Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Poet Chris Abani Muses on Humanity

. . . [A]rt is still the primary focus of looking for ways 
to deal with the questions of being human. . . .
~ Chris Abani*

Nigerian Chris Abani (b. 1966), Ph.D., is an award-winning poet, novelist, and activist. He also is a former political prisoner, jailed and tortured the first of three times two years after publishing, at age 16, his first book Masters of the Board (Delta, 1985), a political thriller that, government authorities charged, was incitement for a real-life coup. That fact is not listed in the bio on his Website. That, he has said, "It's not all that I am."*

Currently a professor of creative writing at the University of California/Riverside, Abani published most recently a poetry collection Sanctificum (Copper Canyon Press, 2010), and a novella, Song for Night (Akashic Books, 2007). One of Abani's most well-known and popular novels is Graceland (Picador, 2005). Abani also is the creator of the independent poetry series Black Goat, an imprint of Akashic Books. For other of Abani's highly praised poetry collections, go here; for prose, go here. The following is an excerpt from one of his remarkable poems:

The way desire is a body eroding
into a pile of salt marked by a crown of birds:
and black. This fall is not rain, grain too subtle
for that dissolution. A constellation wrapped
in a stitch spreading like sand charting
thread across time a tender weave
and hope. This is resurrection.

Abani travels all over the United States and abroad, participating in poetry readings and writing festivals and speaking at colleges and universities and before other forums. Below is a 2008 TED talk in which Abani muses on humanity. In addition to being a marvelous and eloquent story-teller, Abani is witty and compassionate and forgiving. One of the most memorable statements he makes in the video, a statement that is particularly apt during this Lenten season when the world is full of terror and destruction, is this:

. . . I've come to learn. . . that the world is never saved in grand
messianic gestures, but in the simple accumulation of gentle, soft,
almost invisible acts of compassion, everyday acts of compassion.
In South Africa they have a phrase called ubuntu. Ubuntu comes out
of a philosophy that says, the only way for me to be human is for you 
to reflect my humanity back at me. But if you're like me, my
humanity is more like a window. I don't really see it, I don't pay 
attention to it until there's a, you know, like a bug that's dead on 
the window. Then suddenly I see it, and usually, it's never good. . . 
So what ubuntu really says is that there is no way for us to be
 human without other people. It's really very simple, 
but really very complicated. . . .

Another TED talk, "Learning the Stories of Africa", can be found here.

Chris Abani Reading at 2008 Dodge Poetry Festival (YouTube Video)

* Quoted in Carlye Archibeque, "An Interview with Chris Abani", Poetix

Chris Abani Profile at UC/Riverside

Chris Abani Profile and Poems at Poetry Foundation

Chris Abani, Becoming Abigail (Akashic Books, 2006), on GoogleBooks

Chris Abani, Song for Night, on GoogleBooks

Marie Elizabeth Mali, "encounters: Chris Abani" (Interview), union station, 2010 (In this interview, Abani discusses how he came to write Sanctificum, which he wrote as a musical score and organized as if parts of a mass; the craft of writing; story-telling, and the "intimacy that is listening"; his book as "an indictment of my own humanity"; and why he writes. Included are several excerpts from the superb poetry collection.) 

Darla Himeles, Review of Sanctificum at Rattle, November 20, 2010

Chris Abani on FaceBook


Anonymous said...

I thank you for this post in particular. You provide so much food for the mind and the spirit. I am grateful for the parts that draw my attention, as also, I am to those that do not so much strike a chord.

Louise Gallagher said...

Reading this post, reading his words, hearing of Ubantu, you brought tears to my eyes. My heart hurt. And opened up.

Ubantu, my friend.

It is so true.

Thank you for this -- and the link to his Ted Talk.

Thank you.

Kathleen Overby said...

Maureen, I truly give thanks for your enquiring mind that feeds mine. We would be poverty stricken and bereft without your offerings.

S. Etole said...

"almost invisible acts of compassion" ... if only we realized the importance of this more fully