Jeff Lodge: Good evening. Welcome to the concluding event this year in the series Image, —Word and Voice, a visiting speakers series sponsored by the General Education Program here at VCU Qatar. And thank you all for coming.
I want to begin my introduction by reading a poem by Palestinian-American poet, writer, and teacher, Naomi Shihab Nye. It’s titled “Two Countries.” 1
A couple of things about that poem. It speaks, as does much of Chris Abani’s work, to our inability as corporeal beings, as humans, to separate the mind and the soul from the body. To even, as at times we might want to, be unable to leave the body, with all that it remembers, to be able to leave it behind. You’ll likely see that as he reads tonight.
And something else: “Love means you breathe in two countries,” Nye writes. Well, some people breathe in more than that. Chris Abani was born in Nigeria. He’s a British citizen who lives and works in the U.S. in California. When Patty first met him last summer, they were both at a writer’s conference in Thailand. When I first contacted him about visiting us, he was in Davos, Switzerland, at the World Economic Forum. When I went on the Web to see if I could find a recording of him reading or speaking, I did: at the TED Conference a couple of years ago in Tanzania. Today, of course, he’s in Doha. When he leaves here, he’ll be going home to California, then back across the Atlantic to Sarajevo. Chris Abani, it seems, lives and breathes in most countries. And the settings of his novels and novellas, the sensibilities of his poems’ speakers, they reflect that.
But frankly, for all of his travels, and for all the variety in his work that has grown out of them, he seems most comfortable exploring that strange, that foreign and familiar country that is found inside all of us: the human heart. The sometimes civilized, sometimes savage, human heart. In the novels and novellas Song for Night, The Virgin of Flames, Becoming Abigail, GraceLand,and Masters of the Board,in the poetry collections Hands Washing Water, Dog Woman, Daphne’s Lot,and Kalakuta Republic,his book-length poetry manuscript Sanctificum,as yet unpublished, which we may hear some of this evening.
We’re delighted to have him with us. Please welcome Chris Abani.
Chris Abani: Thank you, Jeff. It’s amazing what people will say about you for ten dollars. It’s great to be here in Doha, it’s my first time. But as I said to someone in a class recently, the more I travel, the more the world looks the same. The only thing that really seems different is the human heart, and how place affects the human heart.
Since most of you don’t know much about me, I should just say a couple of things. My work is all about exploring what is human about us. It’s an attempt to map, to locate, to question if it’s even possible to be human. If redemption is at all possible. If transformation can happen. It often means that I have to explore in-between worlds: look at characters no one else wants to talk about, and talk about things that are difficult for other people to talk about. And so I hope you indulge me as I read to you this evening, because some of the work will be difficult, but the work itself is not about easy things. In many ways, I think you could say that all that my work does is simply catalogue in freeze-frame moments, the process by which we forget the things we don’t want to remember. So I think my work is against forgetting, against erasure.
I was born in Nigeria. And I say this because I think it’s important to my work to know some things about the writer, even though we know the writer’s dead, and so you don’t need to know anything about the writer. But I think it will help you understand where I’m coming from.
I was born in Nigeria during the Nigerian-Biafran Civil War. I was born to an English mother and a Nigerian father. And I think just by function of that biracialness, my relationship to identity is much more fluid, I think, than for most people. The ability to kind of move between worlds and ideas. I grew up in the detritus of that civil war, playing in burnt-out tanks, watching my cousins hurt themselves with guns that they had found. Growing up in a sort of melancholy, but no one would talk about the war.
And I think it was around this time, in the early ‘70s, that I really came into my self as a writer, even though I hadn’t written anything. And I think one of the transformative experiences happened in primary school, when the Nigerian government—my people, my father’s people are Ibo, and they were the rebels. And when the rebels lost the war, the Nigerian government said that the story of the war cannot be taught to these young kids, because they thought that we would grow up and enact another rebellion.
But I had a wonderful teacher. Because of the war, we lost a lot of teachers, so we imported teachers into Nigeria. And Mister Khalid was from Pakistan, and he really wanted us to hear the stories. And so he’d found subtle ways to bypass the government, and so what he did was to teach us Jewish Holocaust history. And I think it’s important to bear in mind, given all the stereotypes we have in the world about people, to bear in mind that this is a Pakistani Muslim man, teaching young Biafran children the story of their own pain; the story of somebody else’s pain. And that’s really important to bear in mind, because when I write, I don’t write about me or for me. I write with the idea that stories move between worlds and move between people. So, that should kind of give you a location.
I am both a poet and a novelist. Which is a real gift to be able to move between genres sometimes. So I thought I would start by reading some poems to you, and then I would end by reading some fiction to you. Before each poem, I will give you a sense of what the poem is about. But one of the things I love to do is to read the poems of other poets. I live in America, which is a heavily capitalist world. And if you live in the third world, like I did growing up, you understand too well what capitalism does. One of the things it does is that it means we get very competitive and we don’t like to share or position other people. I like to do that. So I’m going to read you some poems first, not by me, but by other poets.
The first one I’ll read is by Jack Gilbert. Jack Gilbert is an American poet. He grew up in Pittsburgh, and then spent the rest of his life living in poverty in Greece because he refused to get a job because he was a poet. And I’ve often admired that. Except my taste in shoes requires me to have a job.
This is from a book called The Great Fires. It’s called “The Forgotten Dialect of the Heart.” 2
The next poem I would like to do for you is from an African-American poet, and his name is Yusef Komunyakaa. It’s called “Ode to the Drum.” It’s a poem I love, it’s a poem I’ve actually memorized. I don’t memorize many poems anymore. But I think it speaks in many ways to the work that’s coming, and it will tell you in many ways how to read the work. It’s a poem about transformation. It’s a poem about love. It’s a poem about killing. It’s simply called “Ode to the Drum.”3
The next poem I’m going to read is actually by my friend. She teaches here. Her name is Patty Paine, and she’s dying of embarrassment. But I decided to out her to everybody. The poem is from a new manuscript that I’ve been looking at. It’s called “Crossing.”4
So, when I was sixteen, I published my first novel. It started when I was ten. When I was ten, I decided I was going to be a writer. So I wrote a short story, and put it into a competition by the national newspaper of Nigeria for eighteen-year-olds. And I won. And I came to get my prize. And it was set up like this, an audience and a patio thing up here, and I had to come up to get my prize. And you know, I’m pretty corpulent, I’ve been cultivating my stomach for a while. And when I was young, I just looked like a basketball. And so I remember like bouncing down the aisle to come and get my prize. And looking at people’s faces and seeing the shock on their faces that someone this young could have written something like this. It was a very bad story, but, nonetheless, I realized, I think, at that moment, that literature, that art, has this way of getting under people’s skins, and refusing to let go.
So when I was sixteen, I wrote a novel. It was about neo-Nazis taking over Nigeria to install the Fourth Reich. It was a very preposterous plot. It was a thriller, I didn’t think much of it. Until two years later, General Vatsa, who—my country was under a military dictatorship, and one of the generals was arrested for coup plotting, which is to topple the government. And they decided that my novel, which they found on him, was the blueprint for his coup. So at eighteen, I was arrested and put in prison. So I come from an upper middle-class home, and so, to go from an upper middle-class home to a Nigerian prison is . . . beyond words. And language failed me. But one of the beautiful things is I suddenly became sensitized to the politics of my country, and I became a student activist. And over the course of the following years, I spent a total of three years in prison, including six months in solitary confinement.
So, I have a book about this experience, and I always read a couple of these poems. And one is about John James. This is a fourteen-year-old boy who shared a prison cell with me, and who was tortured to death. It’s called “Ode to Joy.” 5
Also from that book, “Jacob’s Ladder.”6
I guess I should read you a love poem after that, huh?
The next book that I’ll read from is called Daphne’s Lot. My mother’s name was Daphne, and the book is about her meeting my father in Oxford in the ‘50s, but mostly about the civil war that I’m talking about. This idea that there’s this white woman trying to get out of the war with five biracial babies. And arriving in England much to her family’s sort of scorn. And the title of the book, Daphne’s Lot, comes from one of my uncles who would never call us by name. He either referred to us as “Daphne’s nigger babies” or “Daphne’s lot.”
This also a book about love, about the ways in which my father and my mother had a very difficult marriage. My father wasn’t a very nice man. Very abusive. And my mother kept these diaries, copious diaries. But she never let anyone read them. She would burn them as soon as she filled them. So when I began to write this book, I began to imagine what my mother might be writing about. So this is a poem about, I think, the kind of man my mother would have imagined being with. It’s simply titled “1971.”7
And as I always say at every reading: if you want a man like that, come see me after the reading. I’m just kidding.
The next book was called Dog Woman. Dog Woman was a book about five women who had been killed by men at various points in history. So, in a sense, this is a book about women who had had violence done to them by men. So the idea of the book was here is further violence, as a man tries to reconstitute the ghosts of these women. And the women were historical women, including La Malinche and a few others. But the core idea of the book Dog Woman came from a Spanish painter called Paula Rego. And Paula Rego had done a sequence of paintings called Dog Women, which were women . . . not the kind of women you see in fashion magazines. They were big women, they were visceral women, and they were portrayed as dogs. Her idea was that this is a way to reclaim femininity. So this is the core poem in the book, it’s called “Dog Woman.”8
The next poem is from Hands Washing Water. “The New Religion.”9
The next poems come from a book called There Are No Names for Red.10 There’s an African-American writer called Percival Everett, and he used to be my teacher. And I have come to become so jealous of him that I hate him. Percival has published twenty-something novels. Two books of poetry. He paints. And not only does he paint so well, he has a career as a painter. His paintings go for thirty, forty thousand dollars. He goes to the Sorbonne in France to teach painting. He’s a musician. He paid his way through college as a jazz musician. So it’s understandable why I hate this man. Anyway, like I said, he was my teacher, and he was a very kind teacher. And so I would go to his studio when I was blocked, and I would watch him paint. And slowly over the years, I started to write a book of poems in the proximity of his paintings. So they’re not about his paintings, they’re just in the proximity. And this book is coming out in a few months: thirty paintings by him, and thirty poems by me. So the poems are just numbers. So I’ll read you a couple. Number Seven.
Number Sixteen. 11
Also in other non-intended ways but touching. Canvas
heavy with salt after salt and salt and water,
the brine a knowledge and this sail unannealed like skin
and my grandmother dying, dying in the shower and water
all around her. This is not intended and yet the distance between
almost perfect and complete chaos is a hair’s breath.
Loose strands unravel and follow an idea.
In Berlin there are brass caps, square and green with time,
set into the paving stones that trip you.
You look down and see the names of those taken to the camps.
Stubbing stones they call them. Stolpersteine. And nobody knows
exactly who put them there. Turkish women in black
descend on us like a gaggle of crows. Yes, I said gaggle.
And what is gained? And what is lost?
What begs silence here is beyond even that.
And the last of the poems, before we move to some fiction, is from the new book that is still unpublished, called Sanctificum. This section is called “Histories: Number One.”12
Some fiction—short excerpts from the two books that are here. Becoming Abigail 14 took me a long time to write; it took eight years to write this book. It’s about a fifteen-year-old girl. And I was in my, I guess my late twenties when I started it. And it says something about men that you have to be in your late thirties before you can write about a fifteen-year-old girl convincingly. I don’t know what it says, but it says something.
Abigail, her mother dies in childbirth. She looks so much like her mother that she’s given the same name. And she spends her life trying to find stories of her mother, which she then burns onto her skin as a way to…become. In the process she’s trafficked into prostitution, and she fights this. But before she does, her father, who is depressed, and this is sort of what my work does, is it takes things we think of as one way—in this case, suicide—and spins it in the other way. And so it becomes an act of love. Her father is beginning to confuse her so much for her mother that he’s afraid that he might do something inappropriate. And so this is how Abigail comes upon her father one day:
Told you it was a little difficult. It’s going to get a little more difficult. My mother used to call me a miserable kid. My mother was English, and she always used to say to me “Why do you write books like this? Why don’t you write like Isabel Allende, nice happy books?” I’m working on it.
The last section I’ll read to you is a small section from Song for Night. Song for Night 15 is a book about a boy soldier. His name is My Luck. And My Luck is part of a mine-defusing unit, and his job is to go with his unit into the forest, locate mines with their toes, and defuse them with a machete. This is actually what they would do with these kids in the wars in West Africa. And when they started sending the kids out, they began to realize that inevitably one of them would accidentally blow himself up. Or herself up. And if they did that, they would scream. And the scream would startle the other mine defusers, and they would scatter into the minefield, blowing themselves up as they went along. So what they did was to cut the vocal cords of these children so that they couldn’t scream. It wasn’t an act of kindness, it was to protect the military asset. So My Luck has been separated from his unit, and he’s trying to find them through the war. The other thing you need to know is every section of the book begins with a phrase that is a sign language I made up for these children to communicate with each other.
Recorded April 23, 2008
1. “Two Countries,” Naomi Shihab Nye, Words under the Words: Selected Poems, Eighth Mountain Press, 1994.
2. “The Forgotten Dialect of the Heart,” Jack Gilbert, The Great Fires: Poems, 1982-1992, Knopf, 1996.
3. “Ode to a Drum,” Yusef Komunyakaa, Thieves of Paradise, Wesleyan, 1998.
4. “Crossing,” by Patty Paine, unpublished.
5. “Ode to Joy,” Chris Abani, Kalakuta Republic, Saqi Books, 2000.
6. “Jacob’s Ladder,” Chris Abani, Kalakuta Republic, Saqi Books, 2000.
7. “1971,” Chris Abani, Daphne’s Lot,Red Hen, 2003.
8. “Dog Woman,” Chris Abani, Dog Woman,Red Hen, 2004.
9. “The New Religion,” Chris Abani, Hands Washing Water, Copper Canyon, 2006.
10. “VII,” by Chris Abani, There Are No Names for Red, unpublished.
11. “XVI,” by Chris Abani, There Are No Names For Red, unpublished.
12.“Histories: Number One,” Chris Abani, Sanctificum, unpublished.
13.“Histories: Two,” Chris Abani, Sanctificum, unpublished.
14. Becoming Abigail, Chris Abani, Akashic Books, 2006.
15. Song for Night, Chris Abani, Akashic Books, 2007.