Issue #14 Summer 2008
Coming to America—A Remix
So you order the three dollar coffee with a practiced ease—Grande, non-fat, sugar-free, vanilla latte—and as you pay you catch sight of your reflection in the shiny backdrop of the green wood and glass Starbucks stand. You are reminded of the moment in Derek Walcott’s Midsummer when the poet persona confronts himself in the grimy mirror of a motel room; lost. You do this because you have taken, lately, to finding your home in literature, in language. You are standing in an airport departure lounge and people hive around you. Yet you have never felt so alone. As you pick up the paper cup of coffee at the end of the bar, you recall your reflection and muse that it reminds you of no one you know. Making your way to the gate, you expertly dodge the melee around you, brown leather bag over one shoulder, coffee cup in one hand, the other deftly scrolling through your Blackberry catching up on email. In many ways you have learned to maneuver the physical world with the skill of the blind, your hands juggling more tasks than any Hindu deity should while your mind deconstructs your latest review; the new book you are plotting; ideas of self; identity and race; the fact that you dare not look into the face of your grief at your mother’s recent death, and more. In interviews you joke, in response to questions about your citizenship and abode: airport lounges. Pause. Oh, and airplanes. Navigating the tightly packed waiting area seats, choosing one near enough to hear your boarding call but far enough away from the crowds; the more you have to speak to large groups of people, the more you shy away from them. As you sit you notice that once again you have fallen victim to white fright: that curious phenomenon where people start to subtly check their wallets, hold on tighter to handbags in your presence even though you are better dressed than they are. Even though your hands are full and a mugging, even if you were so inclined, would be impossible to pull off. Not to mention that you are brown, wearing a wrist mala (beads that though Buddhist, resemble Muslim prayer beads) in a Los Angeles Airport post 9/11. You throw your bag to your feet, sit, shake your head at the scared whiteys as though to say, shame on you, and then return to your email. The message just popping up onto the screen is from your friend, the editor of an issue of this magazine asking you, in language more polite than you deserve to please send in your essay which is now months overdue. You take a too large sip from the too hot coffee and swear silently as you feel a layer of your tongue being abraded and thumb a quick response: one line apologizing. You feel terrible. But you are having difficulty writing since your mother got ill in the summer and passed as the first leaves of fall began to form on trees.
The auditorium is packed. An audience awaits you; nearly 200 hundred people. You’ve been doing book and lecture talks for three years now and yet you are always surprised when people come out to hear you talk; hear you read, and in such numbers. You clear your throat. You are more tired than usual and the house lights seem to have an extra glare to them. As you look into the audience you see a hunger in their eyes. You still haven’t figured out exactly what the hunger is for—novelty? ideas? answers? challenge? hope?; it doesn’t matter, you cannot sate it. You hope they realize this, you hope you realize this. You want to say, listen, I am here to complicate your life. To make your questions deeper and more nuanced. To leave you with thoughts and ideas that will disturb you, possibly keep you from sleep. You want to talk about Othello and the idea of immigration and what it means to be foreign and other and here right now in the US. But this is not what you have been asked to speak about. You take a deep breath, smile and welcome them to the reading. An old trick you learned from soccer tournaments in your childhood. Welcome the home crowd to their own arena and you feel less vulnerable. The talk goes well and the questions begin. What language did you originally write in? When did you learn English? What is the current situation in your country? Are you close to the war in Sudan? Geographically? Emotionally? Why do Africans hate themselves? You deflect the earlier questions with ease; they have ceased to bother you. When you speak on those matters, you answer directly but move the questions and questioners into more nuanced areas. But this last question is different. While you are still rolling around the unfamiliar shape of the word African around your mind, bumping up against your fears and limitations in discussing the terrible yet beautiful balance on your continent between self-loathing and an incredibly deep humanity, and sometimes an even ordinary but still good humanity, another question zings through the air toward you. What are your thoughts on race and racism in Africa? In that moment you realize that even though you grew up bi-racial in Nigeria, even though there had been Indians and Lebanese and other whites (outside the missionaries) in your life, race has never been the way you conceptualized or approached your identity. Your sense of self, of identity is rooted not in race, but in an ethnicity. This thought takes you completely by surprise. Of course in the US you feel black, you feel the full effects of racism, but your internal landscape is not as scarred by it because it had always seemed not only unjust but an inane way to chart a person. The questioner is waiting patiently and you try to explain that you are Igbo and as you look for words you realize not only that you have only the barest of a received narrative about what this means, to be Igbo that is, but that you have never felt the need to interrogate this. Why, you think, remembering Soyinka’s riff on Negritude about tigers not needing to assert their tigritude, hadn’t you thought about this more. In Nigeria you were Igbo with the entire trauma and pride that carried but there you had a much stronger if uninterrogated sense of what that meant, that you had never thought what it could mean. But now the question about Africans is bothering you and you realize why. The idea of Nigerians declaring negritude is as ineffable to you as the idea of being African. You want to say, there are no Africans. Instead you say, only people not from the continent refer to its citizens as African, on the continent we talk sometimes about being Nigerian and Kenyan, but more often, about specific ethnic nationalities like Igbo and Yoruba. You admit that for a short period when you lived in England and were ashamed of some of the negative associations with the word Nigerian you had cheated and called yourself African, or West African, but that you have always been proud of being Igbo and have always claimed that. From the glazed looks in the eyes staring back at you, you know no one knows what you are talking about. Absently you wonder who these Africans are and what they look like.
That night in your hotel room, watching an episode of CSI, you return to the thoughts about tigritude and Soyinka. It dawns on you that Soyinka was speaking out of the Yoruba tradition of intellectual inquiry that has always battled with notions of self. Perhaps in a culture that has spun several empires this becomes an important thing: to clarify how the Ijebu is different from and similar to the Egba. It is harder because the Igbo had devoted less time to this and you are wrestling with questions of modernist thoughts about the self when your forbearers had always framed those questions in terms of nationalism. Suddenly you think: how interesting that I had to come to America to ask these kinds of questions about my identity. The thing is, easy sound bites and loosely amalgamated bits of information that were enough to prove to yourself and others that you were indeed Igbo begin to crumble in the face of an overwhelming white monolithic structure so intent on ascribing you an identity that makes it comfortable, that you realize to fight this, you have to figure it out for yourself. The oddest thing about it though is that you have to think through this puzzle in English. What a strange thing, to arrive at being Igbo through a process couched entirely in English.
You have always realized that coming from Afikpo you are different, diasporic even, within Igboland. Why? Perhaps because more than any other group (with the exception of the Ika-Igbo perhaps) your culture is a mix of your neighbors’ in a non-hierarchical way, an amalgam of the Efik, Ibibio, Ejagham, Adda, Aro (Chukwu and Izuogu), and even Igala. The Ogo and Egbele cults and rites of passage into manhood are specific to being Ehugbo (your people’s name and the name of their language) and unlike anything else in Igboland. That your dialect is now considered a separate language in itself and not a dialect of Igbo. That somehow you can speak and understand nearly every dialect of Igbo but that no one understands yours, not even your wa-wa neighbors. Yet you are troubled because you know every myth of origin is tied to land the ownership of it, that the name, Ehugbo, means womb of the Igbo, that though your people are clearly hybrid, and stronger for it, they need to assert their common Igbo-tude to establish rights to land and water. You realize the incredible gift that your father gave you by insisting you be raised in that tradition, in spite of, or maybe even because, your mother was white. Like he knew at some point you would come west and would need this knowledge. Like he was still scarred himself from the terrible racism he been subject to in the UK, in the fifties. He clearly understood what a lack of this sense of self that transcended skin color could do to you. Your complex understanding of your cosmology and mythology, while relatively small in the face of what your Yoruba neighbors have, is his gift to you. This sometimes forgotten knowledge always comes to the fore when you need it.
But you are losing language, your language, fast the longer you don’t use it. There is however, an incredible freedom in this, the sudden understanding that your language is fluid, must be, and that as a writer it is your duty to make this language even more plastic. That like Shakespeare you are in the realm of possibility and that all language, like the culture it derives from, is forever evolving. This comes to you of all places in a Starbucks by the beach in Santa Monica as you sit down to sip a cold chai latte on a hot day. The woman passing in a skimpy bikini mistakes your smile as a leer directed at her and gives you a dirty look. You don’t care. In the fight for your soul, you have just uncovered an important truth, you flip open your moleskin notebook and begin a poem in Igbo. You pause as you struggle to find the word for horizon. Then you make it up, kenning like Chaucer, the word for rim and world: mbgere-uwa. It is a small victory, but you have begun. You silently mouth a prayer of thanks to Kamalu and the gods of California. You would never have begun this journey when you were still in Nigeria. But you have made a decisive step. You will not become less Igbo. If anything you will become more Ehugbo by slowly disengaging from the received narratives of your culture. Omenala will never be the same unassailable idea. You know you are the perfect candidate for this. After all, you are bi-racial, tri-cultural, and trans-national, you are a hybrid and that is what it has always meant to be Ehugbo. The many parts of you come together when you no longer have the need to prove absolute residency on the land that birthed you. If it means that you are part Ejagham, Ibibio, Igbo, Aro-Igbo, Igala, English and now American, then you are truly and perhaps for the first time, honestly approaching your fluid self. You also know that a book has just begun.
This kind of transformation and study has to be not only fluid but necessarily ambiguous. It also has to be adaptable. Your poems, non-fiction and fiction will no longer be the same. You will be free of an easy Igbo nationalism, free of declaring your Igbo-tude, and yet constantly mining and exploring it, challenging it to yield a more philosophical being to you.
Your novels, GraceLand, The Virgin of Flames, Becoming Abigail, Song for Night and your poetry are only possible because of the physical and now psychic and intellectual distance from the romantic notion of home and yet now more than ever you can stand up and say, Eha’m bu Chris Abani. Abu’m onye Igbo. My name is Chris Abani and I am Igbo. This is America’s gift to you.
Chris Abani's prose includes Song For Night (Akashic, 2007), The Virgin of Flames (Penguin, 2007), Becoming Abigail (Akashic, 2006), GraceLand (FSG, 2004), and Masters of the Board (Delta, 1985). His poetry collections are Hands Washing Water (Copper Canyon, 2006), Dog Woman (Red Hen, 2004), Daphne's Lot (Red Hen, 2003), and Kalakuta Republic (Saqi, 2001). He is a Professor at the University of California, Riverside and the recipient of the PEN USA Freedom-to-Write Award, the Prince Claus Award, a Lannan Literary Fellowship, a California Book Award, a Hurston/Wright Legacy Award, a PEN Beyond the Margins Award & the PEN Hemingway Book Prize.