Meet Chris Abani, the Big Guy

By Yami Bamgboye


After Nigeria’s first generation writings had witnessed the emergence of a handful of writers who had acquired a good education and had possessed skills in varying quanta to run commentaries on the socio-political happenings that characterized the colonial and post-colonial atmosphere, the second and third generation writings witnessed the emergence of more writers including male and female. Unlike the first generation writings that focused on identity crisis, cultural tussles and historical narratives, theirs delved more on the brazen decadence that was ravaging our political institutions, destroying the fabrics of oneness and above all, impudently attacked the oppressive governments at the time. During that period, many people were incarcerated for daring and many lost their lives in the struggle. One of such was Ken Saro Wiwa, a fine writer of high magnitude. He was indicted in a politically orchestrated murder of nine of his kinsmen and was sentenced to death by hanging (1995). For Chris Abani, his story is similar to Wole Soyinka’s except that he was much younger.

Chris Abani was born in Afikpo, Nigeria to an Igbo father by an English mother. He discovered his love for writing quite early and was fortunate to publish his very first novel, Masters of the Board, in 1985 at the age of 16. Being a political thriller centring on a recent military coup, he was imprisoned for six months on suspicious attempts to overthrow the government. To many, that was enough reason to be deterred. For Chris Abani, it was ‘many a reason’ to do more. In 1987, Chris published another novel, Sirocco and was picked up shortly afterwards. This time, he spent one whole year in incarceration. This singular act fueled his passion the more and made him more daring. When he became free again, he wrote many anti-government plays that were performed on the streets near government offices for two years before he was picked up the third time and placed on death row. As fate would have it, his friends were able to bribe some government officials to secure his release in 1991 when he was just 22. Immediately, Chris Abani travelled to the United Kingdom, lived there until 2001 before relocating to the United States where he now lives.

Today, Chris Abani is 51 and a professor of English at Northwestern University. He began his education here in Nigeria and obtained a university degree in English and Literary Studies from Imo State University. His M.A was in Gender and Culture from Birkbeck College, Universiity of London, another M.A in English from the University of Southern California and a Ph.D in Creative Writing and Literature from the same university.

Over the years, Chris Abani, the big guy who seems to have a thing for saxophone, has successfully walked his way to the top (after paying his dues as a young man that was [still is] so passionate about his fatherland). So far, he has written many essays, research papers and books including: Masters of the Board (Delta, 1985), Sirocco (1987), GraceLand (FSG 2004/Picador2005), The Virgin of Flames (Penguin, 2007), The Secret History of Las Vegas (Penguin, 2014), Becoming Abigail (Akashic Books, 2006), Song For Night (Akashic Books, 2007), Kalakuta Republic (Saqi, 2001), Daphne’s Lot (Red Hen Press, 2003), Dog Woman (Red Hen Press, 2004), Hands Washing Water (Copper Canyon Press, 2006), There are no names for red (Red Hen Press, 2010), Feed me the sun (Peepal Tree Press, 2010), Sanctificum (Copper Canyon Press, 2010) including Lagos Noir, a 224-page anthology he’s editing, set to be published by Akashic Books in June 2018. He has also won many awards like: The Edgar Prize (2014), Ford United States Artists Fellow (2014), Guggenheim Fellow in Fiction (2009), A New York Times Editor’s Choice (The Virgin of Flames) (2007), Winner, PEN Hemingway Book Prize, 2005 (GraceLand), among others. He was also the star guest at the 2017 Lagos International Poetry Festival.



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