This chapter investigates the novel The Virgin of Flames. Through the character of Black, an African-Salvadoran Angelino, Abani explores the city of Los Angeles and its geographic but also identitarian margins. Madly in love with a transgender Mexican stripper, friend to an illegal African immigrant owner of an abattoir, and living atop of the Ugly Story, a bar and tattoo parlour owned by his Jewish friend Iggy, Black’s identitarian search talks of religion, solitude, and the magic yet damnation of ‘becoming’. The body is at the centre of Abani’s and Black’s investigation in this work, which concludes with the mystery of a ‘Marian’ transformation. The protagonist’s body, burning atop of his home, is welcomed by the Chicano crowd as a miracle, which urges the reader to reflect on the limit between one’s self and the other, individual struggles and communitarian values and meanings.
Song for Night (2007) is the story of My Luck, a West African boy soldier in search of his lost platoon, across a nightmarish desolated landscape, both geographically and metaphysically. His journey through the horrors of a civil war becomes a sorrowful quest, a descent into hell that eventually leads to the possibility of a re-emergence into light, however ambiguous. Though some reference to the Igbo ethnic group and its traditions lead us to suppose the story refers to the Nigerian Civil War, the location remains intentionally undefined, and time is difficult to keep, as the narrative moves from vaguely recognisable historical/cultural details to an increasingly eerie landscape inhabited by ghosts and a lost humanity maimed by war. The analysis focuses on the elaborate construction of the dumb child soldier’s sign language and ‘telepathic’ communication with the reader; on love and sex as a way to withstand war – a queering agent which inflects childhood in unexpected ways; on My Luck’s difficult passage to the world of the dead. Some rich and strange metamorphosis happens along the way: a recovery of memory and a sense of community which reaches beyond family and people, and extends to all that lives, to the planet and the stars that shine in the African sky.
By focusing on Abani’s novel GraceLand (2004), this chapter investigates issues of socioeconomic and cultural violence in the postcolony. Maroko, the slum where the young protagonist Elvis Oke lives, is the site of percolating brutality, visible in the environmental degradation, the repetitive abuse of basic human rights, and the diffused illegal activities. Violence is so central an experience in the subaltern lives of the postcolony that it becomes unquestioned, apparently obliterating Elvis’s ability to react to it. Yet, as a would-be Presley, the young protagonist proves his resilience against the limitedness of his existence as a ‘disposable’ marginal inhabitant of the ‘global south’. His performance reads rather as an attempt of aesthetic and intellectual agency, resisting his extreme locality in the unbalanced crosspollination of a neocolonial and neo-capitalist world.
This chapter analyses The Secret History of Las Vegas, Abani’s latest novel. The history of the Nevada Nuclear Test Site functions as the background of this crime novel: as an example of state violence against the environment, the nuclear explosions transform into issues of human rights when read alongside black conjoined twins Fire and Water’s lives. The novel thus explores how state violence affects earth and bodies alike, and how ‘extraordinary bodies’ have and can claim rights, sometimes in a violent way. Bodily difference is therefore narrated as a matter of performance and spectacle, because of Fire and Water’s job in a freak show; but also as a scientifically defined disability. In this ‘investigative’ novel, Abani once again touches on what we consider ‘human’ and the role the state has in creating and policing such notion.
Becoming Abigail (2006) is the story of the dehumanisation of an Igbo girl who is allowed no control over her life or body, is repeatedly sexually abused, sold into slavery and almost forced into prostitution. Conceived as a ‘novella’, this short lyrical text stems from Abani’s hearing about the true story of a Nigerian girl who was a victim of the global sex trade in London in the 1990s. The book removes any sentimentality and polemic, and keeps away from the numbers and statistics of sex trafficking. The text, structured in lyrical fragments, narrates Abigail’s predicament as a case of gender discrimination and violence in the family and a form of ‘new slavery’ in contemporary globalisation, alternating moments from her past life in Nigeria and her London present. The analysis focuses on the invisibility of the girl; her attempts to move out of ghostliness, her desire to become her own self and be loved; the impossibility of escaping the joint control of patriarchy and the global market, as well as of international protection protocols for trafficked people. Abigail’s forced migration from Africa to Europe opens up a world of illegality, impossible rights, and forbidden love.
The essential purpose of my work is to challenge familiar topoi and normatives of poetic activity as they pertain to environmental, humanitarian and textual activism in ‘the world-at-large’: to show how ambiguity can be a generative force when it works from a basis of non-ambiguity of purpose. The ‘disambiguation’ is a major difference with all other critical works on generative ambiguities: I state there is a clear unambiguous position to have regarding issues of justice, but that from confirmed points, ambiguity can be an intense and useful activist tool. There is an undoing of an apparent paradox of text in terms of ‘in the real world’ activism. It becomes an issue of consequences arising from creative work and positioning. Whether in discussing a particular literary text or ‘event in the world’, I make use of creative texts at specific sites of a broader, intertextual and interconnected activism.
This book aims to develop textual and literary mechanisms – a poetics – for dialogue and exchange between different ‘communities’, in order to enhance positive communication and empathy, and lead to ‘conflict’ resolution, seeking ‘common ground’ for social and cultural interaction. This might be subtextual in most instances, but the suggestions are as relevant as the overt statements, and if this generates ambiguities, it also generates multiples points of departure from a status quo (of text, of reading, of context), from the nexus or tangled webbing of communications – it offers nodal points, zones of agglomeration and coalescence, moments beyond the ambiguities. The core principle here is the notion of exchange between communal and individual voices privileged in how they are received and heard outside their own communities, and those who are only (and often barely) heard within their own communities, struggling to be heard in a way that can implement positive change for themselves, their communities, and humanity as a whole.
On an Innovative Poet’s Book, Never Published – Asked to write an introduction to a new book of poetry by Scott-Patrick Mitchell that never appeared, I wondered about the life of such texts (the book itself, the intro apropos of a ‘hidden text’). Within this book, this short chapter is an example of the evasiveness of critical text-making, where its referent is ‘lost’ or changes into something else (Scott-Patrick Mitchell’s poems would find different lives in different contexts). So the book itself becomes ambiguous, as all physical manifestations of texts are vulnerable to deletion, erasure, to loss in some form. In the first volume of this trilogy, I discussed the erasure of digital files of record I called ‘Net Death’, and in some ways this echoes that. But it’s different – the loss is only partial in the immediate, and the text written remains a moment of engagement that says something, I think, about textual practice. The direct relevance to the argument of this book resides in the following quote: ‘Love and desire, lust and consummation, are not about imposition. Again and again, these are poems of rights, poems of language’s possibility to extend outside the status quo, to particularise and universalise at once, over and over, but to know respect and intactness of self and community.’ Scott-Patrick Mitchell identifies as ‘non-binary’, and it should be said clearly here that this does not necessarily accord with ‘ambiguity’. The defining of ‘non-binary’ as ‘ambiguous’ is completely at odds with the affirming decision-making behind identity. Such ‘definitions’ are beyond ambiguity, and only those who see a binary in gender will construct a discourse. In their poetry, Mitchell deals with ambiguity of language and even situations and interfaces with world, but this is not via an ambiguity of identity. Sexuality and desire are central to the poet’s poetics, but they are not fixed by even the language they use.
The Inherent Reciprocities of Memoir-making: On the Memoirs of Evelyn Shakir and George Ellenbogen. This section was written to accompany the co-publication of earlier memoirs of Shakir and Ellenbogen in French- and German-language editions (this ‘introduction’ is unpublished prior to this in English), but also in the context of this work as whole (I discussed the context with George Ellenbogen). Sharing a life, as Shakir and Ellenbogen did, is focalised through a ‘disparity’ of heritages and histories that would seem in discourse to be in opposition, but are reconciled in their compassion, empathy and willingness to retain their own identities while respecting and in fact sharing each other’s, and also the communities they come out of. In some ways, this is the pivotal section of the book, as it moves towards a giving peace, searching for mutuality in ‘difference’, while always tracing the complexities. As I say in the introduction to Beyond Ambiguity: ‘The section of the “conversations” between Evelyn Shakir and George Ellenbogen in their respective memoirs is pivotal in this attempt. I have long been interested in spaces where, say, Hebrew and Arabic writers can share textuality, and how this reflects on a non-state issue of sharing and co-existence ... I try to consider divisions as acting as points de repère rather than separations, and I find such traces in these wonderful memoirs written in English.’ Jewish Montreal (with a reaching back into the journey from Europe of the Holocaust), Arab Boston (come out of Lebanon), and the crossing pathways of migration, and an articulating in the world of their ‘nows’, is generative and resilient, and I attempt to trace this.
The relationship between issues of ambiguity in creating and reading literary texts, and making use of those texts in environmental and ‘rights’ activism, can seem incongruous, and frequently even adversarial, but in this section I try to reconcile matters of clarity in commitment with evasiveness in textual slippage. The chapter begins with a poem of unambiguous pro-environment activist intent that, nonetheless, carries its own ‘internal’ ambiguities. This section considers the nature and implications of such apparent contradictions. From considerations of ambiguities which refuse ‘definition’ and lead us to ‘push beyond ambiguity’ in an attempt to maintain clarity of purpose and the generative slippages of understanding/misreading, we read text outside the investments of institutions (academic / schooling / government etc.); we encounter the question of how we use these texts for activist purposes. Considering the making of adaptations and versions out of Hölderlin’s poetry, and inflecting through Ivan Illich’s ‘Deschooling Society’, I write, ‘I want textual analysis to lead to an articulation of defiance against forces of exclusion and oppression. The university might well have an official policy of supporting cultural, gender, ethnic, and even political diversity, but it will never support a position that resists the administrative bedrock upon which it is based.’ Concluding the section is ‘The truth should be in blurbs’, in which I argue that documents of support (blurbs, encomiums, reference letters etc.) should operate as an extension of textual activism and be documents of responsibility. I say: ‘All of the documents-of-support I have written over the last twenty-five years for others actually fit into a narrative of justice, environmentalism, and anti-aesthetics even when the work itself might seem far from these concerns.’ In this, one exchanges/interacts with the text – a sharing rather than a comment from an often (mis)perceived position of ‘authority’.