Interview with Chris Abani, 2005 PEN/Hemingway Award Winner

Wayne Catan


Chris Abani, 2005 PEN/Hemingway Award Winner for GraceLand

Q: What was it like growing up in Nigeria during, and right after, the Biafran war?  How did this experience affect you as a writer?  

A: All our childhood experiences are formative on our consciousness as writers – whether it is the TV shows we watch, or the comics we read, or even the music we grow up hearing. I think that growing up in the 70’s (even without the Biafran war) was key to my formation. The culture, the music, the TV, the books and comic books, even the fashion was a weird tension between nostalgia for the imagined past – the order of the 50’s and the free living of the 60’s – and a push for the new that created a melancholy. It’s evident in the music of Motown, the movies, the TV shows, even the bland plaid wallpaper was sad!

Q: Your mother was English and your father Nigerian.  Were they instrumental in your career as a writer?

A:  All artists that succeed in their art are from a long line of people who didn’t always follow through on theirs – either because they gave up the pursuit for duty, for love of family or for other reasons. So they were more than just influential, my entire art is a product of my family’s influence. I owe them everything.

Q: GraceLand is your first novel. Is Elvis an autobiographical character?  Please tell us about the novel, the setting, and Elvis.

A:  All characters in novels are autobiographical in some sense, even if the events or circumstances vary radically from our own. But GraceLand is a novel and a novel is a work of the imagination. In the end that’s all that matters. It’s a bildungsroman and as in all novels of that kind it is an exploration of how we become who we are in all our human glory and failings.

Q: You are a poet, essayist, novelist, screenwriter, and playwright. Do you have a favorite platform in which to tell your stories?

A:  Novels come easiest to me, but that is because it is my formative form. I don’t have favorites, just the commitment to what I am working on at the time.

Q: Who are some of your favorite poets today?

A:  Yusef Komunyakaa, Kwame Dawes, Matthew Shenoda, Rita Dove, Geffrey Davis, Nikkey Finney, the list is too long! I shouldn’t have started!

Q: Do you remember where you were when you received the news that you won the PEN/Hemingway Award?

A:  I was in LA struggling through a draft of my PhD dissertation and feeling very much like I wouldn’t be able to do it. It was life-changing news. Especially since I was the first Nigerian and I think the first African to win one.

Q: Do you have a favorite Ernest Hemingway story or book?

A: “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” and other stories.

Q: What can we expect from Chris Abani in the near future as far as any new projects?

A:  I’m working on a novel and a collection of poems. We shall see.

Q: Where can your readers find out more about you and your latest projects?

A:  My website and good old google.

Wayne Catan 07/12/2017

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