by Charles Mudede
Poetry Foundation Media Services
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. 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.
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 16, Abani published his first novel, a thriller called Masters of the Board. At 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.
Few misfortunes 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.
In 1991, Abani was put on death row for his anticorruption play "Song of a Broken Flute." But he was released in the wake of international pressure (and, probably, bribes). In 1999 he moved to the United States for "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 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."
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 continues to do 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.
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. Instead, it is inspired by the Spanish artist Paula Rego, the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke, and the 19th-century French poet Charles Baudelaire. What Dog Woman makes evident is that Abani is not a poet who is limited to his African experience; he 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: 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. . . 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."
Charles Mudede is an associate editor for the Seattle newspaper The Stranger, and he teaches at Pacific Lutheran University. His work has appeared in The Village Voice, Sydney Morning Daily, and The New York Times.
© 2006 by Charles Mudede. All rights reserved.
Distributed by the Poetry Foundation at www.poetryfoundation.org