:: Interview with Chris Abani
By Dominique McCafferty, Librarian
Chris Abani is the author of Masters of the Board, which he wrote when he was only sixteen years old, and Graceland, which was a Today's Book Club selection, and also winner of the 2005 Hurston/Wright Legacy Award for Debut Fiction. Kalakuta Republic, a collection of poems based on Abani’s experiences as a political prisoner in Nigeria, received the 2001 PEN USA West Freedom to Write Award and the 2001 Prince Claus of Netherlands Award. Abani has also written two books of poetry, Daphne's Lot and Dog Woman. He currently lives in Los Angeles and teaches at the University of California, Riverside. We met in Chris Abani’s office on the UCR campus in the fall of 2005. I was perusing his bookshelves, and it eventually occurred to me to hit the record button.
Dominique McCafferty: So this is your Africa bookshelf?
Chris Abani: Yes, this is my Africa bookshelf.
DM: I recognize a number of the authors: Wole Soyinka, Chinua Achebe. I’m sorry to say I haven’t read as much fiction from Africa.
CA: There are a lot of books in the world to read. My ideal job would actually be where I was paid to read and write.
DM: Wouldn’t that be wonderful?
CA: I’m looking for some rich patron who will endow me.
My job would be to read books and then talk books with other book geeks. That’s my fantasy.
DM: You get to talk books with your students to some degree in your office, though? I would think you’d have a heyday in here.
CA: Sometimes. Sometimes.
DM: Only sometimes?
CA: Well the demographics here are so fascinating. How to explain?
I come from a very middle class background in Nigeria, but people assume, because of my life story, the life I chose, and especially if you come from Nigeria—their imaginations lead them to believe you’re like Cesar Chavez in a way. I’m totally not. I grew up with a lot of books. And when I first got to UCR, it was very hard for me to realize that many of my students were reading their very first novels in my class. English is a second language for them. They’re working-class. They have no books at home. It was very humbling for me because, of course, I had to find ways to reach them. And also their expectations—it was initially difficult for them. Their place for neutral bonding wasn’t there, because I was not disenfranchised, other than the choices I made. So it was very hard for students to relate at first. I used to fight it really hard. My students didn’t spend every Saturday in the library like I did as a kid. So I used to take students to the bookstores and the libraries and make my students smell the books. Not even read them, just smell them.
*Conducted in fall 2005 and winter 2006. This interview will be published in a future issue of Poetry Flash. Please check back.