Q&A: Chris Abani On The Search For Better Questions

@chrisabani on, among other things, defining the sublime p5rn7vb

Chris Abani

Chris Abani’s new novel, The Secret History of Las Vegas, has been described as a moving, strange and savagely funny book, a gut-wrenching, off-beat crime novel, a work of brutal lyricism, and a story of both global sweep and thematic unity.

The Secret History of Las Vegas — a New York Times Editors’ Choice — is also a page-turning thriller.

I recently spoke with Abani, whose prolific work has garnered many awards including a PEN/Hemingway Book Prize, about his take on Afropolitans, how his novel confronts race in America, the one question he ponders in every novel he writes, and what he defines as the sublime.

You’ve said recently that all your work is against forgetting. Could you elaborate a bit? Of course oppressed people throughout history have stressed the importance of never forgetting. But it seems you meant this and more. What are we as readers, as artists, as a culture most in danger of forgetting? How does your work push against that?

First I think that I should clarify that my work reaches for the intimate while hoping to approximate something larger. So in that sense I’m worried about speaking for an entire culture, in prescriptive ways. I will say that as humans we have the ability to screen what we see – a cognitive dissonance that edits out discomfort from our consciousness. While that might be a necessary faculty in certain times, now the discomfort is more benign and often takes the form of “otherness.” So my work seeks to recover that which has been edited out, without a moral framework, but rather with a curiosity and integrity that I hope allows us to revisit our fear and reappraise our relationship to our own consciousness. I don’t think this is work limited to artists. I think it is the most basic human urge – to understand and be understood. I try to make work that is meaningful and therefore difficult, but work that pushes the limits of understanding.

the-secret-history-of-las-vegas_300x465Las Vegas is clearly another character in this novel. Early in the story, Sunil has the thought that “Vegas is really an African city,” and later the narrator also refers to it as “no different from any small American town, except that everything hidden and denied there was celebrated in Vegas.” Could you discuss how Las Vegas manages to conjure two places in the world that most people perceive as vastly different from one another?

I think that as humans we are trained to think of ourselves as essentially different from each other. But we are not. We are specifically different but not essentially. Humans and their cultures offer a very limited palate – food is only cooked a handful of ways. What’s different are the specific crops and spices. So it is with everything we build. It is the ways in which the US has managed to turn its culture into an island that creates this false sense of difference.

Given how The Secret History of Las Vegas continues your preoccupation with outsiders, characters who live on the margins, do you think there is something metaphorical in this tale for African Americans in particular — for their unique history and place in the world?

I think that my preoccupation is not with outsiders but with those deemed outsiders. I don’t see them as different to us otherwise I would write them as spectacle. What makes my work disturbing is its very lack of judgment.

As for the second part of your question, African Americans are a people who have been wronged by everybody – Africans for letting our family be scattered in this way and for not seeking to make amends, White western culture for its direct or indirect involvement in the initial holocaust of slavery and for its cultural perpetuation. It is in fact remarkable that all diasporic peoples are able to build such robust cultures – and this is not limited to African Americans but includes Jews, Palestinians, and former peoples of the Soviet Bloc and even I would say Scottish and Irish people. It is humbling. But those other diasporic cultures don’t need me to speak for them. And while my concern is blackness, it is still not my place to speak to what is metaphorical for African Americans. My book uses apartheid to confront race in America honestly, but since my experience is not rooted in this, it would be disingenuous of me to appropriate the cultural responses. But as a black man in the 21st Century, I say yes it speaks to our metaphorical positions and posits several ways toward solution.

Africans have been managing cosmopolitan identities for centuries. We are the original melting pot. I claim them all. More is better; less is only good in poetry.

If it is true that writers embark on a novel with an unanswered question that compels them, what question lay before you as you wrote this novel?

The question that lies before me in every novel is, how am I implicated in this? Where is my humanity in this? And what does that mean for me? And the most important one – can I find the right questions? Better questions.

You’ve said that, “To get to the sublime you have to go through the grotesque.” Within this story of freaks and grotesqueness in so many guises, how would you define the sublime?

The sublime is many things for many people and always different, for people and even for cultures. But I would say the sublime is finding the questions that allow you to grow, as a person or as a people, without letting your fear overwhelm you.

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photo: Claus Gretter

You describe yourself as having had a cosmopolitan upbringing. Yet you point out that your work, which is set in multiple countries, still has a decidedly Igbo worldview. Do you embrace the term Afropolitan? If no, why not?

I’m not sure what the term Afropolitan really means, but from what I’ve read and glimpsed of it, I would say yes, that is certainly a part of who I am. The Igbo worldview, particularly from the South Eastern Igbo that I come from, has always been cosmopolitan. We are a mix of people as far north as the Igala and as far south as the Ejagham and Efik and Ibibio. Africans have been managing cosmopolitan identities for centuries. We are the original melting pot. I claim them all. More is better; less is only good in poetry.

Could you give us a glimpse into new work that you’ve begun?

It’s still forming but I can say that I am leaning more into essays for now.

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Bridgett M. Davis' latest novel, INTO THE GO-SLOW, will be published by Feminist Press in September '14. Bridgett is the Director of the Sidney Harman Writer-in-Residence Program at Baruch College and a founding member of ringShout, a group dedicated to promoting ambitious black literature. As the Books Editor for Bold As Love, she curates Sundays @. . ., a monthly reading series for works in progress.