An award winning novelist, poet, essayist, screenwriter and playwright, Chris Abani has a mixed parentage of Igbo father and English mother. He holds a PhD in Literature and Creative Writing from the University of Southern California and is the recipient of the PEN USA Freedom-to-Write Award, the Prince Claus Award, a Lannan Literary Fellowship, a California Book Award, a Hurston/Wright Legacy Award, a PEN Beyond the Margins Award, the PEN Hemingway Book Prize and a Guggenheim Award. In 2005, he was a finalist, Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, Best Books (Africa Region) with GraceLand.
Abani’s works have been translated into French, Italian, Spanish, German, Swedish, Romanian, Hebrew, Macedonian, Ukrainian, Portuguese, Dutch, Bosnian and Serbian. His critical and personal essays have been featured in books on art and photography, as well as Witness, Parkett, The New York Times, O Magazine, and Bomb. He is Board of Trustees Professor of English at Northwestern University. He spoke to HENRY AKUBUIRO on his writings during a recent visit to Nigeria.
Your novel Secret, History of Las Vegas (2014), has been hailed as the great detective crime story. Where did the idea of the fiction derive from?
When I first went to the US, and I went to Las Vegas, the streets reminded me so much of Nigeria; and I told myself I was going to write about the place. The more I read about it, the more I thought the best thing to do was a crime story. And the rest fell into place after that.
So, why did it take you so long to write it since the idea came to you when you first went to the US more than 20 years ago?
Maybe other books came urgently. There were also books set in different countries. Becoming Abigail was set in London, and I did a book set in Los Angelis. I think it is more of how long it takes a particular book idea to feel comfortable in you to let it out.
Dave Edgars, the author of The Circle, describes you as “the most courageous writer writing now”. Where does the latitude come from?
(laughs) I don’t know if I am. What kind of writer goes about telling people he is courageous? I think what he is referring to is the fact that my books will always tackle things harder: issues of gender, sexuality, and race. Perhaps they are not always easy for readers. Perhaps that’s what he meant.
GraceLand (2004) was a major breakthrough for you as a writer. Set in Lagos, it mirrors life in Maroko and other places. Is Elvis a product of sheer imagination, or has the character portraiture any semblance?
Elvis is a dancer, a legend like Elvis Presley –an ajasco dancer in Nigeria to come outside. Yeah, I would say it is a mixture of imagination and facts.
Also, that was the first work of yours to earn you pillories for celebrating the negative side of Nigeria.
It’s nonsense. What are the negative things I wrote about Nigeria? Is there anything in Graceland that didn’t happen? It is a false accusation. Things Fall Apart does the same thing: it is a village life; Okonkwo hangs himself; he even accepts to kill his son. If Things Fall Apart is peddling negative images of Africa to the West, then, yes, I am doing the same. If Things Fall Apart is not, then I am not.
Writing on Africa from outside might pose a problem. Do you find yourself in similar constraint?
It is not difficult at all. How would it be difficult? Nigerian journalists cover foreign news; do they have to go there to cover the news? No, it is not difficult at all.
So, how connected or disconnected are you with the homeland?
I am not disconnected at all. There are people from Abeokuta, for instance, who live in Lagos, who have not been to Abeokuta since they were born. So, are they more connected to Abeokuta than me?
“In GraceLand, noted a reviewer, “truth can kill…” Do you agree?
Yes, I do.
To what extent?
It depends. Sometimes it may be too hard for you to handle and you may kill yourself. I don’t even know the context [he said that]; I didn’t read the review. Is he saying that the book is too truthful, and it can kill? I am not sure how he used the phrase.
You are one of the most linguistically accomplished writers in Nigeria. What’s your attitude to language?
The thing that defines us as Nigerians is language. Think about any indigenous language –Igbo, Yoruba or Hausa –there is no conversation that is straightforward or simple; it is always layered with proverbs, allusions, and philosophy. Even when I write in English, because I am from Nigeria, it has a kind of linguistic richness that all Nigerian languages have. Even, I would argue, pidgin is one of the linguistically mature languages in the world. Even when Nigerians invent something, they invent something with beauty and depth. So, I can’t claim the language; I am merely emulating my countrymen.
A Nigerian critic has disputed the information that you were hunted by the military junta before you relocated to the West. What’s your own side of the story?
I refuse to discuss it. Discuss it with him; you need to ask him that question.
Your debut offering was Masters on Board, a political thriller. What was the appeal?
I was 16, and I was interested in James Bond and his thrillers. As a young boy, I was fascinated by him. There is not much thinking behind it, and that is it.
But you no longer write political thrillers?
I would argue that every book I write is political. Somewhere [it] is thrilling. I don’t know if I don’t. Secret History of Las Vegas is a crime novel, which is a thriller. So, I still work in that area.
In the 1980s, you were also interested in anti-government plays. However, you have been muted on this for quite sometime. Are you on dramatic sabbaticals?
I don’t write plays anymore. I switched on to other things.
There must be a reason for that…
I think when you are younger, you try different kinds of writing. But when you begin to mature as a writer, you begin to narrow in to what you think you are best at.
The Virgin of Flames didn’t resonate as much as GraceLand in Africa. Does that come with some kind of disappointment?
It is a complicated work; it is about transgender people and homosexuals. These are not the kind of people Africans don’t want to talk about, and I am not surprised.
When you write, do you have a particular audience in mind, like Africans or foreigners?
I write for myself.
If you write for yourself, then why bother to publish?
Because I am hoping that there are people like me out there. I don’t change my works for others. If I do, my works would be easier for others. It is easier to be popular if your works are not controversial. Truly, I don’t write for any particular audience –I just write the stories am interested in reading.
But the argument that Diasporic writings are often derogatory has continued to gain currency…
It is completely untrue.
Song for Night strikes one as a heuristic title…
I think there is a chapter in that book that answers that question.
You have attended book festivals all over the world, including Ake, where we are chatting right now. What’s the implication for Africa?
Ake Festival is amazing. First of all, in West Africa, it is only one of its kind. It brings foreign writers from all over the world, not only that but indigenous writers living on the continent. And it is amazing panels and amazing conversations celebrating literature. It is run beautifully, and the organizers have done a god job of it. It is comparable to any festival in the world.
Between poetry and prose, which of the genre are more at home with?
I think the novel. Poetry is much harder for me.
That sounds strange, because many writers who write both often say poetry is much easier and faster to write, because it doesn’t have rigorous conventions like the novel?
Good poetry is not a matter of size. Actually, if you want to come out with a good poem, it could be only two sentences –and it is very hard. It is not about the length.
Which of your novels have you find yourselves reading over and over?
(laughs) That’s the kind of vanity that I don’t have. I don’t read my works over and over. Instead, I read other people’s works. But, for me, my favourite book is the one that I am writing at a time, not the ones I have done in the past.
What are you working on now?
I am working on a novel set in northern Nigeria. I am not sure what it is right now. But we will see.
I guess it should be on Boko Haram.
I don’t think it so, but it could be.
As a writer based abroad, and seeing and reading all sorts of unflattering things about Nigeria. How comfortable are you being a Nigerian in the West?
I am very comfortable being a Nigerian. There are as many negative stereotypes about being a Nigerian abroad as there are in Nigeria. There also images of Nigeria abroad that are not lies –they may be uncomfortable; you may not like them, but they are not stereotypes. A stereotype is something that is not true. But, also, I don’t feel like am a criminal or a bad person; so it doesn’t affect me. I am very proud to be a Nigerian. I have never denied my Nigerian heritage, and I will continue to be a Nigerian.
What do you miss about home?
Pounded yam. It is not the pounded yam in the house; it is a particular buka in CMS in Lagos. Chineke! I miss street food in Nigeria. Nobody can prepare pounded yam like people in Obalande or jollof rice under Ojuelegba flyover. It was fun in those days. I really miss the food. You can get the food abroad, but it is not going to be the same thing –not the same taste.
What keeps going as a writer?
I am a bit lucky that I have a job doing as a teacher, and so the teaching pays my bills, and I am able to write. But, also, I am part of a long tradition of Nigerian writers. The space that those who came before you made for you keeps you writing.
Do you have any writing regimen?
I am lazy. So, I cannot go with the flow.
You can’t be lazy when you are one of the most prolific writers of your generation…
Imagine how more prolific I would have been if I wasn’t lazy. I have a book am working on, but I have been thinking about it for a whole year, and I started writing a little bit this year. So, it may take me another year before I finish it. I give things time to breath inside me before I embark on it. I am much more disorganised. I am not like that writer who writes everyday. I wish I was like that.
But you have published more than 10 books. Where, then, does the energy come from?
I don’t know. As a person, I am infinitely curious. So, my books are exploring things that I am interested in. I think it is kind of curiosity idea.
Do you have writing rituals you embark on before you put pen to paper? There are those who take coffee, drink alcohol or even keep a woman beside them to trigger inspiration. What’s yours?
I take lots and lots of coffee and an American equivalent of the popular Nigerian sweet called goodie-goodie. Once I have these, I am good to go.