Chris Abani—world-renowned and award-winning writer, poet, professor—opened his presentation at Mission College in Santa Clara May 2 by saying that he knew he should begin with a joke, but he didn’t have one. He got a laugh anyway, his not having a joke turning into a joke of sorts.
Another thing Abani did not have was a speech. Instead, he read from two of his works and then answered questions for 30 minutes. His voice was mellow and modulated—understated—mesmerizing the audience of English students and campus visitors who gathered at the library for his 11 a.m. appearance, drawing them into the somber mood of his readings.
He read selections from his slender, 2010 volume of liturgical-style poetry titled “Sanctificum” and a short chapter (all the chapters are short) from his 2014 murder mystery “The Secret History of Las Vegas,” which includes conjoined Siamese twins and a prostitute as main characters and, though set in Nevada, flashes back to events in South Africa during aparteid.
“I’m the freaks and geeks guy,” said Abani, who writes about overlooked people and places, people “we would normally try to erase from our daily lives.”
“Extreme figures force us to reconsider what the human body can be,” he said.
Abani is the son of a black Nigerian father and a white British mother. He was born in 1951 and bred in Nigeria and, though he did not speak of it, was forced to flee after he was imprisoned a third time and condemned to death row for writing against the Nigerian government. He fled to the United Kingdom in 1991.
In 1999, he moved from London to Los Angeles, where he lived for 13 years. He earned a Ph.D. in Creative Writing and Literature from the University of Southern California, studying under professor and writer Viet Thanh Nguyen, who spoke at Mission College April 18. Abani then taught Creative Writing at UC Riverside.
For the last four years he has lived in Chicago, where he is a Board of Trustees Professor of English at Northwestern University.
“When I moved to California, all these books just started flying out of me,” Abani said at the book signing after his appearance. “California feels like a place of possibility.”
As for what Chicago feels like, he said, “It’s still too new to know. Maybe a new depth?”
When students asked Abani for advice on writing, he told them to “write your personality.” He writes in longhand because that way, he can write anywhere, anytime, even lounging on the couch. Sometimes he goes for months without writing anything.
“A lot of reading is involved in writing,” he said. “Convey information to people without making it about you. Relinquish judgment and write from a loving state.”
“Then you have to deal with craft,” he continued. “Craft is control—unglamorous rewriting. The first six or seven drafts is just the notes you’re taking….Get a strong heart and get ready to be frustrated. Writing is a skill.”
Abani summed up his advice, saying that a writer needs craft, staying power and two kinds of friends. The first kind think that everything a friend writes is amazing. The second kind are critical.
Later in the day, Abani visited the creative writing class of Mission College English instructor and published author Donnelle McGee.
“Chris Abani is not afraid to be vulnerable on the page. People can relate to the stories he shares because they’re powerful. They show us what it means to be human,” said McGee. “Through his fiction and poetry, we can find ourselves.”
“Something you do with your own imagining, your own capacity, has the potential of affecting the world. If you put your heart and soul into something, it will always be good, and it will always mean something to people, it will touch people,” said Abani, who strives for his writing to be “a beautiful art form that is disturbing to the status quo.”
“…You make something meaningful and release it into the world, and it will find who it needs to find. It doesn’t matter how many people [it finds],” he said.
Mission College’s African-American Visiting Writers Series sponsored Abani’s campus visit.