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Way Out of Africa

Chris Abani endured years of torture and persecution by the Nigerian government. But don’t hold it against him.

by Charles Mudede
Readers in the West have been taught to understand African writers in one way: Africans as heroes. And heroes can do only one thing: overcome enormous obstacles. This kind of reading is understandable when one considers the terrible state of things in black Africa—unremitting poverty, constant war, corruption, nepotism and tribalism in private and public sectors, AIDS, environmental catastrophes, and the most naked forms of capitalism imaginable. It’s tempting to see anyone who writes a poem under such extreme conditions as a hero. But despite the political persecution that poet and novelist Chris Abani suffered in Nigeria during the ’80s, he is not a hero, and the subjects in his books should not be read as heroes. They are humans. In fact, in some cases—as with the main character, Elvis, in his sprawling novel Graceland—the subject is arguably posthuman.

Chris Abani was born in 1966 to an English mother and a Nigerian father. They’d met at Oxford as students, married, and moved to Nigeria to raise their children. At the age of 16, Abani published his first novel, a thriller called Masters of the Board. At the age of 18, the content of that book got him in big trouble with the government, which believed the thriller’s plot (the fictional takeover of Nigeria by neo-Nazis) to be the blueprint for a real coup attempt by General Mamman Vasta. Abani was arrested and imprisoned for six months. Soon after his release, he was arrested a second time for participating in antigovernment guerrilla theater and was sent to Kiri Kiri maximum security prison.

Very few misfortunes in life can be worse than winding up in Kiri Kiri, which is known for blurring the line between political prisoners, criminal prisoners, and homeless prisoners. During his one-year stay, Abani was routinely tortured, confined in cells not fit for any kind of animal, and surrounded by the smell and threat of death.

The ever-changing government of Nigeria takes its artists very seriously. The great Fela Kuti, for example, made music while always under the pressure of those in power, a fact he described in songs such as “Army Arrangement” and “Sorrow, Tears, and Blood” (“Everyone a scatter, scatter / everyone a run, run. . . . / [the police] bring sorrow, tears and blood / it’s their regular trademark!”). No plea on earth could stop the Nigerian government from murdering Ken Saro-Wiwa, a well-to-do poet and novelist (his sons attended Eton College in England). And winning the Nobel Prize did not immunize the playwright Wole Soyinka from persecution. In the context of Nigeria, Abani’s troubles were by no means exceptional.

In 1991, Abani was put on death row for his anticorruption play “Song of a Broken Flute.” But unlike Saro-Wiwa, Abani was released in the wake of international pressure (and, probably, bribes). He relocated to the United Kingdom where, during the 1990s, he developed his craft with support from London’s black arts scene. In 1999 he abruptly moved to the United States for, to use his own words, “political and personal reasons,” and eventually entered the USC doctorate program in creative writing and literature. Abani presently lives in Los Angeles, learning, teaching, and practicing the art of the English language.

“I do believe strongly in craft,” writes Abani in an email sent to me from his Blackberry. (I have no idea which part of the world he was in at that time—South Africa? the United Kingdom? Mexico?) “I think that as in any art form, the way in which the work is made should be given equal if not more consideration than the content. I think that when we make art, we should make a luminous art, not one that is disposable.”

“I do not believe in easy answers to difficult questions on say identity or politics or race or gender,” he writes in another email, “and I certainly don't believe in the role of the poet as polemic educator. I do however believe in an engaged literature, one that takes into account the role of the writer as compassionate human being in the world.”

The content of his first major work of poetry, Kalakuta Republic, involves his imprisonment in Kiri Kiri. The artist is beaten, threatened at gunpoint, and confined to cells that are tiny and lightless; and yet he survives this ordeal and continues to do precisely what got him in trouble in the first place: write poetry. From a poem called “Jacob’s Ladder”
Release, alive, from Kiri Kiri
is rare.

They hand you what is left of
your personal belongings

in a polythene bag. Everything
they did not want.

You step out and stand in the
sun thawing like a side of beef

from a freezer. Yet you are afraid
to proceed more than a few

steps from the gate. Convinced you
will be shot in the back.
One blogger’s response to this passage is typical: “When I read this poem, I was transported there—right into the depths of hell with all these voices rising, giving up the only thing they had in protest, in defiance, in honor, in rage, in respect. Perhaps this is the real heart of poetry, to lift your voice and speak, even at the risk of your own life.” Yet the blogger misses something. It’s not that it’s entirely wrong to have these feelings after reading Kalakuta Republic, but something else, something greater than heroism (which is always one-sided and essentially inhuman), is at work.

This “something else” is easier to see if one reads Abani’s third and most recent collection of poetry, Dog Woman, which has very little to do with Africa, Nigeria, corruption, prisons, or racism. Instead, it is inspired by a series of paintings by the Spanish artist Paula Rego, the Duino Elegies by the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke, and some theories about dolls originated by the 19th-century French poet Charles Baudelaire. In Dog Woman you will find quotes from, and references to, Djuna Barnes, Richard Pryor, T.S. Eliot, Czeslaw Milosz, and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. What Dog Woman makes evident is that Abani is not a poet who is limited to his African experiences. The poems in Dog Woman are as strong, as striking, as vital as the poems in Kalakuta Republic. What they prove is that Abani is first and foremost a stylist and should be read in that way.

From the poem “Unholy Woman”: “It makes sense that Jesus, the new man of 2,000 years ago / Was a carpenter / You need that craft, the precision of measurement, angles of angels. . . .” The same is true for Abani, a 21st-century African poet. He says it again and again, in interviews, in essays, in his seminars: it’s about craft, sentence structures, the breaks in words, the music in words, the look of words, the echoes in words.

“At the end of the day, none of my books, including the new one due from Copper Canyon Press this fall [Hands Washing Water] are directly African,” writes Abani in conclusion. “They are human, they represent the limitless way in which my imagination can and does engage with the world. I don't engage as an African. Nobody does. We all engage as individuals. I engage as Chris Abani. I am African so part of the filter of engagement will reflect those concerns or that experience, but then I am lots of other things which also affect the filter of my perception. Privileging any aspect of the filter over another is something I guard against. It is dangerous because it self-censors the imagination. If writers and poets have any role, it is this one: to not limit in any way the ability of their imagination to engage the world.”
Originally Published: February 2, 2007

COMMENTS (4)

On January 23, 2007 at 12:59am Kester Osahenye wrote:
Chris Abani is a quintessential writer and he has lots of depth and creativity. People should stop referring to him as "exiled Nigerian writer" because the cabals are gone and we have democracy at home in Nigeria.

Kester Osahenye
(Nigerian Writer)

On February 26, 2007 at 8:15am michael ikpoma wrote:
chris abani is volatile voice in nigeria.in such a time,to lend the ears of the military junta,one need to be a radical even in writing.

On January 7, 2008 at 3:31pm JKS Makokha wrote:
Where Our Land Once Stood...

It

stood here upon these hills

what yesterday, was our land.

On these slopes we stand today

Stood that which you and I,

Side by side

Brought burning down

By our endless

Furious ethnic

Fists and blows

Now

grey smokes of sadness

spiral off these ruins,

where piles of your crushed bones

And mine,

Forever sleep side by side

next to the river of blood

in this vast valley of skulls…

Wild winds of regret

Whistle here

And whistle there…

Spreading the sad news of

Of our fallen hopes

And burnt homes

To shocked homes

Across the whole globe...

The soothsayers'll say

in folklore of years to come,

You and I

Failed to abide by the Law

choosing instead blow upon blow

smashing our past, present and tomorrow

until all that remained was only sorrow...

Sadly

Then

as now...

Our ghosts

Will stand side by side

upon these ruins

Of our failed State

and hear them tell

And retell with regrets...

The teary tale

Of how you and I

Blinded by ethnic hate

Sealed our national fate

By killing the State.

JKS MAKOKHA,

RE: The Poet is a Kenyan currently working on his PhD in Germany. Kenya currently faces a deep political crisis, following disputed presidential elections in which the opposition is believed to have been robbed victory.

Leipzig 8.1.2008

On March 13, 2009 at 7:19am TebohoOa Keiso Oa Shelile wrote:
in arms we embrace

without arms we smile

two arms

of life and death

the latter tatters my land

the former found us;

our parents's arms

fire spitting arms

in ruins leading my land.

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Biography

Charles Tonderai Mudede is an associate editor for the Stranger. He was born in an Africans-only hospital in Que Que (now called Kwe Kwe), Rhodesia (now called Zimbabwe), in 1969—Kwe Kwe was, and might still be, an industrial town, much like Charles Dickens’s Coketown. Mudede is also an adjunct professor at Pacific Lutheran University, and his work has appeared in the Village Voice, Sydney Morning Daily, and the New York . . .

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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