In 1985, the Nigerian poet and writer Chris Abani was arrested and imprisoned on suspicion of masterminding a political coup. The Nigerian government decided that his first novel, Masters of the Board, was a political thriller. Inspired by the world of espionage-writer Ian Fleming, Chris had written the novel two years earlier when he was just 16 years old. The government found it to be a `threat to national security` and incarcerated him. He was released months later but again found out that the Nigerian government did not appreciate his love for creative expression. Since then, Chris Abani has been imprisoned twice more, sentenced to death and tortured by electric shock. He has also thwarted assassins, published two books of poetry, written numerous novels and received a swag of literary awards. Chris turned his prison experience into poems that Harold Pinter called “the most naked, harrowing expression of prison life and political torture imaginable”. His poems are dedicated to those who shared in but did not live through the suffering, like John James, his cellmate, tortured to death in 1991 at the age of 14, and other “kindred spirits, dreamers, fools”. Chris tells stories of people – people standing up to soldiers, people being compassionate, people being human and reclaiming their humanity. “It’s ‘ubuntu,’” he says. “The only way for me to be human is for you to reflect my humanity back at me.”
As a child, you grew up in a privileged household in Nigeria. What was your childhood like?
I was born before the Nigerian Civil War and left the country during it. My mother was English and we had to leave the country. We came back when I was five – post civil war. I spent a lot of time playing with my brothers, reading, watching television and just being a regular child. We travelled a lot and lived in lots of places because my father’s job took us all over Eastern Nigeria.
Were your parents an influence on your career?
Definitely. My father was a Nigerian intellectual who held many important roles throughout his career. My mother was the nucleus of our family and the one who kept me grounded as a person. Earlier on she gave up her career and dreams to be a good mother.
Where does your love for words come from?
My earliest memory of words comes from reading. My mother says I was reading by four. But my first attempt at writing was a short story for school at six, and then a short story at ten that got published. I never looked back from then.
Do you consider yourself more a poet or a novelist?
Poetry is the only art form where language is the subject, so when I am trying to work through ideas that themselves seem ineffable, when I need to invent a language for some impulse, I turn to poetry. I don’t think of it as self-expression. I think it is more than just that. I think that I am a viscous writer – I flow between forms, with difficulty but with joy.
Was there ever a time that you were too afraid to write because of the power and consequences of your words?
Of course. I am still afraid, in a way. Not necessarily of what will happen to me but of the ways in which my works can be misconstrued and used for wrong. But I am compelled to write to the deepest level of humanity that I know.
Did you know you were playing with trouble when you wrote Masters of the Board?
I had no idea. I was sixteen and I wrote a thriller that did well. It clearly had political undertones but its intention was to be a novel. I wrote it in the same vein that Ian Fleming would write an espionage novel.
You spent six months in solitary confinement. Can you describe what you went through?
It obviously was very traumatic. There was no sound, no light and no contact with anyone. You hallucinate. In the end it was a complete evacuation of my mind. You have no concept of time. There is no way to mark time. It’s black.
Was there any spiritual peace in solitary confinement?
I have never met anyone who found spiritual enlightenment in solitary confinement. In solitary confinement there is no intimacy. I found nothing. There is a lot of focus on Africa’s
What does it mean to be African to you?
I have been confused as Maori, Dominican, Arab, Indian, and on everything but African. In fact, other Nigerians often don’t believe I am Nigerian. We live in a world that has been so racialised and we all operate out of stereotypes that have often been foisted on us. To fight it is to lose. I concentrate on the idea of humanity. What does it mean? Who calls it? Who determines what it is and can mean and how it changes for all of us? In this way, I try to avoid the limitations of race or the surface without necessarily ignoring it – a paradox but then it works. I don’t know what it means to be or look African. I know what it means to be Chris Abani.
As a Nigerian living in LA, do you feel at home outside of Nigeria?
Yes, I feel at home everywhere. I think a writer is essentially without a home outside of their art and maybe language, so even in Nigeria, I felt a certain displacement.
But I like to think of myself as a more global soul. I think we all have to now, the way the world has changed, you know? Writing is a kind of spiritual practice for me and so I am always looking for ways to turn everything towards light, towards transformation, but a real one that isn’t sentimental. I don’t know if I ever truly succeed, but I keep trying.
Can you remove yourself from your art?
Yes, I am able to separate myself from my art. Can you imagine how awful a person I would be if I didn’t? I don’t take myself seriously, but I take my art deadly serious.
If you could meet any African artist, who would it be?
I would love to have met Bessie Head and to have spent more time with Yvonne Vera. Bessie wrote the most psychologically intense novel in African literature and was playing with form like the French writers, and Yvonne’s ability to use language to transform the world remains a large influence on me.
Who inspires you?
My younger sister, Stella, inspires me. She has had to cope with many things in her life that were not of her choice. She has the kind of grace I can only begin to hope for. I am most inspired by the people who are self-effacing. I heard about these old black women in the slums of New York who go out and rescue the crack babies and raise them out of the goodness of their hearts. I stand in awe of them. They don’t do it for attention, just for kindness.
Why do you think you care?
I am terrified of the alternative.
What is your dream now?
I hope to create an African Wikipedia that can be user-updated by cellphone. It will provide the opportunity to document African history.
Do you believe in a god?
I believe in mystery. I think God is like a wiki program. Every time we expand our knowledge we create God. Our evolution depends on us expanding in this way. My personal practice is gratitude and acknowledging my actions.
What are your words of wisdom?
Beware of bullshit. Especially your own.