/ 7 October 2011

Humanity’s willing curator

Humanity's Willing Curator

I am complicated, contradictory, lazy, always looking for the right question (because that is all there really is to life), happy, moody and always up for spicy food.

My ideal reader is a person who loves language, who loves to roll words around inside them like ­chocolate. A person for whom the Green Lantern comics, [the old] Drum magazine, Chimurenga, the old Lance Spearman photo comics of the 1970s and Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart carry existential and beautiful messages. A person who loves the superficial things of life enough to have a sense of humour and loves the deeper things enough to have a sense of purpose. A person like me, who is in awe of ­literature.

I grew up with a large amount of literary privilege in a house where, by the time I was 12, I had read James Baldwin’s Another Country, George Orwell’s 1984, Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, most of Ez’kia Mphahlele and Alex La Guma, Achebe, Amos Tutuola and more — all the Batman, Silver Surfer and Powerman comics I could find, the Bhagavad Gita, the Bible, the Qur’an, the Upanishad and many, many more.

I grew up in the 1970s watching Nigerian, American, British and Australian TV shows with the same amount of awe as I did reading. I grew up with a mother who listened all the time to classical music, British pop and John Coltrane, and a father who loved ET Mensah, Rex Lawson, South African township jazz and Brazilian music, with older brothers who listened to Bob Marley, James Brown, Nigerian 1970s pop, the Jackson Five, the Osmonds and many more.

I snuck out to watch Chinese kung-fu movies, Bollywood movies and westerns in open-air cinemas. All these and more have shaped and continue to shape my art. I believe that I have spent the past 20 years of my life understanding the amazing books, music, television and films that I absorbed in those first 12 years. These and the many lives and cultures I am privileged to brush up against are my inspiration and teachers.

Sadly, I write everything in long hand, with specific pens on specific paper (which changes with every book) and then I transcribe them to a computer.

This neither helps nor hinders the process or the product. It is simply how I work. I wish I could type directly on a computer. I would have more books in the world. But I hate typing the way some ­people hate ironing — with a passion.

The purpose of fiction for the reader is to introduce you to yourself, to the limits of your world view, to the possibility of a life bigger than you could imagine on your own, to a global community, to the awe of language and to challenge always your complacency in the face of your own fears and change.

And when we are lucky as writers we make these kinds of books — we become, as it were, curators of the humanity of the world. Oh, and also, to have fun, that is why [Dan Brown’s] The Da Vinci Code is as important as [Yvonne Vera’s] Butterfly Burning.

The purpose of poetry is much the same as fiction, with the one exception: poetry offers us, more often than not, the chance to bump up against our own souls.

African writers are exploding with new talents and possibilities. Just read Open City by Teju Cole — nice one, as the Jamaicans say. Also Eric Miyeni has a novel coming soon that I read in draft. But I think that, more than anything, the explosive talent and range of work by female African writers in the past 10 years — Zoë Wicomb, Chimamanda Adichie, Sefi Atta, Chika Unigwe, Shailja Patel and many more — has been awe-­inspiring, truly so.

Audre Lorde once said: “Black people are art.” I want to expand on that, to take in the amazing diversity of the continent, and say: African ­people are art. We are the only hope the world has to survive with its humanity intact.

Chris Abani is part of this year’s Poetry Africa tour, which will take in Blantyre (October 8), Johannesburg (October 11), Harare (October 13), and Cape Town (October 15). The tour culminates at the Poetry Africa festival in Durban from October 17 to 22. The line-up also includes Ghanian-Jamaican Kwame Dawes, Kenyan Shailja Patel, Lebo Mashile, Botswanan Tjawangwa TJ Dema, Senegalese rapper Didier Awadi and Zimbabwean musician Chiwoniso. For details visit www.cca.ukzn.ac.za.