An Interview with Chris Abani

This pressure can lead to unhealthy and unrealistic body images, making it difficult for women to feel comfortable in their own skin.


In 1985, Chris Abani, a Nigerian writer, was taken into custody and incarcerated due to the assumption that he had orchestrated a political coup.


This was based on the fact that his first novel, a political thriller, was written two years prior to this when Abani was only sixteen.


Since then, he has been arrested twice more, given a death sentence, and subjected to electric shock torture.


He has also foiled attempts on his life, written two books of poetry and eight novels (of which two have been published) and has been honored with numerous literary awards.


Abani’s most recent work, GraceLand, was released by Farrar, Straus & Giroux in February of this year.


Chris Abani’s past provides a captivating story, though he should be primarily remembered for his striking and thoughtful prose.


GraceLand, his sweeping coming-of-age narrative, delves into the depths of the slums of Lagos, Nigeria, and covers topics such as organ theft, brutality, civil war, incest, and Elvis impersonations.


In contrast to his vivid writings, Abani is not a hardened, jaded individual; rather, he is reflective and mild-mannered, his California vernacular blending with his British-Nigerian English.


The interview was carried out with Abani from his Los Angeles residence, by telephone.


Even though the topics discussed were difficult – such as colonialism, exile and war – he still managed to respond to the interviewer’s humor with laughter and even made a few jokes himself.


According to Tayari Jones,



I noticed the abundance of American references in GraceLand, such as Hugh Hefner and Elvis.


Given Nigeria’s history as a British colony, I was taken aback by the lack of British references. Could you explain why the United States is so heavily featured in comparison to Great Britain?


Chris Abani posits that two things contribute to the allure of American culture: assimilation and the influence of television and movies.


He explains that the British would not attempt to assimilate natives in the same way the French did, but rather maintain the status quo. Abani further states that American capitalism drives a sense of global whiteness through global assimilation.


Additionally, American films, such as Shaft and Superfly, were the first to feature people of color with power, allowing viewers to find themselves in a global context.


BLVR: Somewhere, I came across the fact that your mum is English and she used to ring you for tea every day at four o’clock.


How did your exposure to both cultures form your views and ideas about Nigeria and your reflections on colonialism? How did that factor into your understanding?


CA: It may have been a slight exaggeration to say “every day.” My parents met in the ’50s at Oxford, and it was fashionable for Nigerians to claim they were the sons of chiefs.


My father had to make clear to my mother that he was from a working-class family and was actually the first to graduate from his town and go abroad.


He had to prepare her for the poverty and differences she would face. When she went to Nigeria, she was surprised that everything she could buy in England was available.


My father was adamant about raising me and my siblings as Nigerians, and particularly as Igbo people, so we learned all the traditions and language. Growing up with an English mum, we were exposed to western texts and comics.


Being biracial in Nigeria is an odd experience, as people treat you with a certain degree of specialness and also see you as weaker than everyone else.


In 1971, I even had an experience where someone tried to hit me with a stone or brick to see if my blood was red or white![Chuckles]

BLVR: Incredible.


Growing up, I recall being told tales of the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya. Despite being only seven years old, I dreaded the thought of the Kenyan Mau Mau potentially harming my mother.


It wasn’t until much later that I truly grasped the impacts of colonization in East Africa. As a Nigerian, it’s often hard to come to terms with colonialism, global whiteness, racism, and white power.


Even more so when your own mother has never viewed you as “black” and having to say to her, “What you just said could be seen as racist?” is a difficult thing to do.


BLVR: It seems like you already predicted what I was going to ask.


You brought up Kenya and Mau Mau, and it got me thinking about the writings of modern African authors and the liberation movements that go along with them.


Since I am an African American, I was also considering the struggles for civil rights here in the States. You had mentioned the concept of global whiteness, do you have any thoughts on the subject?


I am delighted that you noticed the touches of global blackness in my work. Those little nuances of mine that I wrote, I assumed would go unnoticed.


Even when Elvis stirred, the book he had was Ellison’s Invisible Man.


BLVR affirms that he is indeed!


CA: The book splitting in two is a very interesting notion.


Growing up, I was conflicted about Pan-Africanism, particularly because Nigeria’s independence was in part spurred by the independence of Ghana, which was led by the Pan-Africanist Kwame Nkrumah.


Nnamdi Azikiwe, also a Pan-Africanist, was a prominent figure in Nigeria.


It’s interesting to note that these men were educated in the U.S., had contact with Du Bois and Marcus Garvey, and brought the roots of the blues back to Africa.


Sailors taught kids at the docks of Accra and Mali about American guitar movements, leading to the hybrid Malian music that sounds so much like the blues.


This dialogue is seen in literature too, such as in the opening of GraceLand, where the metaphor of the book falling off of Elvis’s chest and splitting open symbolizes the splitting of the diaspora and the ability to relate to the text due to shared racial heritage.


  1. In my debut novel, there is a particularly unpleasant scene where the main character comes across a woman in a restaurant that he is greatly taken with.


To make an impression, he creates an impressive sketch of her and sends it to her via the waiter. I was sixteen at the time.


BLVR: During 1983, I spent a year in Nigeria when the civilian government of Shagari was overthrown and a military regime took control. I was there with my parents; my father had a Fulbright.


At the time, I was only in ninth grade. I lived in a tranquil town in the north, being quite young.


From the conversations I heard, people felt a sense of joy because the coup d’etat granted us three days without disruption to NEPA [electricity].


[ Guffaws ]


BLVR: It was a noteworthy event. The money was all modified to a different hue. That is my recollection.


But, what did the year 1983 signify for you, both generally and in terms of your writing?


When I was sixteen, I had just finished high school and had my first novel accepted for publication, which won the Delta Fiction Award.


The novel started with a civilian president in power, similar to the Nigerian Shagari, but was then taken over by Neo-Nazis. I was born in Nigeria, but left for England during the civil war and returned after its end.


I remember the military being in control everywhere, and the Igbos were seen as the rebels.


The Shagari Moment (1979-1983) was the first time many of us considered that the country had not always been under military rule, and we had the potential to return to it.


Sadly, the government was corrupt, leading to the disillusionment of the dream, but it also marked the beginning of something to fight for.


A whole generation of people my age were involved with anti-government and pro-democracy movements, but their stories will never be told. 1983 was a dark time, but also a time of power.


BLVR: What is the name of the novel you composed when you were sixteen?


The game Masters of the Board was given its name due to it being structured after the chess game. It featured a protagonist, who was akin to a Nigerian James Bond, and he had to solve a complex web of international complexity.


BLVR: Is this available presently?


I’m unsure of the procedures at the Library of Congress, however I know they have a copy of the book since it’s out of print.


BLVR: I am not either.


CA: While the blurb for my book says I’m “[British political-thriller writer] Frederick Forsyth’s African counterpart,” [ Laughs ] I mainly write crime thrillers.


My first novel is a bit immature – it contains a lot of guns and one scene in particular that I’m not particularly proud of.


In this scene, a man notices an attractive woman across the room in a restaurant and decides to make a sketch of her and have it delivered to her. [ Laughs ] I was only sixteen at the time.


At sixteen, BLVR had achieved excellent results.


I would not be proud of this book if it were to be reprinted, as it is a sophisticated one for its genre; however, I do not hope for that to happen.


BLVR: Alright, then I’ll leave it be! You often refer to your age bracket. I’d like to ask: which writers do you consider to be doing groundbreaking work in your generation? Who do you think has been the trailblazers?


You work in playwriting, so I think of Wole Soyinka, the Nobel prize winner. Furthermore: what do you think is the responsibility of your generation that is different from those that preceded it?


Being an African writer of my generation is a great privilege because there is a long history of African literature to draw from.


People such as Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka have done a lot to make African-American people aware of their cultural heritage.


As a writer of my generation, I think it is my duty to not only build on this tradition but to also explore different ways of writing and different forms of literature.


For example, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie wrote a novel, Purple Hibiscus, which is an amazing book.


She takes a different approach to writing than I do; she focuses on a single family while I try to tell stories of an entire generation.


Helon Habila also has a unique narrative structure in Waiting for an Angel which I find very inspiring. Another great writer is Festus Iyayi; his novel Violence was a large influence on my work, GraceLand.


He was able to write about the struggles of poor people while still being respectful and avoiding voyeurism.


His novel Heroes, which is about the Nigerian-Biafran civil war, is a great example of a work that centers on the characters and not on a political ideology.


For a long time African literature has been driven by protest against colonialism or internal strife, so the political message has often overshadowed the craft and the art.




BLVR: I, like many other creative writers in the U.S., went through an MFA program.


Could you tell me more about your experience in studying writing, and what you make of the idea of teaching writing in a university?


In my opinion, self-taught writers are often advantaged in comparison to those who take a workshop.


I am a professor in the MFA program at Antioch University, and I have found that many of my students believe that by taking a workshop they can become excellent writers without putting in the effort to read and study.


I find this idea laughable and often tell them that they should be so lucky if someone said something like, “Wow, this is like Toni Morrison.” I do not think it is possible to teach people to write.


All I can do is help them learn to read in a more detailed way, to understand how to manipulate words, body, objects, and devices in ways they might not have considered before.


In my class I often ask students to do things like build me a poem using a deck of cards, and they look at me like I’m crazy. I am trying to teach them the concept of convergence and simultaneity, not what they like or don’t like.


I want them to recognize that writing is not about life lessons, but rather taking a book apart and looking at how it’s constructed.


I want my students to see themselves as craftspeople and push themselves to go to the places where their stories are, instead of writing generic material that publishers are looking for.


Writers like Percival Everett are proof that there are many people in this country creating stories that will literally rip your guts out.


BLVR: Absolutely!


CA: The protagonist in his upcoming book, American Desert, has Jesus’ DNA and is attempting to recreate the Savior – only to find that each time they put him to death, he doesn’t rise again. [ Laughs ]


BLVR: This is undeniably characteristic of Percival Everett.


CA expressed admiration for Percival Everett, remarking that their purpose in coming to the United States was to meet him.


They went on to say that Everett was their most amazing teacher, having written GraceLand in only nine months out of a verbal description.


BLVR: This summer, I encountered Minnie Marie Hayes, the editor of StoryQuarterly, a journal I like a lot. She is an admirer of your work.


She said she enjoys publishing you because your work has something to say. In particular, she was commenting on an excerpt from GraceLand when a young boy was obliged to kill a chicken in order to become a man.


Her words were, “Now that is a story.”


Minnie Marie often complains to me that she cannot bear to hear another cancer story.


However, I believe there is a unique cancer story that she has yet to find. I do not think it is possible to completely cover a single topic, otherwise, we would have become extinct after the Bible was written.

However, writers must strive to discover their own unique qualities. I think the MFA program is too lenient in that it smooths out the edges too much.


The pressure to write an amazing debut novel in America is too great. In Europe, it is okay to fail in the first two novels while finding your voice, but in the U.S., if you produce something less than a masterpiece with your first novel, it is seen as a failure.


It appears foolish to me because writing is all about progress. In GraceLand, the edges are quite jagged.


  1. Regarding myself, I feel as though I am in a state of exile. This is my own personal feeling. At a gathering dedicated to discussing exile, I heard people discussing Bridget Jones’s Diary and being exiled from their femininity.


BLVR: Is it accurate to refer to each African writer not living in their native land as being in “exile”? What does that signify?


I was thinking about Kenyan writer Ngugi Wa Thiong’o and wondered if he’s still writing in Kenya, thus making him home.


He is currently in Irvine, to be exact.


BLVR: Is he from California? I just presumed, due to his exclusive use of Gikuyu, that he must be located in Kenya.


CA states that being African can be a dilemma, as Ngugi was in exile and wanted to reclaim an Africanness that may have survived colonialism.


In West Africa, the language was not banned as in other places, and Ngugi is a Marxist who believes that art has no real purpose if everyone can’t understand it.


This is why he creates art in his own language, which is then translated into English.


Additionally, many intellectuals, writers, professionals, and doctors have had to leave Africa for economic reasons, and cannot return full-time.


This creates a sense of exile, and those born outside of their home country may not be accepted by either the mainstream or their home community.


Chris Abani had to leave Nigeria for his own safety, and Soyinka had to leave because he knew he would die if he stayed.


Therefore, African identity in the 21st century is difficult to articulate to a Western audience, and those in exile can apply for a special grant.

There is often resentment from those who believe that exiles are benefiting from their position, and it is important to make clear who you are, where you come from, and what your writing will reflect.


Chris Abani considers himself to be in exile, though he notes that others may have different interpretations of the idea.


Let us delve a little deeper into the topic of GraceLand.


CA: Now that you’ve read it, share your thoughts. I’m aware that you have had some experience in Nigeria. How do you think of this book as a person of African American heritage?


So, now you have the role of interviewer?


CA: To some degree.


BLVR: It reminded me of Linden Hills, a Gloria Naylor novel, which combined recipes with its story. As an African American, I relate to the struggles of dark-skinned people everywhere, not just in Nigeria.


I’ve been scared of the police since I was three, and the relationships between characters felt almost universally familiar. Could you explain why you think this book is a love letter to your father?


I had a complicated relationship with my father since I was a child. In Nigeria, there was a strong emphasis on traditional masculinity, and my father didn’t accept my different version of masculinity.


I wrote poetry, read Baldwin, and talked about the acceptance of all love, regardless of its form. My father responded to this with violence. We had a lot of fights, and the last time I saw him was in 1991.


When he passed away, I eventually came to understand the love between us. In my book, GraceLand, I wanted to show how even in a rough environment, there is love between people.


For example, when Redemption teaches Elvis how to wrap the cocaine, there is a tenderness between them that is beyond the homoerotic.


It is more like the bond of an older brother teaching a younger one.


I had the same thought when I read the text.


CA: Yes, the Colonel shows a protective and caring attitude, but they are still creating medications to kill people.

Redemption attempts to keep Elvis away from the Colonel, but he doesn’t inform them that they are taking away corpses–humans who have been murdered for their organs and body parts.


Despite that, there is still a feeling of unfulfilled love throughout the book. Love that has no outlet to be expressed.



I recall my childhood in Nigeria, where people had a penchant for taking the law into their own hands.


A single person merely had to point a finger and yell “Thief!” for a crowd to be roused and the accused could be killed.


One of the most harrowing parts of GraceLand is the scene in which an innocent carpenter is accused of crimes, leading to the mob setting him alight. In this novel, at least five individuals are set ablaze.


CA stated that the fire is not only about its physical impact but also the symbolism of it. He grew up in a place that was colonized and experienced civil war, so the culture was violent.


Even children who had been soldiers and shot people were in his primary school. To him, it was like people were setting themselves on fire by engaging in these actions.


People would even place bets to stab themselves in the leg for a small sum of money.


BLVR: A mere twenty kobo? That’s equivalent to less than a quarter.


CA: When I was a child, the Nigerian currency still had value – just enough to buy a Coke and a snack.


Corporal punishment was common in schools and homes, and the Fulani custom of having one hundred lashes with a whip before marriage was also practiced.


These aspects are all present in the book. The real question is why so many people in the population show no signs of being affected by this violence.


BLVR: I noticed Elvis didn’t pause when he heard someone shouting while he was on his way.


If you don’t live in Sarajevo, it’s difficult to comprehend how its inhabitants live there. This inspired me to research the topic.


However, it was emotionally difficult to write about it. I was worried that a Western reader would misconstrue what I wrote and think that all of us in Sarajevo are savage.

BLVR: Ah, we’re referring to what is known as the “invisible white man in the room.”


CA: This can at times become a type of censorship.


Ngugi and I are attempting to create a space where African art is appreciated in a context not determined by Westernization; one which allows the Western reader access while simultaneously conveying that we don’t care if they understand what it is we’re trying to demonstrate.


If they comprehend it, great, but if not, we are unmoved.


It Could Also Be of Interest


The advent of the internet has revolutionized the way people communicate and share information.


It has allowed us to connect with more people than ever before, to exchange ideas at a faster rate, and to access a vast amount of knowledge.


This has had an incredible impact on the global community, facilitating communication and collaboration between people from all cultures and backgrounds.

Our writing staff is varied and passionate about arts, literature, film, travel, music, and entertainment.

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