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?
It takes me forever to actually finish something like a ten-page essay. But, when I do, I usually love what they are. It’s a complicated relationship. Fiction and poetry are my first loves, but the really beautiful lyrical essay can do so much that other forms cannot.
What I would like to do at this point is highlight some of what you wrote in your essay "Ethics and Narrative" that really struck me. At the risk of being awkward, I want to read an excerpt or two to you and have you talk a little more about it.
That's fine, yes.
Okay, here’s one…
This is what I know about being human—that we all desire to live with- out fear, or disease, or affliction, but that we all refuse to give up our crutches. James Baldwin said it better: “I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain.”
My grand uncle was a traditional priest and he would always say to me as a kid “We stand in our own light,” which essentially for him meant we were entirely responsible for a lot of what happens to us and for the ways in which our lives play out.
Part of what I was trying to speak to is this: the complicated thing about trying to find transformation our lives both as a collective or individually is that often times the very afflictions that we are trying to let go of are the very things that bring us comfort. I'm not speaking for everyone, but I am certainly speaking for myself—and as somebody who has witnessed a lot of trauma.
Sometimes we say we want an end to hate or racism or sexism. But we all participate in keeping these structures alive. If everyone decided to relinquish the past what would happen to people who feel that there hasn’t been proper atonement made to them? And what happens to the person who feels that the constant atonement is their identity?
These things are complicated and these are not ideas that are original to me. Another example: We say we want everyone in the world to be equal, but we don’t want to give up on an uninterrupted, 24-hour power supply. If we have an uninterrupted power supply then somebody, somewhere cannot—the planet can’t sustain these needs.
The excerpt I read started with, “This is what I know about being human…” Is that what you’re doing when you write—trying to figure out what it means to be human or trying to learn a little bit more about what it means to be human?
I think so. I think that most writers who are trying to write important and difficult books are in many ways putting their own humanity into question. Sometimes the journey is finding out where you stand in relationship to your own humanity and to the humanity of others. There are readers who are willing to come on this train with you, and who, I think, through the revelation of your own vulnerability—another thing Baldwin talks about is that the only time people can connect with what a writer speaks about is when they can sense that the writer’s vulnerability.
For me, as a writer, it’s very important never to forget the beauty of the dialogue. You are not a wise person expounding to people. You are just a person on a journey and the privilege is that other people actually get to witness it through you. It’s a complex symbiotic relationship in that sense.
You get to this in your essay. I’m going to read from it again:
What of compassion, you might ask? … Baldwin said, and I paraphrase, that suffering means something only in so much as someone else can attach his or her suffering to yours. He offered this as a point for young writers to find ways to make their work compelling, but it speaks often to our general tendencies towards the relational. We feel things for others only in so much as those things can fall within the realm of our understanding. This relational model, while laudable, is also, sadly, delusional.
French writer Marguerite Yourcenar says this: “Compassion emphasizes the experience of suffering with those who suffer and it is far from according a sentimental conception of life. It inflicts its knife-like pain only on those who, strong or not, brave or not, intelligent or not, have been granted the humble gift of looking the world in the face and seeing it as it is.” But what if we change the idea of gift to choice? What if compassion, true compassion, requires not the gift to see the world as it is, but the choice to be open to seeing the world as it really is, or as it can be?
I don’t think people think a lot about what compassion really is. Would you agree with that?
Yes. I think it’s true we don’t. But then, you know, people are trying to have a life. The privilege of being a writer is that you have this opportunity to slow down and to consider things. Many people have kids and they’re worrying about the future. I think what happens is that everyday there are beautiful little moments of compassion, but we're so trained to look for the messianic—for the large—that we only see these big moments like the ways in which people come together as communities over tremendous difficulty. You saw this kind of compassion flowing out unimpeded with the terrible tragedy in Haiti. But every single day moments of compassion are happening. The difficulty, of course, is that if you live in this compassionate state all the time it can lead to burnout or action fatigue syndrome, which is a natural syndrome.
Sometimes we think that the people are gifted with compassion; that some people are more compassionate or more courageous than us. I don’t think that’s true. I think daily we make those choices. And I think that we are not often reminded of all the beautiful ways in which we live our individual lives.
What often drives us to compassion or to live in a compassionate way—to advocate and agitate for things—is a desire to see a more equitable world. This is a wonderful thing and what makes us human is this: even though we know we may never get there we choose to keep living as though we can. What's the alternative, you know? The alternative is random chaos. It becomes anarchy. It becomes the total breakdown of everything that is beautiful about us.
You also write about being courageous in the face of ambiguity:
When I was a younger man, I was engaged in an ideological war with the Nigerian dictatorships under which we lived. I use the plural because there were many coups and counter-coups, and many governments were replaced, but they all had one common denominator: they were dictatorships. Upper- middle-class, educated, privileged (although not bulletproof), I campaigned tirelessly to organize protests to rid us of that oppression. I marched with the people I helped to organize—mostly poor, working-class or yet-to-be working-class citizens. Together, we faced down riot police and tear gas and beatings and bullets with nothing more than songs and the uncrushable belief that nothing good could die. But many did, and I paid little attention. I speak only for myself here and not the many good and wonderful thousands of other Nigerians engaged in that struggle with me. But I hardly questioned myself about my privilege and my right to organize these people. Any questions that did come up I rationalized. Had I not myself been imprisoned? Was I not also facing beatings and bullets? I was engaged in a righteous war. Now I have to ask myself if I had the right to place others in harm’s way in the battle for our country’s soul. And it is not because I have regrets, or because I suffer from survivor’s guilt. It is simply that I have to accept this discomfort—that being human, being courageous, requires the ambiguity of doubt. Would I do it again? Probably. Would I feel this conflicted again? Probably. I have no answers. I have no crutches.
I want to hear you talk a little more about courage and doubt.
The thing about courage is this: Courage requires us to take an action. And every time we take an action in this world there is a reaction—basic laws of physics. So, often times we are afraid; we just are not sure that the action we take will create the reaction we need. One has to accept that we’ll never know. In other words, if someone is hungry and you offer them food, you might be offending them. But if you don’t offer them food, they could die of hunger. I would rather offer them food and while they’re eating, let them be angry at me. I’ve seen many bad things come out of people who were trying to do good, but I would rather six bad things happen out of people trying to do good than six good things not happen because people were afraid that six bad things might happen.
I have a friend who is consistently engaged in what you might call courageous acts. She feels that courage is not something that’s innate. She says you have to catch courage and know where to catch it from.
Yes. It’s a practice, you know. And courage isn’t always this huge thing. Everyday I walk past the Whole Foods in my neighborhood, and you know, it’s believed that if you’re buying organic foods you’re a good person…
B ut of course!
…and I see the people wanting to sign you up save the planet and shoppers just walking by all the time. People forget how much courage it takes for somebody who’s holding a clipboard and who actually has a life—this isn’t what they do for a living—to walk up to a complete stranger and risk being told to get lost in order to talk about a cause when everyone is overwhelmed already by everything. We’re always trying to look for courage in these big, messianic terms—Who got nailed to the cross? No, no… courage is a daily thing. It’s the choice to do something you believe is right, no matter how small it is.
I think it’s a aggregation of all of the small acts that are really transformative. I think a group of small acts transform the individual. And maybe when the individual transforms, collectively we transform. The big acts will only sustain us for a little while. Big acts of kindness are very temporary. Now that the media has moved on, who are the people that are still making donations to Haiti? Who are the people that are still trying to do things?
Is writing the way you come to understand things like courage and compassion?
Well, yes, I struggle to understand why, in my thought patterns I have such ideals and such desires but in my day-to-day living I’m nowhere near fulfilling any of them. I was raised Catholic and went to seminary to become a priest, so I’m very well acquainted with guilt—but rather than go the route of mea culpa, mea culpa, I think that the true transformation lies between what is desired and what is what we are unable to do. I struggle between those two.
Here is a very mundane example of how it works: I say to my trainer, “I’m not training as hard as I think I can,” or “I’m eating more than I think I can,” and he just laughs and says, “The moment you think you’re eating more than you should, you’re probably eating less than you used to.” The mere attention brought to it means you’re calculating it, where as before you were unthinkingly shoveling things into your mouth.
So are you aren’t so much writing to understand big ideals as much as you are engaging the tension between who you are and who you want to be?
I write into the space between these two places. And that is why sometimes my writing is very visceral. It’s not my novels are unpleasant, but I think the reader embarks completely on the journey that the protagonist is on and forgets, after awhile, that they’re not the protagonist—and that’s a disturbing place. But we come out transformed and that is what the art that I’m trying to create offers, I think—it’s some true measure of the struggle, if nothing else.