Compassion, Courage, and Doubt… You Know, the Small Stuff

An interview with Nigerian writer Chris Abani…

| Web Exclusive, June 2010

  • Chris Abani photo

  • Chris Abani photo

Nigerian writer Chris Abani’s first novel, Masters of the Board, landed him in prison for six months in 1985. He was accused of plotting a coup against the Nigerian government. Two years later his writing earned him a second prison sentence. In a 2005 interview he puzzled at his government’s decision to set him free a second time: “I’m not sure what they were thinking when they released me… That I would stop making art?”

Five books of poetry, two novels, two novellas, and about a dozen prestigious literary honors later Abani is still at it. And he’s managed to hang on to his freedom too. Abani is at his best—and most visceral—when he is wrestling with the big stuff: compassion, courage, and terror. He pulled all of these giants together in an essay published in the annual journal Witness that is as accessible as it is profound. The essay, called “Ethics and Narrative: the Human and Other,” is a chain of biographical stories, literary quotes, and philosophical musings. I called Abani in Los Angeles to squeeze a bit more out of him and he was all too willing to oblige. Here’s our conversation. Enjoy!

How often do you sit down and write an essay? I’m wondering how that process is different for you from writing a poem or a novel.

I truly believe that writing is a continuum—so the different genres and forms are simply stops along the same continuum. Different ideas that need to be expressed sometimes require different forms for the ideas to float better. I don’t write essays as often as I should.

Partly, you know, I’m from Nigeria—middle class Nigerian, so I spent most of my life in school. I was doing graduate degrees in the ‘80s and early ‘90s when everyone was writing post-modernist, unintelligible essays. I love essays, but they’re not always the best way to communicate to a larger audience. What tends to happen is that I’ll have an idea and I will say something about it and someone will say to me, “Oh, that would make a really interesting essay.” Then I get into this sort of place where I think, “Oh, no, I’m back in school. I can’t do this.”

When you decide to write an essay, does it come quickly?

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