Country Focus: Nigeria (Njíkötá Óchíchìiwù Naíjíríà in Igbo)
By Chris Abani (Nigerian)
Originally published by Farrar, Strauss and Giroux in 2004.
My edition: Picador, 2004. 321 pgs.
Acclaim: “One of 25 Best Books of the Year,” Los Angeles Times
Time period: 1972-1983
Summary: GraceLand is the coming of age story of Elvis Oke, a 16-year-old who lives in a Lagos slum with a perpetually drunk father he can barely tolerate. Elvis loves to dance. He earns money performing Elvis Presley impersonations for tourists who fork over their spare change to get him to leave them alone.
Life had not always been so difficult. Until Elvis turned 14, his family enjoyed a middle class existence in the rural town of Afikpo. Elvis’s father was a respectable public servant and his mother had not yet succumbed to cancer. His beloved grandmother “Oye” and beguiling Aunt Felicia looked after him and he had his cousin Efua to confide in.
Chris Abani alternates the main thread of the story – teenage Elvis in 1983-era Lagos – with Elvis’s backstory, which starts in 1972 and moves forward until it catches up to 1983.
Elvis’s father harps on him to get a real job, and Elvis can’t help agreeing that dancing provides a meager living. Enter his hoodlum friend Redemption, who finds Elvis work as an escort, cocaine packer and organ trafficker. The money is good but a criminal’s life is not for Elvis. He wrestles with how to reconcile his adoration for Redemption with his disapproval of his best friend’s escalating illegal activities.
Elvis also falls under the sway of the the self-proclaimed “King of de Beggars” – a charismatic man who speaks in metaphor and claims to have received the scar on his face as punishment for performing an anti-government play. Redemption warns Elvis otherwise and Elvis wonders how to wrest the truth from the King.
On the homefront, Elvis struggles to communicate with his father. Although he despises the man (for reasons that I won’t spoil for you), he consistently reaches out to him.
Abani describes the Lagos slums as precariously perched on top of platforms and walkways overhanging a swamp. People would fall into the muck regularly. Elvis’s future and his humanity rest on a just as narrow and treacherous a hold.
He had been fourteen when he arrived in Lagos two years before, miserable and unable to fit into school, where his small-town thinking and accent marked him. The differences did not seem that obvious, but they were glaring to the other kids – he’d never played cricket at school, his experience of the movies had been with old dubbed-over silents and the Americanisms he knew were old and outdated. Where the other kids used slang like “cool” and “hip,” he was limited to cowboy lingo like “shucks” and “yup” and “darn those rustlers.”
How GraceLand reflects Nigeria:
Location. Lagos, Afikpo
Historical events. A character relates his experience of the Biafran War
Indigenous peoples. Elvis’s family is part of the Igbo ethnic group
Native languages: All dialogue is rendered in patois, such as: “Ah, see dis man O?! Is dis your shop?”
Food & Drink: Abani salted his novel with no less than eleven Igbo recipes, including fish pepper soup, oil bean seed salad, and roast venison (don’t bother putting your apron on – most of us will be hard-pressed to find the ingredients required for these traditional dishes); Elvis’s father regularly over-indulges in palm wine; Elvis favors Coca-Cola
Culture: Abani touches on an incredibly wide range: the ritual of the kola nut; life in the city slums; vigilante justice; criminal activity; the Igbo’s first rite of manhood; the political system; movie-going; expensive bottle deposits and more.
Nature: Descriptions and medicinal use of native plants
Would I read another book by Abani: Yes. GraceLand reads like how I imagine the streets of Lagos – a riot of stimulation. Overwhelming at times, but never boring.
In my book, or what Nigeria means to me and maybe you, too:
Great writers! Nigeria is one of very few countries whose authors I’d already sampled. Plus, books by Ben Okri and Nnedi Okorafor sit waiting on my shelves.
It is starting like this. I am feeling itch like insect is crawling on my skin, and then my head is just starting to tingle right between my eye, and then I am wanting to sneeze because my nose is itching, and then air is just blowing into my ear and I am hearing so many thing: the clicking of insect, the sound of truck grumbling like one kind of animal, and then the sound of somebody shouting, TAKE YOUR POSITION RIGHT NOW! QUICK! QUICK, QUICK! MOVE WITH SPEED! MOVE FAST OH! in voice that is just touching my body like knife.
I hadn’t planned on buying a book the day I stood leafing through Iweala’s novel, but I couldn’t resist the unusual voice of his fictional child soldier, Agu. Born and raised in America, Iweala has Igbo roots and his mother serves as the Finance Minister of Nigeria.
At over twelve million copies sold since its first printing in 1958, Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart is the most widely read work of African literature. I’m one of the throng of purchasers and readers. This classic novel depicts the impact that colonialism and Christianity had on traditional Igbo life during the 1890s.
Achebe said in a 2000 interview with The Atlantic, “Once you allow yourself to identify with the people in a story, then you might begin to see yourself in that story even if on the surface it’s far removed from your situation. This is what I try to tell my students: this is one great thing that literature can do -it can make us identify with situations and people far away. If it does that, it’s a miracle.”
Sunrise and set on Biafra
In 1967, a southeastern chunk of Nigeria seceded, setting off three-year-long civil war. The land’s inhabitants, primarily Igbo, called their short-lived state the Republic of Biafra. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichi’s award-winning novel, Half of a Yellow Sun, is an engrossing fictionalized account of the failed secession as seen through the lives of a houseboy, a radical intellectual, wealthy Igbo twin sisters and an Englishman.
Up next: The Land of Green Plums by Herta Müller (Romania)