The Rumpus Interview with Chris Abani

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I’m not one of those people who recounts the plots of movies or TV shows or the latest New Yorker cartoon I thought really hit it. So forgive me while I contradict myself. But a few years ago there was this New Yorker cartoon that struck a chord and has stuck with me to this day. In the drawing is a guy standing in front of his house, surrounded by men with machine guns. The caption says something like, Closing in on the Last Humanist in America—or something to this effect. Chris Abani could be this guy: a genuine, authentic, howling humanist on the American landscape, calling out to us to acknowledge and share our common joy and our common pain. Only if we accept, Abani seems to say, what we all must endure—whoever we are—can we make any progress at all toward the alleviation of suffering. Out of hundreds of examples I could turn to in Abani’s work, here is one from his book length poem Sanctificum:

The glue that bound the pages of an old book dries and breaks free.
I am snowed on by flakes of white. Snowed under.
This book will not let me leave unmarked.
How is it that a Californian poet could write so eloquently
about this Nigerian boy’s life without even knowing him?

He’s talking here about the poet Larry Levis, another writer who couldn’t help but translate what he saw into the truth, no matter how rough. And in this way, the California poet meets the Nigerian/American/Londoner/Los Angeleno/Chicagoan. Which is what Abani is all about—making connections in a world that does its best to separate us. Abani asks, demands, that we look both in the mirror and at the world and see—not what we are told is out there, but what we ourselves see. His books have this strange effect: we are deeply in their world, but we emerge from them more deeply invested in our own.

In book after book, poem after poem, Abani has been giving us his people, memorable characters who stay with you, old friends you never shake. Elvis. Abigail. My Luck. Black. And now, in The Secret History of Las Vegas, we come to know Fire and Water, Sunil, Fred, Salazar…amid all their flaws, all their failures, all their battered grace. Call The Secret History of Las Vegas a thriller—and it is one: an often gut-wrenching page-turner—I’ll call it a philosophical, humanist exploration about what it means to be connected to other people in an increasingly transactional world. And, yes, it’s also a thriller.

I sat down with Chris Abani at his home on a frigid night in Chicago. Over Indian food, we talked about the new book and much else, as the windchill dropped into the negative twenties.

***

The Rumpus: With each novel, although there are definite connections (a preoccupation with characters who live on the margins, a brutal lyricism, bizarre plots that are nonetheless grounded in reality), you seem driven to re-invent yourself. Here again, an unexpected book. Can you talk about the opening of The Secret History of Las Vegas? Where did that image of Fire and Water standing in Lake Mead originate?

Chris Abani: I’m not entirely sure myself where the image came from, but I just saw it as clear as a postcard: a man attempting to drown another attached to his side, a parasitic conjoined twin. And I recognized something almost instinctually about them: that there was an air of the elemental about them and I knew then that they would be called Fire and Water. So the first sentence I wrote was: “He wasn’t drowning a baby.”

The Secret History of Las VegasThe rest came later, over four years. First it was set in the Salton Sea in California, and was about conjoined twins who hated each other and were always trying to murder each other. Then I saw Lake Mead and knew this was the real setting for the drowning scene. Lake Mead opened up Las Vegas as the best city for the novel. And naturally, with conjoined twins, the idea of sideshows and “freakery” and that whole underbelly that is seductive.

I spiraled there for a year or so, with pages of spectacle but no story. Frequent visits to the Strip convinced me there was more still to that area, a haunting out of sight. So I began to visit ghost towns and it was out in the desert—Vegas’s backstage, so to speak—that the novel finally took shape. I found Sunil, and then Fred, and finally, Salazar. And I reworked it into the book it now is.

Rumpus: For me, Fire and Water are two of the most unique characters in recent fiction. How did they evolve in your mind?

Abani: Fire and Water are archetypes, the split sides of consciousness; one aware, the other, not. The two parts of us that desire synthesis, yet resist it: the self and the shadow. But they are also the element of chance, of the random roll of dice. And since the book is ultimately about friendship and love, they form the perfect bond, the ultimate unbreakable familial bond. They didn’t so much evolve as come fully formed. They were a gift.

Rumpus: Ah, a gift, but from whom? Are you saying they started out as a kind of abstraction and then took shape as characters?

Abani: I’m not sure from who. Probably my unconscious. They were never abstractions. They were always Fire and Water and they were conjoined, and I knew that what passed for love on the surface was a deep kind of mutual self-loathing. I knew them as people with feelings. What was an abstraction was the shape of the story they could and would inhabit. That evolved—the book evolved around them. They were always its heart and Sunil its head.

Rumpus: Have you always wanted to write a thriller? And this book certainly is one, although at the same time, patently unlike any other I’ve ever read…

Abani: The first novel I wrote, Masters of The Board, was a thriller, so this is in many ways a return to my origins. That first book was also an odd thriller. A plot by neo-Nazis to take over Nigeria and institute the Fourth Reich, that had to be thwarted by a Nigerian James Bond character called Kayode Williams. The entire plot of the novel was based on a Bobby Fischer chess game.

Rumpus: Bobby Fischer? What got you interested in Bobby Fischer back then?

Abani: I had great friends as a kid. Weird kids like me. One of them, Bobby Enebeli, was a genius, and I don’t use that word lightly. He built rockets, radios, wrote novels, and he taught me chess. He loved Bobby Fischer ‘cause they shared a name and because Fischer never fit in. This smart guy who just couldn’t seem to find his way in the world. A perfect hero for me, too. I guess I’ve always been drawn to outsiders, but unique ones.

Rumpus: The pacing of The Secret History of Las Vegas gallops and yet the prose is, at the same time, dense—the way I like a book, any book. How do you achieve narrative propulsion without sacrificing complexity of character?

Abani: The propulsion, the narrative pacing, is a convention of the genre. So I can’t claim any super powers there.

Rumpus: Fine, but there’s nothing very conventional about the movement of this book: you’re moving around in time, moving from character to character, tones are changing, there are different registers in the prose. How was it putting this complex story together? Was it a more difficult book than some of the others?

Abani: The greatest thing about form and convention is that it saves you from having to reinvent the wheel. Now, whether you mount the wheel to a horse carriage or a Formula One racing car, make it plain or give it spinning rims, those are all craft decisions. But the fact of the wheel remains: it will turn if you set it down. That’s what I mean about the beauty of the gifts genre can offer.

This book took me the longest time—five years—to write. It was complex getting every piece of the puzzle to line up and where in the book to do so. It was hard, too, because when it was first fully finished it was about 500 pages. Way too long. I wouldn’t read a 500-page book. So I began to prune it, to tighten it up so that, in the words of Elmore Leonard, I only had the bits the reader would want to read left. It was hard, but as with all books and all writers, we have help from our friends. Like you, like Sarah Valentine, like Cristina García, and so forth. No one makes a good book alone. But the bouncing around, the non-linear narrative is my way; it’s something I’ve done in every book. Maybe with this one I finally got good at it.

Rumpus: Let’s talk about the dangers of fiction, in general—as they are perceived and as they exist in reality. Your books have been banned, correct?

Abani: GraceLand was removed from the high school reading list in Florida. It was funny when the TV reporter held up the book to the purported offensive pages and they were pixilated, as though to protect viewers from contamination.

GraceLand

Fiction is more dangerous than nonfiction because it can seduce better. I think we all know this, know that deeper truths can be approached in fiction than in fact. There are risks for the reader, because after reading certain books you find you have changed irreversibly. There are risks for writers: in China, now, and Ethiopia and other countries right now, writers face real persecution. Fiction is risky for writers also in that the process of making certain books, of shaping certain narratives, leaves scars and marks on your inner life.

If there was no risk, it wouldn’t be art. It wouldn’t be worth making. There is risk even in a fairy tale. Fiction is closest to pure narrative, and pure narrative is simply the logic we try to impose on an ever-changing reality.

Rumpus: What about risk and some of your characters? I think of Black in Virgin of Flames, My Luck in Song For Night, certainly Elvis in GraceLand, not to mention the character of yours who might be the most courageous of all, Abigail in Becoming Abigail

Abani: I really did come to writing by being a reader. Most of the books I read as a very young boy—the Bible, the Koran, the Bhagavad Gita, the Enid Blyton books, the adventures of Quartermas, The Day of the Triffids, Dostoevsky and Chekhov, Baldwin, Fredrick Forsythe, Robert Ludlum, Michener, even Leon Uris, comic books, Faulkner, Steinbeck—they were all about risk. They were, in their own ways, evaluating and repositioning the risk of being a human with consciousness but no more import in the vastness of existence as a twig, and the danger of consciousness unchecked magnifying that despair.

Narrative is a very feeble weapon in the face of human darkness and yet it’s all we have. That we have to hang the transformation and survival of our species on the journey and transformation of one singular person so far outside of what we expect they can do. So all my characters exist in risk, in the places we are either too afraid to go to, or have enough privilege not to have to, but whatever the reason, these characters I fashion go before us and come back transformed for us. For me, at least.

Rumpus: And now we have Sunil, a doctor who studies psychopaths, a risk-taker of a very different sort. He’s not the bravest of souls, and yet he’s honest, for the most part, and he’s fearless in his own way. What’s driving Sunil to want to know the truth about Fire and Water?

Abani: Sunil is complicated because he is brave when it comes to his self-preservation, but not so much when he has to risk for others. He is quite typical of humans in that way. But he is redeemed by his honesty because it keeps him from lying to himself, and when he does, he knows he is doing it. Sunil knows that to understand Fire and Water is to set himself free. To make peace with the shamed parts of him and the good parts of him somehow lie in understanding the transformational power Fire and Water hold for him. He finds a guide, Salazar, and he goes on the quest into his dark side. And in the end, what he finds is not a deep world shattering truth. What he finds is a simple love, a simple friendship, and that is what elevates him to a new person.

But since I hold no judgments against my characters, no matter how heinous they might seem, I present them as real people with their own moral centers. We might feel those moral centers are mis-calibrated, but they are there and are the rudders that propel them. This makes reading my work a visceral roller coaster, ‘cause the reader must embark on the journey of the protagonist equipped only with his or her own moral center. Unlike other books or TV shows or sometimes life, my narrative worlds are stripped of implicit moral centers. There is only what you bring. That makes the characters risky in every way and the narrative, a journey of change for the reader. But I make the journey as fun as I can.

Rumpus: Another thread that appears in both your fiction and poetry, as well, is a confrontation with major issues from the recent and not-so-recent past. In The Secret History of Las Vegas, you take on the after-effects of nuclear testing, as well as the legacy of apartheid. How does one go about connecting individual characters to what we might call some of the most man-made tragedies of recent history?

Abani: The truth is that History, with its imposing capital H, is simply the amalgamation of many quotidian lives lived in very ordinary ways. History is always personal. If you read Holocaust survivor or American slavery survivor narratives, you realize all too well that these great Historical moments were personal to someone at some time. Or if you encounter a human shadow burned permanently into the concrete in Hiroshima, you realize that this is the trace of a very ordinary person now elevated into the emblematic. Time, shame, complicity, or discomfort are the only things that make us pretend History is impersonal or far removed from the power and consequences of our every lived moment. So in this way when I write, I approach History and its population of events and people without the filters, without distance, and I implicate myself in them. We too, living very ordinary lives, are implicated in the Historical remembrance of our time.

Rumpus: Cities have always played an important role in your work. Lagos, Los Angeles. Now Las Vegas. What is it about Las Vegas that first attracted you?

Abani: I think cities are the primordial forests of our time. We evolve faster as a species in cities. Cities are chaotic, liminal places where the many aspects of human potential, good and/or bad, are most readily magnified. I love this primal rawness. But I soon tire of all the well-lit parts of a city and begin to seek out the underbelly, trying to get at the projector behind the glittery projection, and this is what made me look for the Las Vegas that others might not see. I approach my characters (and cities in my work are as much characters as they are setting) without judgment, without fear. I’m always amazed by the bounty they yield.

Rumpus: Often your work is international. Your people come from all over the globe and you have no compunction about getting inside their heads. And yet, at the same time, you don’t make a big deal about this. Does this have something to do with how you’ve experienced the world in your own varied life?

The Virgin of FlamesAbani: I suppose there is something of my own personal history in this. My mother was a white English woman and my father Igbo, a Nigerian. So you can argue that aside from growing up biracial, I also grew up bilingual, and at home, at very least, bicultural. I also grew up in Nigeria in the ‘70s, right after the civil war. I had teachers who were Indian, Filipino, Indonesian. The supermarkets were run by Greeks and Lebanese. There was American, British, and Australian television. Movies from Bollywood and Hollywood, but also from the now-defunct Pinewood Studios in England, that made all the Hammer House of Horror movies. I read Nigerian, South African, British, Russian, and American comic books, graphic novels, and novels. So I guess I had a truly cosmopolitan upbringing and have always felt drawn to stories wherever they were, like Michener, who wrote sweeping family sagas set all over the world.

And yet, even though my work is set in multiple countries and peopled by characters from different races, nationalities and cultures, there is still a very Igbo worldview that plays through it all. One could even argue that it is this world view, one that allows multiple realities to coexist without contradiction necessarily, that I am able to be so global in my aesthetic: a global Igbo.

Rumpus: You routinely address racial issues in your fiction, and yet at the same time, your characters are never, ever wholly defined by their background. How do you avoid the pitfalls that so many writers fall into when writing about race?

Abani: I don’t honestly know. Perhaps because I didn’t grow up with race being the defining trauma of my identity but rather confronted it much later in life, with a clearer sense of a racial self. I grew up in a country where everyone was black. All power within the microcosm of my world was held and wielded by people who look like me. Plus, I think Nigerians all have this sense that they are better than everyone, including white people. So I have the privilege of a certain distance. It may just be that. So in a sense, I can’t claim that as any ability that I have, simply a matter of circumstance.

Rumpus: You have always paid particular attention to those people who might be considered outsiders. Or let’s say the sort of characters some people might call “freaks.” And yet your freaks, when it comes down to it, are less freakish than the societies that reject them. Am I making any sense here?

Abani: Yes, you are making sense. I think that those of us who are ordinary disappear easily into the backdrop of life and we take things for granted. We often wake up in our lives and wonder how we got there. But the characters I create, the people I am drawn to, are quite extraordinary (and not always in wholesome ways), and they offer us the chance to understand who we really are and how we became who we are. So in that sense, I never make them spectacles. They have a rich inner life, a deeply human sensibility that allows us to make deep, if uncomfortable, connections with them. They are the shadows to our selves. Does that make sense?

Rumpus: Yes, but I’m still going to give you a hard time: how do these people give us a chance to know who we are? Are you saying that we relate to these people because they are us? Somewhere deep down, they’re us?

Abani: Not somewhere deep down, but right there on the skin, on the very surface. They offer us an unapologetic way to see the range of possibilities of what we can, could, should, have, want, yearn, fear to be, and more. They let us see where we made the turns we made to become who we are, because their lives are emblematic of singular lives lived to the max. Lived to a deep truth that they were unafraid to embrace. That’s how. When we embrace them, we are only embracing our own freedom, and when we fear or revile them, we are only fearing and reviling ourselves.

What I do is create a lens through my work that corrects my readers’ cognitive dissonance and says: you will see all of it—not what you want or what makes you comfortable, but all of it. And you will not erase what displeases you. I don’t do this as a confrontation, but it is. It’s that confrontation, that danger, that has haunted us through story, from the first campfire to now, that we face all of ourselves—all our darkness and all of our light simultaneously—while standing without judgment on very loose ground, in the hope that we can become truly human even for one minute. That’s the only gift the writer has. That, and the fact that you better make the story darn entertaining!

Rumpus: Let me get lofty here—it’s getting late. Time for grand thoughts. You are someone who seems to genuinely believe literature can be transformative. You think stories can save us? Especially in a world as brutal as the one you so often depict?

Abani: Literature is an aspect of story and story is all that exists to make sense of reality. War is a story. Now you begin to see how powerful story is because it informs our worldview and our every action, our every justification is a story. So how can story not be truly transformative? I’ve seen it happen in real ways, not in sentimental ways or in the jargon of New Age liberal ideology.

So a guy called Tom goes to South America and sees that many kids don’t have shoes, and he thinks he knows a way to get them shoes. This story he tells himself makes him promise us that if we buy a pair of these shoes he can have made for us cheaply, he will donate a pair to a kid in need. We like this story, and we buy shoes, and Tom gives shoes to kids. And then glasses and now eye surgery. This story has transformed a difficult and somewhat brutal life for many people. Just say TOMS and people know the story from the name. Now what you have to know is that most of the people like Tom, who do these remarkable things, are all readers of books. Books that transform these readers by enabling them to develop their ability to relate to a world, intangible and far removed, that isn’t theirs in a way that involves them emotionally. They develop the empathy muscle.

Stories can call the dead back—why would I not believe they could truly transform us? I am a product of story. I am alive and functioning and aspiring to be compassionate and empathetic in the world because of literature. I am not alone in this—we are legion. That’s why libraries and librarians are so revered and feared by governments. They give transformation out each day to curious kids in small volumes full of pages, in a device that never needs charging. Of course it’s transformative—that’s why even fucked-up men like Hitler wrote Mein Kampf: to transform good and ordinary people into accomplices to a holocaust. If stories can destroy us, they can save us. I firmly believe in the transformative power of the word to save us from our worst selves and mend our worst realities. And when I die, I hope, like my mother, the last words I say are: I am not afraid because I have love. So that even that story of my crossing will be transformative for me and those left behind. And if I can’t muster that, then let me at least say, Fuck! ‘Cause that one word contains it all.

Song for Night

Rumpus: Love might be the one element that links everything you do, including your poetry.  As much as The Secret History of Las Vegas is a thriller, it’s also a love story—more than one love story, actually. This said, there’s never false hope. But would you say that the love element in your books is your way of giving doomed characters a chance? I speak of the ones who make it out of your books alive…

Abani: Love is at once the most creative and yet simultaneously destructive force in the world, and thus, in our lives. And I don’t mean the Hallmark sentimental type of love, although that is part of it. But a deeper obligation that we have to each other: the obligation to reflect our humanness at each other, to reflect back the things others show us and we, them. So yes, love is the thing that binds all my work. And on one level, with my books, I’ve been writing complex love letters—GraceLand was a love letter to my father and to masculinity; Becoming Abigail, a love letter to my inability to see women for everything they are and offer; Song for Night is a love letter to dying, to death and chaos, to the art of crossing to another life; Masters of the Board was a love letter to my country, to find an integrity in leadership that it was lacking; Daphne’s Lot was a love letter to my mother; Kalakuta, to the nameless dead for our shame; Dog Woman is a love letter to men who cannot find the language for tenderness. And on and on.

On so many levels, The Secret History of Las Vegas is about self-love, about finding the place of forgiveness for oneself, about the complex friendships that men share. Of course there is more, but I’ve said too much already… Love is resurrection—it is the path to restoration. So yes, it is a way of giving all my characters a chance, a way to make it out alive.

Rumpus: Can we go back to the beginning? The tree. Selah. The heartbreaking image haunts the entire book: “Then, kissing them on the check, she let herself out just before dawn…” You open the book with Joyce’s quote: “History is the nightmare from which I am trying to awake…” Again, there’s History with a capital H, and history, ours, our family legacies. Is the novel an attempt to give Selah the voice she never quite had?

Abani: Colm Tóibín once called me a good Irish writer, saying that, like Joyce, the ghosts of mothers always haunt my work. It’s true about the ghosts, but only marginally true about being Irish. Elvis’s mother in GraceLand is dead and exists only in the pages of his notebook. In Becoming Abigail, Abigail’s mother dies in childbirth and Abigail spends her life trying to become her mother. In Song for Night, My Luck’s mother is dead. He watches her die. And here, the twins’ mother is dead, existing only in the book as trace, as light, as color, as a tree.

There is an old Afikpo creation story that says that lightning struck a silk cotton tree, splitting it open, and the first man and woman stepped out. Everywhere we look, the tree is the symbol of life, of divinity, of ascension, but it is also the symbol of death—people hung from trees, forests lost to agriculture, wood to make coffins—and so we, as humans, have an amazing symbiotic relationship to trees. If Selah is the mother, the source, and Selah is also the pause in the psalm—the moment to consider the music—and Selah is also the tree, then Selah is that moment between the explosion and the damage, between living and dying. Selah is the gateway to it all. The book is Selah’s voice. We are all just dancing to her song. As for History, it is the nightmare from which, if we are lucky, Literature will wake us from.


Peter Orner is the author of two novels, two story collections (Little, Brown), and the editor of two oral histories (Voice of Witness/ McSweeney's/ Verso). His latest book is Am I Alone Here?, an essay collection published in November, 2016 by Catapult with illustrations by Eric Orner. A new book of oral history set in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, and co-edited with Dr. Evan Lyon, will be published by Voice of Witness/ Verso, in January, 2017. Peter Orner currently teaches at the Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers as well as at San Francisco State University where he is currently chair of the Creative Writing Department. More from this author →