Alumnus Chris Abani writes of torment and grace
By Pamela J. Johnson
Five and a half years ago, Chris Abani was unemployed and playing the saxophone at Santa Monica Pier.
Those who tossed coins into his open case didn’t know that the Nigerian-born musician playing the blues had survived horrors as a political prisoner in his homeland. They didn’t know he was an accomplished novelist.
USC College’s Ron Gottesman knew. He was familiar with Abani’s poetry book chronicling his prison experiences, Kalakuta Republic (Saqi Books, 2000). Gottesman helped to get Abani enrolled in the College’s then-new doctoral program in literature and creative writing.
In December, Abani became the program’s first graduate when he earned his Ph.D. in literature and creative writing. He’s published six novels, poetry and nonfiction books and is working on his seventh about an East L.A. man who longs to be a woman. And in an extremely rare appointment, the University of California, Riverside hired Abani as a tenured associate professor before he completed his Ph.D.
Gottesman, now professor of English emeritus, understands why all the fuss. Friends from the literary organization PEN introduced him to Abani after the writer arrived from London, where Abani had earned his master’s degree in gender, society and culture. After Abani’s life was threatened, he fled London and arrived in Southern California with few possessions.
“It was love at first sight,” Gottesman said. “My wife and I and other friends helped him with money and things like pots and pans and clothes and books. He was renting a room in East Los Angeles.”
Gottesman sought to recruit Abani to the College after reading Kalakuta Republic, which he said “was like eating a bowl of barbed wire for breakfast.”
Much of Abani’s work reflects the tormenting events in his life. But the first novel he wrote at 16 was a thriller. Published in Nigeria in 1985, the Nigerian regime claimed the novel was a blueprint for General Mamman Vatsa’s coup. Abani, who said the novel was his teenage fantasy, served six months in prison for treason.
Once released, Abani began writing about government corruption in Nigeria.
“This initial brush with the government was not deliberate on my part,” the soft-spoken writer said, inside his temporary office at Antioch University in Los Angeles, where he was also teaching creative writing.
“But having once been brushed by the wings of the demon, I became the demon hunter.”
In Nigeria, Abani was again incarcerated for his writing. This time, he spent a year in Kiri-Kiri maximum-security prison, so-called Kalakuta Republic. There, Abani was tortured extensively and routinely, episodes he describes in Kalakuta Republic. He was released, but returned to Kiri-Kiri after he wrote a play condemning the Nigerian government. He was placed on death row and spent six months in solitary confinement.
A group of friends forced his release and Abani fled to London. Eventually, he learned that Nigerian regime members had tracked him down. He fled London after a Nigerian man in his apartment building was stabbed to death. Abani believed he was the actual target.
So when Gottesman found Abani playing the sax on the Santa Monica pier, Abani had already endured what seemed like many lifetimes. “I feel very old,” the 39-year-old said recently. “But I believe in grace. There is grace in the universe.”
Gottesman persuaded the Ph.D. writing program’s founding director, Professor Carol Muske-Dukes, to read Abani’s work.
Muske-Dukes said she was instantly taken by Abani’s poetry and genuine charm. Abani received a Middleton Fellowship and enrolled.
“Chris and I talk about the word, baraka, meaning‘gift’ in Swahili and other languages,” Muske-Dukes said. “I think Chris is baraka in my life. He’s given so much.”
Poet David St. John, the program’s director, said he was impressed by Abani’s dedication to his craft.
St. John said Abani was among the highly select group of students that make the program unique.
“Our goal,” he said, “is to send out into the world not only remarkable writers but substantial scholars as well.”
Abani has received numerous awards. For his novel GraceLand (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2004), he won the 2005 Hurston/Wright Legacy Award for Debut Fiction; the PEN Hemingway Prize for Fiction; and was a 2005 finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Fiction.
In a 2004 PEN-sponsored program in which an established writer introduces a younger writer, Salman Rushdie chose Abani. Walter Mosley, acclaimed author of over 19 books, chose GraceLand to discuss on the “Today Show” book club, and appeared with Abani on the TV show.
English Professor and novelist Percival Everett recalled Abani’s stunning talent.
“He’s such a hard worker that he nearly drove me crazy,” Everett said. “I would send him away to rewrite 50 pages and he'd be back the next day with the 50 and 20 more. He’s a generous spirit. He is a true artist.”
Abani credited his USC professors for helping to give his writing depth.
He said St. John encouraged him to let his imagination soar. After his classes, Abani said he began to realize that everything in life is connected. At times, however, it took a while for St. John’s lessons to sink in. Like when St. John spent an hour discussing fine art, speaking about the beauty and complexity of Picasso. Abani wondered what all that had to do with writing.
“A few days later,” Abani recounted, “I was walking down the street and realized ‘Oh my God, I’m Picasso!’ ”
Brushed by the Demon
Alumnus Chris Abani writes of torment and grace