became such a big issue.
SS So you never really thought of it before then?
CA Well, I thought of it. But you see, in a country [where] everyone is the same race, class is more important. Money is more important. Education is more important. It’s only when you come here, where things are so divided racially that you realize half of what it is. And so my relationship to whiteness is very different than if I didn’t have a white parent. And, you know, people get uncomfortable with that. “You have to many white friends, dude!” Never thought of it that way, but okay… So it’s a different but wonderful thing to be able to switch between those two. So to have grown up with American popular culture with an English mother—who is so English—in a sort of Igbo context, is rich material for novels. I loved it.
SS How did your first novel come about? You were really young when you wrote it.
CA Yeah, I was fifteen when I wrote it. It got published when I was sixteen. I don’t know, I’m one of those annoying people who have always wanted to write. I published my first short story at ten. I just decided I was going to write a novel, and I just started writing this novel. But you know I was reading a lot of thrillers at the time, a lot of comic books. It was a bizarre thriller about Neo-Nazis taking over Nigeria to reinstate the Fourth Reich, which had nothing to do with the government, but was perceived as a threat by the government. It was one of those weird ways that misunderstanding can be a bad thing, too! But I mean, you know, it’s like growing up as an Igbo in post-civil war Nigeria, where my people—my father’s people—had been the victims of a war and of genocide, but it was not allowed to be taught in history in school. So I had a Pakistani, Muslim teacher who would teach us about Igbo through the Jewish holocaust. So my first novel is saturated with the Nazis and the Jews’ Holocaust as a way to understand my own cultural melancholy, to give [it] a context. That’s why I’m saying that stories are powerful and they can’t be contained by translations or context or place. People respond to things the way they will. And that’s wonderful. That’s how I came about it. [I was] a precocious, annoying little boy who said he wanted to write a book and did.
SS I read in one interview that you weren’t very proud of your first novel. Is that true?
CA Well, you know it’s a genre book. It’s been compared to Frederick Forsyth and Robert Ludlum. Now I’m trying to do more high-brow literature, so in that sense. But you know, I hadn’t read it in a long time. My mother just passed away and I didn’t have a copy, and I found she had a copy in her stuff. I just reread it and I was like, “Not so bad.” It’s not so bad. It’s a good book, a good book for the genre it’s in, but it’s not really high literature.
LB I have questions that are specific to Becoming Abigail. What kind of research, if any, did you have to do to write it? Do you do research for your books?
CA I researched the sexual trafficking, but the rest of it I guess I just imagined what it would feel like to be her. The thing I never do is that I never judge any of my characters; I have no judgments about them. And so I don’t treat them as subjects. I completely enter into my characters’ consciousness and write from the inside of the character out. I don’t know any other way to write. Which can make my work startling and disturbing sometimes, because it can be very graphic, the feeling that it cuts to the bone. That’s the only way I know how to do it. And I think that that refusal to make a judgment [means] you’ll always be trying to discover yourself and your own humanity through your characters. It minimizes the research you have to do. And since all my work is largely character and idea driven, I already know the ideas, I just have to get to them and try on the characters for a while. A lot of my work features drag and people cross-dressing because I think that’s kind of what we are as people. We cross-dress all the time. Girls in relationships are trying to figure out how boys think. Boys are trying to figure out—it’s all cross-dressing. And so there is a more fluid identity that shifts back and forth without necessarily having outward changes of it. That’s kind of how I approach the book. The new book that just came out this month [Song for Night] is about a boy soldier who has no voice, his vocal cords are cut. But he tells you the story directly in the first person. So the question then is how to resolve those kinds of things. In all of my work, there’s always an obstruction that has to be manipulated. Abigail has to become Abigail in the shadow of her dead mother, by writing her history on her own body. Her body is being claimed by other people. There are all these obstructions that are happening at a very almost archetypal level, but, at the same time, I hate books that I have to struggle to read. I would like people to be able to read this book and leave it on an airport seat. Buy it in an airport, read it while you’re waiting for your plane for an hour, and kinda go, “That was a cool book,” then just walk away from it. But someone can read it and go, “Oh, this is about the whole postcolonial context of Nigeria.” I like it to have all those layers, you know? And I’m not precious about what layers people come to. So I don’t overlabor the research. I just try to write a human story.
LB I read Becoming Abigail in about an hour, I want to say, an hour and a half. And it was such an urgent read, I just kept reading and kept reading. Did you write it with that same urgency?
CA It came out, like I said, over a period of three or four weeks. I was on a residency in Texas, in a small town on top of a plateau in the middle of nowhere, like 500 people in the whole town. I didn’t know anyone. I was locked in my apartment that I had, going crazy, just writing, night after night. The only way I would mark the hours was the train going by, the whistle of the train. There was that urgency to it. But also because the material was really difficult and dense and touches on some really deep issues, I wanted the readers to sort of be able to go in and come out and then decide whether to go back in for a second read. And you know, people would come out of it thinking, “Oh my God. Thank you Chris Abani, you just fucked up my whole day.” So, yeah, the pacing is very important. I like books that the pages turn. Maybe I learned that when I used to write thrillers.
LB What other authors do you read? Do you have any favorites that you return to? Or inspirations for writing?
CA Yeah, I don’t go back to them for inspiration. I mean I reread. But I read everything though; I’m that guy. I read graphic novels. I read comic books, watch lots of movies. Bad movies, good movies, six hours of television a day. I watch all of the reality stuff on top of that. You know, Toni Morrison is someone I read and reread again. Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Peter Horner, Cormack McCarthy, Percival Everett… Nadine Gordimer, Wole Soyinka. I mean, the list goes on. But I think that the things that were most formative to me as a storyteller didn’t happen as I was going through college, it happened when I was growing up, as a child. I read Crime and Punishment when I was about ten. And Raskolnikov was a character that somehow my mind merged with the Silver Surfer from the comic books. And both of them are these characters that are completely powerful but powerless, always moving through their terrain carrying this existential melancholy and disruption and displacement. And every character I [have written] since then carries all that stuff with them. You know, it’s not only the books that have won the Nobel Prize that are important but the comic books you read growing up, the magazines you read. They’re all important because they all shape your aesthetic at some level. I kinda don’t like the idea that we can only talk about highfalutin’ stuff. Like I tell my students all the time, you have to read US Magazine, you gotta know what Britney Spears is doing. I mean, how are you going to write about your cultural moment if you don’t live in your cultural moment? You know, like what music you’re listening to and why you’re listening to it, why you don’t like it or why you like it, not just downloading it because it’s sort of sad, kind of sounded cool. So I’m all for nerds, nerdism in popular culture. And lots of swearing. Irreverence is important. So yeah, I don’t return and reread the magazines, but I certainly reread the comic books from my childhood. Those are written by grown men trying to work out their own issues through people in costumes. Have you ever thought about Batman and Robin? Isn’t that like a pedophilic relationship to you? Think about it! A boy in pantyhose with an older dude, and they live alone in a cave? C’mon! He wears black… C’mon, there’s something going on there, that’s all I’m saying!
LB Hold on—I’m taking notes on this!
CA (Laughs) “Chris Abani says Batman is a pedophile.”
SS Yesterday, David [Shook] asked you who your favorite poet of all time was. Who did you say?
CA: I said Rilke, Rainer Rilke. He was a German poet in the 19th century. Particularly the one book—I mean a lot of his stuff—but one book he wrote that’s called The Duino Elegies completely influenced my aesthetic a lot. How I think about the world even, how I think about poetry and writing. It’s very much that whole, you know, Dostoevsky, Silver Surfer… There are ten elegies and they’re all about these terrifying angels that are sort of our better nature but they destroy us. I grew up very Catholic. I was in the seminary to be a priest before I got kicked out. And if you grew up Catholic, you know, angels are terrifying beings. And when you think about crucifying Jesus on the cross, I mean, what’s that about? It’s all S&M. It’s sort of very interesting to me, all of that stuff. You know, like Flannery O’Connor said, “You’re never not Catholic, you’re always trying not to be Catholic.” (Chuckles) And Rilke was very Catholic. I love it because of the symbolism and the ritual, the mythology, the theology, the attempt to displace God. You know, it’s like you have to become Lucifer; you bring light by displacing the light that’s before you. And that just startles and amazes me. It was written in the 19th century, early 20th century, and his work just… He reminds me of… You know who he reminds me of? Bob Marley.
CA Oh my God. Do you like Bob Marley? Do you listen to Bob?
CA You gotta listen to Bob, mon. Everything you need to know about poetry, Bob Marley has it. But it’s like the way that Bob Marley would record a song in the seventies, and you hear it now, and it sounds like it could have been recorded last week. There’s a freshness to him, like his aesthetic is not fixed in time, like its something that’s beyond even what he is trying to make. And you know, he had a rough time, for instance, Marley… I’m going off on a tangent…
SS It’s okay!
CA He was trying to make it and make a living. I remember one interview someone had said to him, you know, “Don’t you want to be as popular as Barry White? Why don’t you make something more commercial?” And he said, “Different people like my music than like Barry White’s music, but I’ll tell you one thing: I’ve never seen anyone wearing a Barry White t-shirt.” (Laughs) So that kind of has become, in a way, my aesthetic in way. Rather than trying to make popular, easy stuff, I’d rather make stuff that hopefully one day people will be wearing a t-shirt about. But Rilke was the poet. Isn’t that crazy that you can talk about like a 19th century poet and a 20th century reggae musician all in one… This is the thing that’s beautiful about art. It doesn’t believe in boundaries or time or space or country or race. If there’s any redemption for the human race, it’s all through art. It’s the language, it’s the dialogue…
LB You’re a musician, too, aren’t you?
CA Of sorts.
LB Of sorts?
CA I play the saxophone; I taught myself. And now I’m trying to teach myself the piano. Sometimes I perform with other musicians when I do readings. I did a reading in Oakland, in Mills College, with an amazing bass player called Nick Rosen and a viola player called Miguel Atwood Ferguson. Halfway through the reading I just stopped. I saw a piano there, and I stopped reading and I went down, sat at the piano and started playing along with them. And I’d never played a piano before. Then I got up and went back and started reading. Later when we played back the tape, it was like, “What the hell happened to you?” So that really intrigued me. Then of course, the moment you try to learn it, you can’t play anymore. Music is very integral to the writing for me. I can’t imagine life without music; it doesn’t make sense. There’s always a soundtrack in my head. And I’m always the guy who wishes that—like in Barnes &
Noble, if someone is breaking up with you—I think it would be perfect if music was playing in the background. (Chuckles) So I’m always trying to soundtrack the moments of my life.
LB How about visual arts? Have you ever experimented with drawing or painting?
CA I paint.
LB You do paint?
CA But I haven’t shown anyone what I’ve done. In fact, usually when I finish something I burn it.
CA Yeah, I burn the canvas. I’m afraid it will get out.
LB ‘Cause it’s too personal?
CA It’s crap. It’s shite. I think it is anyway. It’s so hard to be good at one thing. You spend your whole life trying to become a good writer… I don’t know if you can be good at everything. Joy [Harjo, at the table] is good at everything, but I’m not.
SS Do you have a preference for writing poetry or fiction? Or does it just depend on the day?
CA It depends on the book. Like I said, I get an idea, and as I develop it, the form will come from that. Poetry is so hard for me to write. Oh my God. Poetry is like, it’s like pop music. It’s so just everywhere. And to be able to write something that is meaningful and has resonance that is beyond just the moment is so difficult. You know, because it’s the one genre of writing where language is the subject. Poets are very harsh with each other, so you really have to bring your game up. It’s harder. Fiction you can get away with playing with rules and convention, you can pad a little bit, although not with things like Abigail, not with the novellas. But with the chunkier novels. In fact, you have to. You have to explain things a little bit. In poetry every word has to exist for its own sake and that’s not only scary, but very difficult. But, you know, each one I do is really beautiful for me. The only time I’m truly joyful is when I’m writing, no matter how difficult the process is. I guess that’s why I’ve been writing a lot of books, you know? To stay happy.
SS Do you have a favorite one that you’ve written? Or a favorite poem?
CA Well, for different reasons. I mean, Daphne’s Lot was a favorite. It’s like a gift to my mom. My mother taught me to read when I was three. She typed all my manuscripts. My mother gave me this gift and so to be able to write about her in this way where it was an epic about a woman—it’s set against all the conventions—but it’s about love. To write about your mother as a woman, and for her to see that and know that you see her not just as your mum but as a woman, that [is] real emotional… But the new book of poems I’m working on now is my favorite. Every new book is always my favorite. It’s like a child—“Oh! Forget that one, she’s four! Look at the baby!” (Chuckles) “Isn’t the baby cute?” So that’s how it is with the writing.
LB Abigail is so haunting and so much of her life is so miserable. How and why did you write it so beautifully?
CA Well, I don’t know that her life was miserable. I know that her life was difficult.
LB Well, moments, sort of…
CA Well yeah, but that’s the thing about life, it’s always difficult. And I’m very, I’m very against the idea of this hierarchy of pain—that some people’s lives are harder than others. I think everyone’s life is hard. You can handle it the best way you can. So someone loses their leg in a mine explosion, so you only had a heartbreak. You know what I mean? It’s as hard for you as it is for them. You don’t know what you would do in their situation, so I try to get away from that. So when I write—this is the thing for me, it’s that pain and pleasure coexist. Beauty and ugliness coexist. And a thing can’t be beautiful if there is nothing to mirror it, and a thing can’t be ugly if there is nothing beautiful to mirror it. So they are both integral parts. I think that when we live in America, we are always encouraged to deny the ugly and always affirm the beautiful, because somehow we have to pretend that away. And that’s not wholesome. But, I mean, everything you’ve ever learned about yourself happened in an ugly moment. It never happened with cookies and cream, right? Except when you’re talking about a traumatic experience, you know what I mean? And so that is why the book is like that, it’s a love song. It’s a love song to this young woman and it has to be beautiful. Her life was beautiful and it meant something. And the fact that she was able to make something out of it, and… even the end is, well I don’t want to give it away for those who haven’t read it, but the end was not an act of cowardice, that was a complete act of love. Part of my work is to challenge the things that we think are beautiful or the things we think are love or courage. So the moments may not be beautiful, but the language has to be, because language is what makes us human. It’s what separates us from the things that cannot speak. And when you speak… the world we live in is made from speaking; it doesn’t exist and then speaking identifies it. So that’s why they are interwoven for me in that way. I hope that answered the question.
SS Thank you very much.
2008, first published in WLT2, ed. by Armando Celayo & Jessica Walker
Sarah Shook is a teacher for Teach for America in a bilingual classroom in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Laura Brink went to the University of Oklahoma.