Interviewed by Indu Iyer
Chris Abani is an acclaimed author whose most recent novel is The Secret History of Las Vegas. He is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, the PEN/Hemingway Award, the PEN Beyond the Margins Award, the Hurston Wright Award, and a Lannan Literary Fellowship, among many honours. Born in Nigeria, he is currently a Board of Trustees Professor of English at Northwestern University. He lives in Chicago. More at: http://www.chrisabani.com
My desire to connect with Abani comes from the potency and immensity with which his words have given me, and no doubt countless others, great inspiration to move forward in difficult times. We corresponded via email.
How did your journey as a writer begin, and what have been your most pivotal moments in this field?
I began writing very young. I published my first short story at ten and my first novel at 16. I can’t remember not being a writer. I would say that the most pivotal moment was publishing my first novel so young. It set me on the path that has become my life.
Are there any common misconceptions which you find budding writers often have about writing which hinders their progress?
I think budding writers think there is such a thing as talent, or that it matters. Writing is about skill, and skill is honed from practice and from humbling yourself before the work, from study and from writing bad sentences over and over and over until they work. It is not about talent. Just like in every art, talent is the least important part – the world is full of talented people. All that matters is staying power.
Your main genres are poetry and fiction. How do you know when which creative impulse belongs to what? Is that obvious for you, or does it take figuring out?
I write poetry, fiction, screenplays, essays and even music. For me, after years of study and exploring my own process, it has become an intuitive thing. Just like a good tailor knows what material would work best for what outfit, you come to understand the material and know what would sustain a long narrative and what needs to breath in the lyric poem. Time, study and experience.
In your exquisite TED Talk, “Chris Abani Muses on Humanity,” you said that you seek to create stories “that are never sentimental, that never look away from the darkest things about us.” This resonates with the kind of work I want to create. Why do you think some of us gravitate towards this when many don’t; why do only some dive into the dark? Not to say it’s better or worse, but notable nonetheless.
In Igbo thought there is no good or bad, just the two sides necessary for balance. So there is no need to understand or even wonder why people gravitate to things that are different from us because someone has to otherwise it will be a pretty ugly world. I focus on the things that interest me about human nature and try to find better ways to explore them. But darkness means nothing without light and vice versa. Harlequin romance novels are as necessary as Dostoyevsky. I don’t know if it’s notable beyond that. When I dig into the unsentimental it is not pornographic or one dimensional – the difference between the grotesque and the gross is that the previous transforms us and the latter titillates us. It’s always about balance.
What role has writing played in coping with, and healing from, the violence you have both witnessed and personally endured in your own life?
I think a deep spiritual practice and therapy are the right paths for healing and coping with difficulty. I think writing is a craft that helps us create interventions in the world. These things exist for very different reasons, and while one can be part of the other, they must not be romanticized nor can people’s pain or suffering be “processed” through art in these ways. Art can and does witness but it is dangerous to assume more. A book will not stop the bombing in Gaza nor change the fact that doctors, aid workers and concerned citizens are what are needed – not poems. Art comes later. Everything in balance, everything in perspective.
I have a friend from Lagos who told me “I didn’t know I was black until I moved to Calgary.” What has been your experience being African outside of Africa, notably in America?
The first problem is the term African. There are no Africans, only specific ethnic and religious nationalities. The entire history of what we call Nigeria has been the struggle to free us from colonialism, and the colonists were white, so what would that have made us? Even the term Lagos is a Portuguese word for what is really known as Eko. A disturbing number of Nigerian women bleach their skin to be lighter and closer to whiteness. We have been dealing with whiteness and blackness for a long time. If your friend means “I lost privilege when I moved to Calgary” then that is more believable, which should open self-exploration about privilege in Nigeria and what that meant for 80 percent of the country that don’t have it. This is the space that my novels are often situated and I say this because I had and still have a lot of privilege and so the struggle to define my humanity against this is more interesting, and I would argue more enlightening, than concerning myself with what the West thinks. If they meant that America seems more obsessed with race and are shocked at the cost of that, then they are right. But the question is also, how is that different from a country like Nigeria that is obsessed with ethnicity and religion and the damage that causes? These kinds of singular ways of looking at things trap us in conversations that are not useful, though often, they are not ones we have started but simply wandered into.
You have taught at VONA, a writing workshop solely for writers of colour. There is always a lot of criticism when any marginalized group creates spaces for our own. Why do you feel these spaces are necessary?
If we lived in a world with an equal playing field then there would be no need for these spaces. I think we all know that mixed groups tend to defer to the dominant opinion even when that dominant opinion may be occupied by only one body, and so balance is needed for specific safeties and trusts to be in place. A room of LGBTQ writers can be thrown off and out of balance by the presence of one straight or straight committed or homophobic opinion. I think that in a group of all white students, students from lower socio-economic strata can also be intimidated or shut down. With all the privilege that privileged groups have, it is sad that they would care about a small space for others, but then, that is the nature of privilege.
I have this fantasy where you and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie are BFF’s, hanging out and chuckling over your great literary successes. It’s pretty great. Of course, I jest, but what does the presence of more African voices on the world stage mean to you? Alongside you and Ms. Adichie, actors Uzo Aduba and Chiwetel Ejiofor are of Nigerian descent, and Oscar-winner Lupita Nyong’o, raised in Kenya, has reached great acclaim as well. How is this different than the world you grew up in? Although, what is often considered the “world” stage is largely just the western stage, so that’s a problem right there.
There is an old Igbo proverb that says, whenever you wake up it is morning for you. I say this because Nigerians have always been present on the world stage in these ways. Achebe, Soyinka and others were here first and some still are. We are only a chain in a long lineage of success and light. I grew up in a very cosmopolitan Nigeria. It looked very much like the rest of the world. My novel Graceland I think makes that point for me. So I don’t know that it is different or was. The point is that class and privilege, which I wield with concern and a deep struggle, operate the same all over the world. And for the record, Chimamanda is my BFF and someone I respect very much, and Chiwetel has been kind to me on the few occasions we have met. The biggest and most welcome change is that the first vanguard was led by men and was very patriarchal, and now the voices are mostly women and in some ways more complex, which is how it should be.
What do you see as being the role of the artist in society?
I don’t know that artists have roles in culture different from civilians. I think artists make art that attempts to struggle with the questions of being human, which is essentially what people do by living their lives. There is nothing special about artists any more than there is something special about bakers. In fact, bakers bake tasty treats, and may be more useful than artists.
Indu Iyer is a benighted soul, traversing between the realms of acting and writing. Taking a hiatus from the demands of the theatre, she is currently completing her BFA in Creative Writing at UBC. Her writing largely gravitates around her experiences with psychiatric disturbances, and male violence against women. Outside of performing, writing, and activism, her other passions include Louis C.K, dogs, and her mom’s cooking.