From 2006 to 2008, I wrote regularly for the music website Paper Thin Walls. For a brief time, I had a column there called “Gimme Fiction,” which looked at musicians who wrote or authors who made music, depending on how you look at things. One of the artists I profiled was the writer Chris Abani. Given that Abani has a terrific new novel out, titled The Secret History of Las Vegas, I thought it would make sense to post both the interview I did with him. A more recent interview will be up at Vol.1 Brooklyn very soon.
Gimme Fiction 004: Chris Abani
Chris Abani is equally at home describing abandoned buildings in Los Angeles and warzones in West Africa. His fiction encompasses political unrest; art and obsession; urban life on three continents; and the burdens of family. Reading his prose, you’ll quickly note the omnipresence of music; the protagonist of 2004’s GraceLand is a young Nigerian Elvis impersonator, while a climactic scene in this year’s The Virgin of Flames played out to the sound of “A Love Supreme” drifting through the floorboards. Abani’s knowledge of music is more than that of an enthusiast, however. His poetry readings have been known to incorporate live music, and a visit to his website (www.chrisabani.com) includes a solo saxophone recording alongside clips of Abani reading his work. It’s equally compassionate and haunted, qualities mirrored in his writing.
In recent years, Abani’s prose has appeared in alternating novel- and novella-sized increments, with Becoming Abagail and Song For Night released by New York’s Akashic Books, a publishing house with roots in the Washington, DC punk rock scene. Song For Night, released in October, evokes a surreal and war-torn landscape as its narrator, a mute child soldier, meticulously retraces the events that left him scarred and separated from his unit. Abani’s protagonists generally begin their stories with much arrayed against them and a bleak future; it’s the moments of joy, of creative release, where they find their pinnacles.
You’ve written novels, plays, poetry, and music; at what point do you know whether an idea will develop into one or another form?
I wrote plays a long time ago, when I was younger and they were meant to be vehicles for the political polemic that marked the student’s movement in Nigeria years ago. With the exception of a new play written in 2003 for the Kennedy Foundation via Crossroads School in Santa Monica, I wouldn’t call them real plays or art.
As for the poetry and prose forms, well, it’s hard to tell when I choose a form. I think that my process involves marinating of an idea in my subconscious for quite a long time so that by the time I actually begin to write, the form and much of the shape of the piece has been intuitively selected. I think though that there are ideas or explorations that suit poetry better than prose and vice versa. How I choose is mostly subjective and intuitively, both marked by years of practice and experience.
You’ve alternated your novels with shorter works — first Becoming Abagail, and now Song For Night. Is this your preferred method of writing, or is it coincidental that these particular four works have been written in this order?
In retrospect, with hindsight, I think these four books form my four quartets, you know, like Eliot. I say this because most of the ideas for the three later books were deployed in GraceLand in truncated forms and had to be developed. Becoming Abigail indirectly rises out of the character of Efua in GraceLand and her not finished trajectory, Song for Night arises also indirectly from the character of Innocent in GraceLand who was a boy soldier. The Virgin of Flames is a thematic continuation of the aspects of Elvis that involved dress up and sexual exploration. So in fact these four books are very tightly linked and knitted. The forms, the alternating of them as novel novella novel novella is entirely coincidental.
Of your recent prose, Song For Night is the first to be set largely outside of a city; is it significant that the region where the book is set is much less specific than the three works that precede it?
In GraceLand the novel begins in the amoebic swamp city of Maroko and moves into the more concrete city of Lagos. As Elvis’ identity becomes clearer and clearer, his relationship to his landscape becomes more concrete with increasing awareness. In Song for Night, the journey is through the interior landscape of memory and recovery, a landscape that goes the opposite way as GraceLand. Song starts near a swamp and moves away into even more tangled landscapes of rivers and forests. It is partly because this novella is generic to West Africa that it has no concrete landscape such as a city would provide, but also because the landscape is made entirely by the projections of the characters interiority. This is necessary since the book is a ghost story and that’s all I can say without spoiling the reading.
GraceLand and The Virgin of Flames both focus on artists; to what extent have you drawn from your own creative process in depicting theirs?
GraceLand and The Virgin of Flames do indeed focus on the journey of artists. They are both about the indifference of the world to this vital part of us. And I say vital because when a civilization dies and we excavate it, all that survives, or at least that we use to create an understanding of that society, is its art. They are both also an exploration of the tyranny of institution toward art – both political and social. I must have drawn on my experience but I don’t know to what exact depth and how and where that manifests in the piece.
In the beginning of Song For Night, the narrator calls attention to the nature of how the story is told, something that hasn’t been done in your earlier work; was that solely the result of using first-person narration, or have you been thinking differently about language recently?
For me every book presents a new narrative and thus structural challenge. With Song for Night is was how to make a boy with no voice tell his story in the first person. Given the nature of the truama he goes through, it was necessary for the story to be in the first person to enable an audience connect with him. Calling attention to the telling was a way to declare the terms up front to the reader so that they could dispense with all that, suspend disbelief and get into the work. I hope it works. Smile.
Music has played a large role in much of your prose, from Elvis’s vocation in GraceLand to the use of “A Love Supreme” at the end of The Virgin of Flames. Do you have a sense of what songs will be used from the outset, or is it something that arises spontaneously as you write?
Music is intrinsic to life. We all walk around with a soundtrack in our heads or at least desire to. Who hasn’t wanted the significant moments of their lives to be accompanied by music the way those moments are in the movies. Growing up in Nigeria, music was everywhere and with no specific hierarchical aspects. In the streets competing record shops would blast their music into the street to attract customers so in an hour of walking you would have heard Vivaldi, Bob Marley, James Brown and Sunny Ade. It was always there. Language is music, mood it music, it’s all pitch, even our sense of scale of the world, of ourselves and our respective dramas is all pitched to our experience and understanding of music so it is all over my work. Since all my work – characters, plot, ideas, story etc develop organically through the process of making the book, and the music does too. It is always amazing to find such discovery. My friend Kwame Dawes has a book called The Reggae Aesthetic that explores this deeper.
Do you have any plans to record music in the future?
I would love to record music in the future. I would need to write fewer books and practice my horn more before that can happen. I just feel blessed to be able to express my love of the world in these ways.
Many of your protagonists are burdened from the outset by trauma, and in many cases their struggles against that is something that they can’t win. To what extent do you think that our circumstances — geographic, political, familial — determine our fate? And is that a theme that you plan to continue exploring?
One of the things I am always asking is, is redemption possible and what shapes can it or must it take? I subcribe completely to the Rilke school of literature that believes in the transformative possibility of the word. That language shapes the world and not the other way around. Part of redemption is finding a why. why go on? why continue to believe? I think that once we can find a why we can bear any how. you know? Redemption, transformation comes from shaping the inner life, the inner light, the consciousness that can reshape the self and thus the world regardless of the geographic, political or familial traumas and/or limitations. I am a complete optimist. I wouldn’t write otherwise. My journeys into the dark are to find light, to take the reader on the journey so that they can have a visceral transformation for themselves. I hope this is what I do. Bring people through the cave of the psyche into the light of hope.