This is the first book-length critical reading of the prose works of the Nigerian, America-settled, ‘global Igbo’ writer Chris Abani. Addressing his three novels – GraceLand (2004), The Virgin of Flames (2007), and The Secret History of Las Vegas (2014) – and the two novellas Becoming Abigail (2006) and Song for Night (2007), the book Chris Abani combines an original overview of the author’s career and new insights into his works. It provides a full picture of the oeuvre of a writer who is more and more asserting his worth in the international arena, and whose work stands out for the richness of its poetic language, its complex investigation of the contemporary human experience in a variety of extreme and surprising situations, and its probing ethical gaze. Building on the notions of biopolitics, necropolitics, mediascape imagination, and the performative quality of subjectivity, this volume highlights Abani’s ability to represent the tragedies and horrors of our times while also signalling the possibility of redemption. His characters’ attempts to find ways of becoming themselves, together with a poetical writing that clashes against the violence of history and humankind, make Abani’s work a significant contribution to the contemporary debate about human rights and literature.
Chapter 1 introduces the author through his work, in particular his poetry and essays, and uncovers some of the aesthetic principles that organise most of his oeuvre, such as the interplay of the grotesque, the ghostly and the beautiful, and his demanding ethical stance that requires the reader’s active involvement. The chapter rests on a series of forceful authorial statements, particularly about his aesthetics, about the human in extreme situations, the need for identity, the looseness of this notion, and the performative nature of subjectivity. It makes use of Abani’s Daphne’s Lot and The Face: Cartography of the Void to offer a contextual introduction to his concerns, and provides a selective overview of intertexts that informed his early life and work. The chapter includes discussion of Abani’s poems, which are not the main focus of the book, but work well for their constant dialogue with an autobiographical substratum that keeps resurfacing.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
This chapter offers a critical survey of readings and receptions of Abani’s works. It brings together the main articles and essays on the topic, and provides important guidance for those approaching Abani’s literary output for the first time or for whoever is willing to browse secondary sources. Whilst critical material is usually devoted to a single novel or novella, this chapter organises secondary sources in a more organic way, so that a dialogue between different studies can emerge. The survey also summarises the findings of the book’s individual chapters and the most innovative elements in Abani’s writing, such as issues of necropolitics, biopolitics, gender, performativity, and human and environmental rights. This last chapter discusses both canonical and newer approaches to the texts, possibly pointing to future directions in research focusing on Abani’s work.