Chris Abani’s 2004 breakthrough novel, GraceLand, was an impressive literary balancing act: set in Lagos, it nested an intimate story about a 16-year-old boy trying to hustle out a living within a panoramic portrait of lawlessness and broken-down colonialism. His new novella, Becoming Abigail (Akashic), is also about a Nigerian teenager, but the focus is tighter. Abani’s stripped away GraceLand‘s lighter touches—the recipes, the colorful bits of Nigerian folklore, the comic riffs on the invading Western culture. What’s left is a grim, tough, and fairly simple tale about Abigail, a 14-year-old orphan who’s sold into prostitution and forcibly sent from Lagos to London; after she breaks free, she ends up in the care of a social worker, but he takes advantage of her as well. Shifting between glimpses of her childhood in Nigeria and her life in London after escaping her pimp, Abani’s melancholy prose fills out the extent of Abigail’s damage, much of which is self-inflicted. The story could easily have devolved into a melodramatic parable, but Abani’s writing never becomes didactic—Becoming Abigail has the elegance and lyricism of a prose poem but doesn’t soft-pedal the abuse it chronicles. Born in Nigeria (where he was repeatedly jailed for his political writing) and currently a teacher at the University of California in Riverside, Abani is in Chicago as part of a four-day stint as a poet in residence at Northwestern University. Tue 4/4, 7:30 PM, Barbara’s Bookstore, 1218 S. Halsted, 312-413-2665. Wed 4/5, 4:30 PM, Northwestern Univ. University Hall, room 201, 1897 Sheridan, Evanston, 847-491-7294. Thu 4/6, 7 PM, Northwestern Univ. Harris Hall, room 108, 1881 Sheridan, Evanston, 847-491-7294.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Alexis Fleisig.