In the very first scene of the book, when the protagonist Elvis is awoken by a pounding Nigerian rainstorm, we read this:
The book he had fallen asleep reading, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, fell from his side to the floor, the old paperback cracking at the spine, falling neatly into two halves as precisely as if sliced by a sword.
That’s the kind of first-scene statement that has symbolism written all over it. Here is what Abani tells Tayari Jones about the scene in an April 2004 interview in The Believer when she asks for his thoughts on “global blackness”. (Jones is African American, but spent a year in Nigeria when her father was a Fulbright scholar there.)
I grew up conflicted about this whole notion [of global blackness]. Especially about Pan-Africanism. Especially since [Nigerian] independence came quickly and was inspired a lot by Ghana’s independence, which was led by the Pan-Africanist Kwame Nkrumah. Also in Nigeria was Nnamdi Azikiwe, who was also very into Pan-Africanism. But it is interesting that these guys were educated mostly in America. These guys had contact with Du Bois and Marcus Garvey long before they came back. You can see this link much more in music. Enslaved Africans brought the roots of the blues with them to the United States and it made its way back to us in Africa. Sailors would come back and teach kids on the docs of Accra and Mali all the American guitar movements, which later produced people like Ali Farka Toure, who plays this hybrid Malian music that sounds so much like the blues. And he influenced people like Fela Kuti. There’s that dialogue going on all the time …
And I see a lot of it happening in literature as well. “Invisible Man” becomes such an icon. In the opening of GraceLand there’s that metaphor of the book falling off Elvis’ chest and splitting open. This not only represents the splitting of the diaspora but the ability to enter the text in a way that he wouldn’t be able to if he didn’t share that fundamental racial heritage.
Much of the book works as a collage – a collection of brief accounts of how Igbos offer the sacred kola nut to visitors; horrifying accounts of poverty and exploitation in modern day Lagos; moments of tender love between close friends and complete strangers; and detailed Igbo recipes which come from the diary of Elvis’ mother. And throughout the book there is the waning influence of British colonial rule, the loss of indigenous knowledge, and the expanding influence of American pop culture.
What I found most interesting about the book, though, is the almost complete congruence of Elvis and Black, the protagonist of Abani’s later novel, The Virgin of Flames. Both are lower class artists, always with a sophisticated book tucked under their arm, with one dead parent and one abusive one. Their friends are concerned about them, they are self-centered, and yet also completely selfless, always willing to go hungry to help feed a stranger. They are moral anchors in a world that has seemingly lost its moral compass. There are multiple scenes in which they try on make-up and contemplate homosexuality. It is almost as if Abani took Elvis’ soul stuffed it into a half-African, half-Salvadorean overweight LA artist. Which begs the question, how much Chris Abani is there in Elvis and Black?
At the Calabash Literary Festival in Jamaica earlier this year I had a chance to find out. Chris Abani was there looking a little like Jabba the Hutt as he shoveled a plate of food into his mouth while his fiancee looked on across the table. There was something gluttonous about the scene, with the swimming pool in the background, and all the fawning attention. Besides, I’ve never been one to approach celebrities, literary or otherwise. From my experience, the interactions tend to be recipes for disappointment. Apparently, once you reach a certain level of fame, conversations are easily mistaken for interviews.
But up on stage Abani impressed me more than just about anyone else (with the exception, probably, of Kei Miller). His poems were beautiful, his stories where funny, and the man knows how to play sax.
GraceLand left me satisfied, but I hope that Abani – who was raised in a mansion with cars and servents – doesn’t continue to romanticize the poor, abused artist. Now that he’s been living in Southern California for some time, I’d love to read a book about LA targeted specifically toward Nigerian readers. (“The Virgin of Flames” was very much not that. And, no, such a book would not produce any money. But it’s the type of book that both Black and Elvis would want to write.)
It’s interesting, in his interview with Jones, Abani insists that he doesn’t think about the Western reader when he writes:
What I do is similar to what Ngugi is doing, operating under that notion that African art must exist in an appreciative context that is outside of the power of Westernization to reduce or empower. We allow access to the Western reader, but also say we don’t care about what you think. This is what we are trying to show you. If you get it, fine. If you don’t get it, we don’t care.
But I think Abani does care, and that actually leads to some of the worst passages in the book, which read more like narrative travel guide than good literature.
“Return de bottles,” Redemption said, snatching the cigarette from Elvis’s mouth. Empty bottles were valuable because the local Coca-Cola factory washed and reused them. To ensure they got their bottles back, the factory charged local retailers a deposit on the bottles, which could only be redeemed when the bottles were turned in. The retailers in turn passed the cost of the deposit on to consumers if they intended to leave the immediate vicinity of their shops with the drinks. The amount varied from retailer to retailer but was usually no less than the price of the drink.
Those sort of explanatory footnotes are littered throughout the book. As a Western reader I don’t mind them, but I think its disingenuous of Abani to not own up to them.