Chris Abani On Writing

Originally published on Drumtide Magazine 11/23/2010. 

Chris Abani is one of Africa's most acclaimed writers with esteemed recognition in

Africa as well as the West for his thought provoking, edgy and sometimes, controversial writings. He is an accomplished novelist, screenwriter, essayist and poet with numerous awards
including the PEN USA Freedom-to-Write Award, the Prince Claus Award, a Lannan Literary Fellowship, a California Book Award, a Hurston/Wright Legacy Award, a PEN Beyond the Margins Award, the PEN Hemingway Book Prize and a Guggenheim Award. His fictional works include The Virgin of Flames (Penguin, 2007), Becoming Abigail (Akashic, 2006), GraceLand (FSG, 2004), and Masters of the Board (Delta, 1985).

What was the primary inspiration behind your novel, Graceland?

This a a good but difficult question to answer. I think because there are so many ideas and themes and directions that Grace Land takes, that narrowing it down to one initial spark is near impossible. However, I will try, and so I would say that the main inspiration was to write what a close friend of mine, Victor Okigbo, would call, the novel of my generation. 

Graceland won the PEN/Hemingway award and the Hurston-Wright legacy award, and was a finalist for several others. It has also become part of the reading list for some High Schools. What does this mean to you?
I think every writer is in turns elated, humbled and slightly frightened by any attention their work gets. Elated because something that you wrote alone and for yourself has found resonance and a wider meaning in the world. Humbled, because the work always comes first and to realize that you have made something that is bigger than you is, well, humbling. And frightened because suddenly you realize that readers are taking what you say seriously and that you might be part of shaping a mind or a life, intentionally or not. 

Graceland was banned from the reading list of a Florida High School due to a parent's complaint about a particular rape scene. What was your reaction to this, and do you feel that depending on the circumstance, it is okay for certain literary works to have limited exposure?
I cannot agree with any ban of any book. Censorship is simply not permissible. What is shocking in the Florida case is not that the book got banned, but that it took the complaint of only ONE parent to set this off. This is indicative of the problem in America today. Good people who may object to things stand by and let them happen. On the up side, it is wonderful to know that literature is still considered powerful enough to get banned. 

You have had a pretty rough time in your native country, Nigeria, having been arrested twice in the 80's for exploring certain themes in your work. Now that Nigeria is turning 50, in what ways do you think the country has improved and/or digressed, and what are your hopes for the country especially in light of the upcoming elections?

Nigeria's biggest problem has always been bad leadership. No generation of leaders have come close to the first generation that took power at Independence in their vision, scope, imagination and hope. Zik, Awolowo, even the Saraduna all articulated their ideas and philosophies in books, in articles and in debate. It was a generation who never agreed, but who believed dialogue and the drive of intellect would win over all obstacles, and they created a population that demanded no less. That's what we've lost and what we need to get back.

Please describe what the blackgoat and Chris Abani projects are about, and where your fans can get more information about them?
There is a lot of information about Black Goat on my website and on the host publisher's site,, but in summary, Black Goat is a poetry imprint that I created and curate to diversify the conversation within publishing of poetry and the poets who make it.

 You are also an accomplished Poet. What is it about poetry that you love the most?

Poetry allows one to really tackle the ideas of the ineffable, of things that cannot really be said, and yet say them in ways that break through the artificial boundaries of narrative. It is the closest form to music. 
Which emerging African Author are you currently reading or are you looking forward to reading?

I read all the time, emerging and emerged and still unpublished. The list is long, but here are a few: Sarah Ladipo, Chika Unigwe, Unoma Azuah, Monica D'Arco, and Laila Lalami. I could go on all day. There is so much amazing literature coming out of the continent today, and what is truly wonderful is that the bulk of it comes from female writers. At last, the balance is being restored and we are all better for it. 

Current projects?

I am working on a new novel and poetry collection, but taking my time. I just had three collections of poetry come out this April. I am also working on projects on new narratives - the place of technology in story telling, and I am teaching. So quite a lot going on.

By Ebele Chizea. 

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