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Living in the `perfect metaphor'

Chris Abani's cultural triangulation -- Nigeria to London to Boyle Heights -- informs his latest novel.

February 18, 2007|Scott Timberg | Times Staff Writer

LATE one night a few years back, the Nigerian-born writer Chris Abani showed up at Chinatown's Phoenix Inn, where his was the only black face. He wasn't made terribly welcome, he recalls, and on that visit he was served only after delay and "with great reluctance."

"But I turned up so much I became part of the furniture," said Abani, who on a warm February evening was greeted like an old friend, with the restaurant's signature soup -- to which Abani attributes magical power over jet lag and hangovers -- materializing just moments after his arrival.

"So pretty quickly the issue disappeared. That's one of the things I love about Los Angeles: It's not that the city isn't racially fraught. It's that part of the tension is created not just by the way you look but by self-segregation of ethnicities within the city. And one of the ways to stop it is by consumption -- consumption of food, consumption of cultures."

The locale, as well as the sentiment, is to be found in Abani's new novel, "The Virgin of Flames," which follows an African and Latino mural painter from East L.A. named Black, who is driven but emotionally and sexually disoriented.

Abani, a burly, engaging 40-year-old who speaks in a soft English accent, has published several well-received books of poetry and is best known for 2004's PEN/Hemingway-award winning novel, "GraceLand," about a Nigerian teenage Elvis impersonator. In the new novel, he's seeking what he calls "an uneasy grace." Critics have found the book both dazzling and frustrating but have been unanimous in praising Abani's ravishing vision of the city -- a Los Angeles, that, as Ruben Martinez noted in The Times, "has received only increments of mainstream literary representation."

"Virgin" was originally conceived as an L.A. noir in the tradition of Chester Himes and Raymond Chandler. But Abani was pressured by his editor to move away from genre fiction, and he had to rebuild the book almost entirely.

"The more I wrote," he said, "the more I realized it's a book about Los Angeles, the same way 'GraceLand' is a book about Lagos. And the more I began to think about L.A., and my first two years of not liking living here, I realized it was more and more like Lagos every day: a Third World city in the best possible sense. Dirt, decay and this idea that's held together by everyone's dream of it."

Nigeria, which Abani calls "the most Western black country in Africa," has produced more than its share of writers known in the West, among them Nobel Prize winner Wole Soyinka, "Things Fall Apart" author Chinua Achebe and Booker Prize-winner Ben Okri. Abani is close with the novelist Debo Kotun, who lives in Pasadena.

Abani, who teaches at the burgeoning UC Riverside writing program, attributes Nigeria's literary centrality to a high level of education, a Socratic philosophical tradition and a spirit both "feisty" and ambitious. "We joke that when we finally have a Mars landing there'll be a convenience store run by Nigerians. 'What took you so long?' "

But even before he became one of the rare Africans in the Phoenix Inn and one of the few blacks living in East L.A., Abani was what he calls "an outsider's outsider." He grew up in small Nigerian cities, the son of an Igbo educator father and a white English-born mother who'd met at Oxford, where she was a secretary and he was a post-doc student. Raised Roman Catholic, Abani studied in the seminary as a teenager.

Abani's world included a mix of the West African and the Anglo-European, and his tea-drinking English mother, who had little formal education, introduced him to everything from James Baldwin to the Bhagavad-Gita to Yeats, an early obsession alongside comics and American TV.

His mother also encouraged him to write, and because Nigeria was created by postcolonial boundaries with little recognition of tribal reality, he felt no reason to be confined to Nigerian tradition. "Writers themselves," he says now, "are only interested in subject matter, like what drives us. You're less concerned by national boundaries. I fit into all of these traditions."

Political reality was not so easy to evade. It was after penning a novel as a teenager -- intended as a thriller -- about a government takeover that Abani was imprisoned for the first of three times. .

In order to survive

HIS third trip to prison, during the Babangida regime, had a death sentence attached. He was also tortured, and he spent six months in solitary confinement. It was only after friends raised a ransom that he was released.

His thoughts during this period were not on the power of the written word, and he's uncomfortable with the way Americans have turned him into a free-speech martyr for something he calls fairly common among Nigerian writers of his generation. He was focused, he says, on "How do I survive this with any shred of goodness, any humanity, left?" He had to tap into what he calls a deep well of compassion to survive from one day to the next.

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