Blackface reversed

How far into darkness can you go before you can actually return?” That’s what Nigerian author Chris Abani asks in his novel GraceLand, recently shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize. He aims to address the question of the possibility of redemption.

“The way in for me was to ask questions like, when is the birth of conscience? Not just for a character in a novel, but also for the writer writing the novel. It became an attempt to come to terms with how conscience is developed, how flawed the notion of having a conscience is.”

At the age of 16, Abani had published his first novel, Masters of the Board, which he describes as “a very bad crime thriller about neo-Nazis taking over Nigeria to reinstate the Fourth Reich … Precocious,” he says wryly. “Thrillers were fascinating to me because you can indulge all your adolescent fantasies about guns and women in them. I thought it would bring me fame and wealth.”

But in a peculiarly cruel twist (since he was completely unpoliticised at the time) he was involved in what he refers to as his “accidental encounter with history”. General Mamman Vatsa — the head of the Association of Nigerian Authors, and Abani’s mentor at the time — was accused of plotting a coup, and of using Abani’s novel as a blueprint. “In the novel certain strategic targets had to be blown up, and when he was arrested he was carrying a copy my novel,” says Abani. He was arrested and spent six months in prison. He came out with “a mix of idealism and a saviour complex”.

After the publication of his second novel, Sirocco, about terrorism — “the PLO putting a biological agent in the water supply of Europe … it never really saw the light of day; again the government assumed this was some attempt to get people to revolt against them” — and his involvement in anti-government guerrilla theatre, Abani served his second prison term, this time at Kiri Kiri maximim security prison. This time it involved torture. He was sobered.

“You’re in prison with people who have no real political ambition. These are people who came into confrontation with authority in terms of, say, watching a soldier on the street beating someone, and intervened.”

Abani refers to GraceLand as his “first novel — because it’s the first serious novel I’ve written”. A question important to him is “What is an African?” He cites South African author Bessie Head (also biracial, as is Abani: his father was Nigerian and his mother is English) as a role model in this regard.

“Most of our wars are fought over the notions of purity; ethnic purity,” he says. “But as a Nigerian, and more importantly as an Igbo, you don’t think of yourself as an African, except when you’re in the context of the larger society.

“There is an exchange of art between African-Americans and Africans on the continent that has been overlooked for a long time. Acknowledgements have been made in music, but the literature has been overlooked. I grew up reading James Baldwin and Ralph Ellison, and I wanted to bring the dialogue together. I wanted to point to certain positions that would occur within the ‘performance of masculinity’.

“And there was Elvis Presley, copying the more fluid African-American dancers, which this kid in Nigeria tries to copy again … and so the culture is this fluid intermixing of things.”

The protagonist of GraceLand, Elvis Oke (his late mother had been a fan of the King), is a 16-year-old, chain-smoking Elvis impersonator in Lagos. Essentially it is a “reversal of blackface”, says Abani — Elvis dusts his face with talcum powder, and dances for the straggling expats on the beach.

Elvis hopes for dollars, but instead he doesn’t even make enough naira for his bus fare home. Soon he is following his friend Redemption into a life of crime.

‘If you put an individual in extremity,” says Abani, “the things that are façade eventually begin to crack … Part of this is tied up with how you become a man in a culture where there is confusion. As a modern Nigerian you live in a schizophrenic situation, where you have all the trappings of a Westerner, and you’ve still got a lot of the sensibilities of an older culture, and you’re caught between these two demands. There are a lot of masquerades: all the rituals involve painting, wearing masks, men perform as women. There is constant transvestitism going on. And masculinity becomes an ambiguous performance.

“He can’t access his mother, and so he’s missing a vital part of himself that he needs to grow,” says Abani. “And he needs his father’s endorsement.” Though an Oxford graduate, his own father disapproved of the young Abani’s writing, and burned his manuscripts.

“I had a peculiar situation with my father, because we had opposing views. He worked for a government that I didn’t particularly like. And that sort of conflict created situations where he publicly shamed me, where he disowned me — [this] in a culture where you are your family before you’re your individual self.

“In a sense I was not a man as far as my father was concerned, because I was more interested in love. Not in a Hallmark way, but in the sort of notions of fluidity, in the idea of words, and the power of them … And my father died, as Elvis’s father dies, without giving him the stamp of approval that young men need from their fathers to feel that they’re men. So constantly the flux of his sexuality, his thought processes and his devolvement into a life of crime with Redemption is about looking for that masculine approval.

“The novel is essentially about dancing. As a young man coming to consciousness in Africa, there is a dance expected of you. From the men in your community to perform your masculinity, from the womenfolk, and what the West expects from you as a good African.”

After Abani went into exile in London in 1992, he didn’t speak or write about his prison experiences “for about five years. Finally I decided, if I was to articulate it in any way at all, it would have to be through poetry.

“But you have to have a sense of humour,” he adds. “People take themselves so seriously when they’re writing … Even in the darkest poems there are things that make people laugh … I always have to tell people it’s okay. You’re not a ghoul if you laugh at my pains.” He has published three volumes of poetry, Kalakuta Republic, Daphne’s Lot and Dog Woman.

In 1999, when his neighbour was killed for no apparent reason and Abani believed he might have been the target (it followed public readings of poems), he left London for Los Angeles. Ironically, though a place where many people go to be discovered, Los Angeles is also “a good place to get lost”, he says.

“Los Angeles is more like Lagos than anywhere else … There are some days when I’m driving and the light hits the freeway and I think I’m back in Lagos, and I’m expecting someone by the side of the road to sell bananas to me.”

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