The big man with a small voice … Babel’s Chris Abani

Best. Babel. Ever.

It’s as simple as that. Of the twelve authors I have seen over the past two years, besides the more superstar names like Michael Ondaatje and Salman Rushdie—easy fodder to gather excitement on my end to read—Chris Abani is the first to invigorate me enough that I literally want to do nothing but finish the book I have been pretending to read the past five months and begin his Graceland. Right from the get-go of his season-ending appearance for Just Buffalo Literary Center’s Babel, I was sold. Unafraid to admit that he wrote difficult books devoid of a moral code or good and bad so we as the readers can infer upon our own value system to decide which is which, he even subverted his penchant for ‘gallows humor’ by telling a South African joke—“they tell the best”—before a tasteless crack at his heritage followed by the statement, “you have to laugh at bad jokes. Don’t be politically correct”. This was my kind of guy.

Born in Nigeria and a member of its civil unrest, jailed multiple times during his 26 years there, this half Igboo, half English novelist eventually found his way to California. Coming from a country where race was meaningless as ethnicity ruled the day, he has no qualms with the myriad of influences in his life—he even says he had an Indian accent in younger years due to one being his English teacher in Nigeria—and wears his new West Coast flavor as a badge of honor, relaying that he probably says ‘dude’ more than people who’ve lived there their whole life. The stories he shared were brutal such as being in a cell with a fourteen year old eventually left to bleed to death over three days, and to hear the crowd’s shocked reactions after he said he toned down the violence in his books only makes me want to read them more. To Abani, when you’ve seen and lived through gross atrocities, it is your job to not hold back on the truth. It is your responsibility to honor those who’ve died and to show that you can survive and be better for experiencing it.

Abani spent much of his lecture reciting an essay he wrote about why he writes and what he writes. He explained the violence, he spoke of the world lacking sentimentality so too would his books, and he taught us that life is about managing difficulty with delight. It isn’t all about being happy; happiness is unnecessary. It’s delight and fun that we need to get through the tough times and survive. He was fearless when talking about killing, whether an enemy on the battlefield or for dinner. As a boy he was scared to take a goat’s life, even though he had done so with chickens before. A friend, someone who had been in war and had seen horrors he couldn’t even imagine, came down and helped him through it, taking the time to tell him it was all right. Sometimes, he told Abani, knowing it’s hard is enough. Sometimes that knowledge alone can get you through the guilt and the regret. Life is pain and that is the truth. So many people in this world hate so strongly because it’s easy. Once the hate is gone, all that’s left is the pain.

Upon completing the essay, a well written, enthralling speech, the question and answer period simply enhanced the everyman attitude dripping forth. Abani is the kind of guy you would want to go grab a drink with. His ease in speaking and his keen ability to be nothing but entertaining and interesting made the time fly by. There were gems flowing from his mouth every second, and I leave the following to express his greatness. I really can’t wait to read his work because if it’s even half as good as his talk, it must be filled with masterpieces.

• On Nigeria having a wealth of literary talent: “We’re all just New Yorkers on the other side … ambitious, driven, odd people.”
• On the real Graceland’s tackiness: “With all this money, this is the shit you build?”
• On his political activism: “I wrote a bizarre thriller at 16 with a Nigerian James Bond which became the blueprint for a general’s attempted coup. They threw me into maximum-security prison. I then became aware.”
• On sentimentality in art: “I leave that to Steven Spielberg. Sometimes things just don’t have meaning.”
• On Dr. Phil-isms: “I should write a book called Ancient African Wisdom with the kind of slogans he uses. Let’s make one up now—Just because you can walk your dog doesn’t mean you can clean your own shit up.”
• On our learned moral code: “There are no superior people. We should live by an ethnical code of putting ourselves in the situation of others. You must not damage others in pursuit of your own morality.”
• On Twinkies: “Reading comic books and seeing advertisements for sea monkeys and Twinkies, the first thing I did when I landed in America in 2000 was eat one. So disappointing.”

Babel 2011/2012 Season:
Amos Oz (Israel) – October 27, 2011 – A Tale of Love and Darkness
Naomi Shihab Nye (United States) – December 2, 2011 – Transfer
Zadie Smith (England) – March 21, 2012 – White Teeth
Alexander McCall Smith (Scotland) – April 12, 2012 – The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency
Buy your tickets today by clicking here.

Courtesy of Bruce Jackson.

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