African Postman: Happy Birthday, Chris Abani!

I came across a beautiful quotation today, and thought I would share it with you:

What I’ve come to learn is that the world is never saved in grand messianic gestures, but in the simple accumulation of gentle, soft, almost invisible acts of compassion.

The quote is from Chris Abani, a Nigerian/British writer. Today is his forty-seventh birthday. His very first novel, a political thriller called “Masters of the Board” (1985) which he published at the tender age of sixteen, was a problem for Nigeria‘s government of the day. The novel heavily referenced a political coup that had taken place earlier, and Abani was imprisoned for six months, on suspicion of attempting to overthrow the government. But he continued writing, and he was imprisoned twice more – after the publication of his second novel in 1987 and several anti-government street plays. The third time, he was placed on death row on treason charges. Friends reportedly bribed government officials for his release in 1991 (he was only twenty-five years old). He immediately left the country and lived in the UK until 1999, when he migrated to the United States.  He is now a Professor at the University of California/Riverside and the recipient of a host of awards: the PEN USA Freedom-to-Write Award, the 2001 Prince Claus Awards, a Lannan Literary Fellowship, a California Book Award, a Hurston-Wright Legacy Award and the Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award. In 2009 he was named the Guggenheim Fellow for Fiction. His Black Goat imprint seeks to promote the work of African poets.

"Masters of the Board" by Chris Abani, which he wrote at age sixteen.

“Masters of the Board” by Chris Abani, which he wrote at age sixteen.

Chris Abani. Photo from his website

Chris Abani. Photo from his website

Abani was born in Afikpo, known as the center of Igbo tradition. His father was an educator, and his mother was a white Englishwoman; they had met at Oxford, where his father had been doing post-graduate studiesOn his website, Abani describes himself as a “zealot of optimism.” I love that description. It sums up a great deal of his character. But he often describes anguish, loneliness and fear in his work  (he writes poetry as well as prose).

Abani participated in Jamaica’s Calabash International Literary Festival in 2008. “Kingston Noir” – an anthology by Akashic Books that is notable for not including one writer who has actually lived in Jamaica for the last twenty years or so – includes a short story by him. He is currently editing  “Lagos Noir” for Akashic Books.

Chris Abani.

Chris Abani, a “zealot of optimism.”

Here’s another quote from Abani: “If you want to know about Africa, read our literature — and not just ‘Things Fall Apart,’ because that would be like saying, ‘I’ve read ‘Gone with the Wind’ and so I know everything about America.’”   (Chinua Achebe‘s masterpiece is extremely well known to Jamaicans by the way, as it is on many a school book list). Truly, reading overseas literature gives you powerful insights. I read a great deal of it, and have written a number of book reviews that you will find elsewhere in this blog.

There are many questions I would like to ask Mr. Abani: Will he ever return to Nigeria? Has he ever returned since he fled the country as a young man? Would he like to live there again, one day, or is he comfortable and happy to stay in southern California? What is his vision of his native country after an absence of over twenty years? Does he think his vision has adjusted itself – does he see Nigeria through different filters now? Does he keep in touch with Nigeria-based writers? If he stays in the United States, will he continue to write primarily about Nigeria? How does he think he can contribute to the development of his country, or does he even feel the need to do that?

I suppose these are questions I would ask of any ex-pat author – including the many Jamaican-born writers who have been living overseas for decades, only paying brief visits back to the island.

"The Famished Road" by Ben Okri. My copy was destroyed by a hurricane - must get a new one!

“The Famished Road” by Ben Okri. My copy was destroyed by a hurricane – must get a new one!

There’s another, older Nigerian author with English connections, whom I am very fond of: Ben Okri. His novel “Famished Road” was published in the year that Abani fled to Britain. It is one of my favorite novels of all time. Perhaps I will write about Mr. Okri in a separate post.

"GraceLand" by Chris Abani.

“GraceLand” by Chris Abani.

P.S. While writing this blog I came across a very long piece by another Nigerian writer claiming that Mr. Abani concocted some aspects of his life story – including his imprisonment. Of course I am in no position to judge whether there is one ounce of truth in the article. Such personal attacks are among the perils of being an acclaimed writer, I suppose. And writing is writing – it is art, all by itself. Suffice it to say that Abani’s writing is passionate and witty. I would recommend his novel “GraceLand” and look forward to reading his new collection of poetry “Sanctificum” - his fifth volume of poetry. You can read a lot more about him on his website ( and you can also find him on the blog, with a talk he did in 2007.

"Sanctificum" by Chris Abani.

“Sanctificum” by Chris Abani.

Here are some other articles I have posted on African writers in my “African Postman” series: Death of a Poet: Kofi Awoonor “We Remember Differently” Fifty Years of the African Writers Series  Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie The Dangerous Mix of Politics and Religion, by Wole Soyinka The Second Coming


  1. Thank you so much for this post. I discovered Chris Abani from “Kingston Noir” and went on to read a number of his works. I very much like his short, clear prose book “Becoming Abigail.” .I too find Ben Okri’s “The Famished Road” one of my favorite books. lovely quotes as well

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