March 2, 2021 at 8:00 pm

Lit Fest | The Artistry of Chris Abani: ‘What we know about how to be who we are comes from stories,’ March 17

Chris Abani, portrait

Chris Abani

Chris Abani reads from his work on March 17 at 7:30 p.m. as part of Spring Literary Festival.

By Candace Walsh

Nigerian and American writer Chris Abani chooses and uses fiction, poetry, essays, and screenplays to tell bracing stories that have earned a Guggenheim Award, a PEN USA Freedom-to-Write Award, a Lannan Literary Fellowship, a Hurston/Wright Legacy Award, a PEN Beyond the Margins Award, and the PEN Hemingway Book Prize (to name a few).

Abani, the Board of Trustees Professor of English at Northwestern University, also shares wisdom, insight, laughter, and pathos through stories in TED talks (the sources of quotes in this article).

Abani’s stories spring from growing up as the 7-year-old translator for village women and his British mother as she offered birth control education; they spring from his own repeated imprisonment by the Nigerian government for revolutionary activities; and they spring from undergraduate studies at Imo State University, Nigeria, and graduate studies at the University of London (M.A.), and University of Southern California (Ph.D.).

His upbringing was marked both by privilege and the loss of stability when the Biafran War catalyzed his family’s year-long refugee flight to freedom and safety.

“The question,” asks Abani, “is, how do I balance narratives that are wonderful with narratives of wounds and self-loathing?” His writing unflinchingly grapples with issues of truth and engagement, challenging ideas of respectability and representation: “I am asking us to balance the idea of our complete vulnerability with the complete notion of transformation of what is possible.”

Abani is the author of seven novels and novellas and seven collections of poetry. His most recent novel, The Secret History of Las Vegas (Penguin), won the 2015 Edgar Award. Booklist described it as an underbelly of Sin City depiction that “brings together two very different characters: a crass, hotheaded Las Vegas detective named Salazar and Sunil Singh, originally from South Africa, who is researching psychopathic behavior for the U.S. Army….an intricate braid of story strands, enriched by vivid descriptions, intriguingly dysfunctional ­characters, and abundant metaphors.” The Los Angeles Times described it as a mashup of Tony Hillerman and J.M. Coetzee.

In all Abani’s work, focused as it is on evolution and empathy, we see a writer whose intimate revelations elicit self-recognition and compassion. And he invites us to transform our apathy and cynicism into fuel for the evolution of a nurturing humanity. We’re thrilled to have him as a featured guest at Spring Literary Festival.

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