Friday, February 16, 2007

Graceland by Chris Abani

When I was in college, the Eastern Bloc opened up and subsequently many of my peers went off to travel and study in Eastern European countries, which led to, about five years later, a lot of ex-pat novels and stories set in those countries as well as to the English language publication of quite a few Eastern authors. Now it seems, perhaps due to the double whammy of genocide and AIDS, many African countries are having their turn. College students, Peace Corp workers, travelers are going there, and Africans are coming here. And African lit, particularly that written in English, is having its moment in the trade publishing sun. And this novel is one of the best, that I've read, to come out of the trend.

Abani, a Nigerian, who now teaches in the United States, creates this chaotic but believable portrait of Lagos that gave me a much stronger sense of what it would mean to live there than any New Yorker article ever has. In his acknowledgements Abani thanks fiction writer Percival Everett and it's interesting to see the kind of strangeness that Everett often works with in his characters and plots also at work here. In some ways, Graceland reminded me of the novel Like Water for Chocolate (both thread in recipes and rituals) but whereas Esquivel writes magic realism, Abani writes realism with characters who seem like they belong in a magic realist novel yet are absent the magic. I'm not sure how to articulate that to anyone who hasn't read the book. Perhaps it is that in Gracleand the characters are strange and otherworldly seeming, whereas in magic realism, it's the events that are otherworldly.


Ruthie Black naked said...

God, beautiful blog!

I'll put ARCADIA on my list. I'm like you, I think characters are EVERYTHING in a story!

ira d said...

I haven't read Graceland, but I started his recent novel, The Virgin of Flames, which is set in LA. An interesting variation on the phenomenon you describe.

One of the sharpest things I have read (and that I have my students read) about recent writings about Africa is by Binyavanga Wainaina in Granta:

PS It is short.