Wednesday, April 11, 2007

In Conversation with Chris Abani

Ahmede: I heard that you wrote your first novel when you were 16, for which two years later you were imprisoned. How did that happen?

Chris Abani: I am sorry to say this, but I really don't like talking about that anymore. So much has been already written and talked about it that it has become the dominant narrative in discussing my work. I would rather just discuss my books.

Ahmede: We know that you are both a poet and a novelist. How do you walk between these two different forms of artistic expression?

Chris Abani: With great difficulty and an uneasy grace. Smile. Experience might be part of it. That when you do something like this as long as I have, you acquire a good sense of what will work best with what form. It also requires a certain surrender, the surrender of self, of the ego of the writer, to put that in service of the story or the narrative or the subject and let it determine what form allows it the most resonance. Of course, one often moves back and forth within one form and between forms to fully discover this. So in a way, it is a joy, this discovery.

Ahmede: In Africa, where many nations never had a scripture, how African can a novel get? Does African novel really exist or it's a Post-colonial fad?

Chris Abani:: If you mean that a literature cannot exist when there is not orthography or a developed and consistent way of writing in the indigenous languages then I would say the same applies to your culture. Much of what is considered your greatest works and epics, were oral for so long before they were written down. It also does not address what a full idea of colonialism is. Much of what used to be India (from which your country chose to break off) involved the subjugation of other people within those boundaries. Some would even say that the Ramayana is simply racist and nationalist propaganda that justified the invasion and conquering of what is now Sri Lanka.
But it is not true that writing didn't exist in "pre-colonial" Africa. The Vai of Ivory Coast, in Igboland we had Nsibidi and the Ethiopians have a long history of a written literature, so no, I don't think the novel in Africa is a post-colonial fad.

Ahmede: For our readers will you share your reading of novels written by South Asians in English?

Chris Abani: Chatterjee, Upamanyu, Desai, Anita, Deshpande, Shashi, Divakaruni, Chitra Banerjee, Ghosh, Amitav, Kalidasa, Lahiri, Jhumpa, Mistry, Rohinton, Mukherjee, Bharati, Narayan, R. K., Roy, Arundhati, Rushdie, Salman, Seth, Vikram, Tagore, Rabindranath and Ved Mehta to mention a few.

Ahmede: Africa has its own languages, vibrant and rich as they are; why, then, do you write in English?

Chris Abani: Because there are 250 different languages in Nigeria alone. Writing in those languages would limit my audience severely. Also, English has become the unofficial lingua franca of the continent, so…