Writers, at one point or the other, have had to pay painfully for what they believe in. In Nigeria, for instance, one of the finest poets of Africa, Christopher Okigbo, died during the Biafra – Nigeria civil war for his commitment to extending his frontiers of literary conviction to the turf of battle field. In the same manner, renowned playwright and Africa’s first nobel laureate, Professor Wole Soyinka, who was more critical of the fatricidal war did not go scot free and his emotional recollection of that horrible era is trapped in his well written book, The Man Died. In the same vein, late environmental activist and one of the nation’s greatest satrists, Ken Saro Wiwa, was hanged by dark goggled Sani Abacha. But for Chris Abani, a younger writer, the situation was not easier as he had had to serve prison terms at the Kirikiri prison in 1985, having been accused of writing a work that provided blue print for the failed late Mamman Vasta coup.
Having his first work published at age 16, Chris Abani, a poet, playwright and novelist teaches writing in the MFA Programme at Antioch University, Los Angeles and is a visiting assistant professor at the University of California, Riverside. In this e-interview, Abani, a recipient of 2001 PENUSA Freedom to write award, 2001 Prince Claus Award, 2003 Lannan literary fellowship and 2005 PEN Hemingway Book Prize takes an overview of the domain of his writing even as he reveals the secret and direction of his literary commitment. Excerpts:
ALL your works seem to have this contemporary touch as well as international appeal. Is this deliberate?
It depends on where the book is set. So far, most of my books have been (and to a large extent) will continue to be set against a contemporary African experience. There are some shifts, particularly with my next novel, The Virgin of Flames, where the entire novel is set in Los Angeles. These shifts, however, remain within the Nigerian diasporic experience, and so I guess continue to have the flavour of the continent. I don’t deliberately set out to create a blend of these things, I set out to tell a particular story and the craft and other artistic requirements needed are the only things that are deliberate. Having said that, since dialogue (across form, culture and even language) is also a core component of my work, it inevitably creates an international appeal.
Graceland, your most talked about novel is set in America. Why did you choose such a distant setting rather than a Nigerian landmark? Something like your famous collection of poetry, Kalakuta Republic?
Graceland is about global culture and in a global capital, which is white largely, and also almost entirely American, and its effects on African cultures. Part of the book is about the ways that dominant world cultures continue to export their world view to rationalize and ease their exploitation and yet it also explores the odd and beautifully bizarre results.
So, in this case, it had to be about the ridiculous notion that a culture can be exported on a single metaphor (Elvis) and that another culture can be subsumed within this metaphor.
Your works have enjoyed what could be described as extraordinary appeal. In your own estimation, does literary acclaim mean literary accomplishment. Or better put, is literary acclaim an evidence of literary competence?
Literary acclaim comes to a writer for reasons that are often unclear to the writer or the public. A writer cannot assume that acclaim is a mark of excellence. It is certainly nice and affords one certain opportunities, but there are so many deserving writers who never get acclaim that it sometimes seems to me to be a matter of luck almost. That said, every writer is engaged in improving their craft, their art, the context of their conversation and the limits of it. So, sometimes the two go together, sometimes not.
From all indications, most countries of the world practice what one would call civil government. But we can still remember that you were among the most sought after literary activists that gave military dictatorship an uncompromising fight. But one now wonders what would become of the flowing pen of the poets or would we presume that it’s now eureka?
It is sad that in most recently independent countries, the voice of conscience, and its manifestation, is ascribed only to makers of art. It is the responsibility of every citizen in a said nation to do everything in their power to benefit their society. The imbalance in these countries, of wealth and basic necessities and access to them, is so overwhelming that there is more shouting to be done, and not by poets alone. One only has to look at the Ransome-Kuti family alone to see what amazing changes a singular voice of dissent and protest (not only by the artists in the family) can create in the consciousness of a whole people.
May be we should talk a little about some other global trends as it has to do with publishing. Do you think that globalisation is going to affect the publishing industry? In what ways will its implications be felt?
Globalization has already affected the publishing industry. But we must remember that there are several globes within the globe and not all will benefit from this. I don’t know if it is a good thing. I really don’t.
Your diary appears full all the time. One can glean that you are so much involved in the business of teaching the art of writing. How involved are you also in politics
I am very involved, politically, but, perhaps, not in the same ways I was before. I think I am seeking more effective ways of delivering change. As I grow older, I have to ask myself what I am doing, on a practical level beyond mere rhetoric. I am constantly seeking ways. But since I don’t live in Nigeria anymore, and do not face the risks and difficulties of everyday Nigerians, I am currently not sure that I am entitled to tell them how to live or engage the world that they live in.
The beauty of e-interview, I think, lies in the unconnected manner in which the questions are structured. Perhaps, that explains why we move in this random manner. Maybe you would still oblige me to ask you about your feelings of all Nigeria’s home-grown literary awards. Do you think that these awards are capable of improving the quality of our literary productions and of course, publishing?
I don’t know. It seems to me that awards are not what makes writing good in other parts of the world. It is access to affordable publishing and distribution networks that create a viable readership. Sophisticated readers demand better work.
What has been the greatest misconception of your works. Do you think that there is a racist reading into your writing?
I don’t know. I’m not sure how to answer that. I do what I do, the rest is up to the critics. I am more concerned with how the people in my life see me. I’m not sure that we can deliver more than that, so I am not sure it is important to focus one’s energies on other people’s expectations or misconceptions of you.
– From The Vanguard