In 1980s Nigeria, Chris Abani’s anti-government writings landed him in prison, where he was brutally tortured. Charles Mudede writes about Abani’s escape from Africa, his evolution as a poet, and his desire to be seen a human being and not an African hero.
Readers in the West have been taught to understand African writers in one way: Africans as heroes. And heroes can do only one thing: overcome enormous obstacles. This kind of reading is understandable when one considers the terrible state of things in black Africa—unremitting poverty, constant war, corruption, nepotism and tribalism in private and public sectors, AIDS, environmental catastrophes, and the most naked forms of capitalism imaginable. It’s tempting to see anyone who writes a poem under such extreme conditions as a hero. But despite the political persecution that poet and novelist Chris Abani suffered in Nigeria during the ’80s, he is not a hero, and the subjects in his books should not be read as heroes. They are humans. In fact, in some cases—as with the main character, Elvis, in his sprawling novel Graceland—the subject is arguably posthuman.
Chris Abani was born in 1966 to an English mother and a Nigerian father. They’d met at Oxford as students, married, and moved to Nigeria to raise their children. At the age of 16, Abani published his first novel, a thriller called Masters of the Board. At the age of 18, the content of that book got him in big trouble with the government, which believed the thriller’s plot (the fictional takeover of Nigeria by neo-Nazis) to be the blueprint for a real coup attempt by General Mamman Vasta. Abani was arrested and imprisoned for six months. Soon after his release, he was arrested a second time for participating in antigovernment guerrilla theater and was sent to Kiri Kiri maximum security prison.
Very few misfortunes in life can be worse than winding up in Kiri Kiri, which is known for blurring the line between political prisoners, criminal prisoners, and homeless prisoners. During his one-year stay, Abani was routinely tortured, confined in cells not fit for any kind of animal, and surrounded by the smell and threat of death.
The ever-changing government of Nigeria takes its artists very seriously. The great Fela Kuti, for example, made music while always under the pressure of those in power, a fact he described in songs such as “Army Arrangement” and “Sorrow, Tears, and Blood” (“Everyone a scatter, scatter / everyone a run, run. . . . / [the police] bring sorrow, tears and blood / it’s their regular trademark!”). No plea on earth could stop the Nigerian government from murdering Ken Saro-Wiwa, a well-to-do poet and novelist (his sons attended Eton College in England). And winning the Nobel Prize did not immunize the playwright Wole Soyinka from persecution. In the context of Nigeria, Abani’s troubles were by no means exceptional.
In 1991, Abani was put on death row for his anticorruption play “Song of a Broken Flute.” But unlike Saro-Wiwa, Abani was released in the wake of international pressure (and, probably, bribes). He relocated to the United Kingdom where, during the 1990s, he developed his craft with support from London’s black arts scene. In 1999 he abruptly moved to the United States for, to use his own words, “political and personal reasons,” and eventually entered the USC doctorate program in creative writing and literature. Abani presently lives in Los Angeles, learning, teaching, and practicing the art of the English language.
“I do believe strongly in craft,” writes Abani in an email sent to me from his Blackberry. (I have no idea which part of the world he was in at that time—South Africa? the United Kingdom? Mexico?) “I think that as in any art form, the way in which the work is made should be given equal if not more consideration than the content. I think that when we make art, we should make a luminous art, not one that is disposable.”
“I do not believe in easy answers to difficult questions on say identity or politics or race or gender,” he writes in another email, “and I certainly don’t believe in the role of the poet as polemic educator. I do however believe in an engaged literature, one that takes into account the role of the writer as compassionate human being in the world.”
The content of his first major work of poetry, Kalakuta Republic, involves his imprisonment in Kiri Kiri. The artist is beaten, threatened at gunpoint, and confined to cells that are tiny and lightless; and yet he survives this ordeal and continues to do precisely what got him in trouble in the first place: write poetry. From a poem called “Jacob’s Ladder”
Release, alive, from Kiri Kiri
They hand you what is left of
your personal belongings
in a polythene bag. Everything
they did not want.
You step out and stand in the
sun thawing like a side of beef
from a freezer. Yet you are afraid
to proceed more than a few
steps from the gate. Convinced you
will be shot in the back.
One blogger’s response to this passage is typical: “When I read this poem, I was transported there—right into the depths of hell with all these voices rising, giving up the only thing they had in protest, in defiance, in honor, in rage, in respect. Perhaps this is the real heart of poetry, to lift your voice and speak, even at the risk of your own life.” Yet the blogger misses something. It’s not that it’s entirely wrong to have these feelings after reading Kalakuta Republic, but something else, something greater than heroism (which is always one-sided and essentially inhuman), is at work.
This “something else” is easier to see if one reads Abani’s third and most recent collection of poetry, Dog Woman, which has very little to do with Africa, Nigeria, corruption, prisons, or racism. Instead, it is inspired by a series of paintings by the Spanish artist Paula Rego, the Duino Elegies by the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke, and some theories about dolls originated by the 19th-century French poet Charles Baudelaire. In Dog Woman you will find quotes from, and references to, Djuna Barnes, Richard Pryor, T.S. Eliot, Czeslaw Milosz, and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. What Dog Woman makes evident is that Abani is not a poet who is limited to his African experiences. The poems in Dog Woman are as strong, as striking, as vital as the poems in Kalakuta Republic. What they prove is that Abani is first and foremost a stylist and should be read in that way.
From the poem “Unholy Woman”: “It makes sense that Jesus, the new man of 2,000 years ago / Was a carpenter / You need that craft, the precision of measurement, angles of angels. . . .” The same is true for Abani, a 21st-century African poet. He says it again and again, in interviews, in essays, in his seminars: it’s about craft, sentence structures, the breaks in words, the music in words, the look of words, the echoes in words.
“At the end of the day, none of my books, including the new one due from Copper Canyon Press this fall [Hands Washing Water] are directly African,” writes Abani in conclusion. “They are human, they represent the limitless way in which my imagination can and does engage with the world. I don’t engage as an African. Nobody does. We all engage as individuals. I engage as Chris Abani. I am African so part of the filter of engagement will reflect those concerns or that experience, but then I am lots of other things which also affect the filter of my perception. Privileging any aspect of the filter over another is something I guard against. It is dangerous because it self-censors the imagination. If writers and poets have any role, it is this one: to not limit in any way the ability of their imagination to engage the world.”
Originally Published: February 2nd, 2007
Charles Tonderai Mudede is an associate editor for the Stranger. He was born in an Africans-only hospital in Que Que (now called Kwe Kwe), Rhodesia (now called Zimbabwe), in 1969—Kwe Kwe was, and might still be, an industrial town, much like Charles Dickens’s Coketown. Mudede is also an adjunct professor…