Posted by: koolwine | July 17, 2011

Nigeria: Graceland

All Elvis Oke wants to do is dance for a living, but his down-and-out father, unscrupulous best friend and a mysterious beggar complicate his life.

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

Genre: Fiction

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.”



  1. Nigeria is a brilliant setting for this story – and the opportunity to learn about the Biafran War is a bonus.


    • Glad you’re interested in the book. GraceLand only contains a page-long or so anecdote about the Biafran War, though. Chimamanda Ngozi’s Half of the Yellow Sun (named after the design of the Biafran flag) is the novel to read if Biafra intrigues you.


  2. Oops – forgot the name of the book: GraceLand!!


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