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Face Time with Chris Abani at Calabash 2016
“On a Beach in Jamaica, the other side of Africa’s heart,
gourds grow vascular and full, and a reluctant people
carve a presence from it,...
And a stage like the carved-out shell of a calabash holds the song.”
As the excerpt of the poem 'Mbubu' above attests, Chris Abani is no stranger to the Calabash Literary Festival. 'Mbubu' appeared in the anthology So Much Things to Say: 100 Calabash Poets. He had last appeared on the festival’s stage in 2008. This time around he was being interviewed by Paul Holdengraber in the series Reasonings.
With the Caribbean sea making an eloquent backdrop to their interview, which as with all good interviews, was more of a conversation, the ocean became the starting point of their seemingly free flowing, yet pointed discussion.
Holdengraber, the founder and director of the New York Public Library’s Live from the NYPL, has been participating in the Calabash 'Reasonings' series since 2009.
With a discussion that flowed around identity, not merely how we define ourselves, but how others see, interact with and therefore define us, Abani noted that the ocean had always been a part of his life. With a Nigerian father and English mother, he said, an ocean had to be crossed for him to come to be.
That crossing and the resulting combination two races and cultures created a point of difference etched on his face, regardless of where he is located in the world.
“The two things that I’m never confused for are the two things that I am: Nigerian and English,” Abani said. He explained that Nigerians always assume that he is a foreigner, while African Americans (he currently lives in Chicago), assume he’s a pretender for sounding British.
The conversation about identity coalesced around and grew out of Abani’s short, yet potent memoir The Face: A Memoir and Santificum, published by Restless Books. Abani noted, that although the face is physical, it is a discussion that begins with but is not limited to physicality.
Abani explained that writing the book was a journey of discovery about self-perception.
“I started to realize that the only time I looked at my face is when I’m shaving,” he said, noting that although the face is an important marker of who we are, especially for other people interacting with us, individually, we often have far less contact with out own faces. “What do you do with a face when it’s one of the things you don’t identify with?” Abani asked.
The discussion then veered toward masculinity and Abani’s father, with whom he revealed he had a conflicted relationship.
Abani argued that men identify with strength because to be strong is to not be women, and that show of strength is most often taught through violence.
“Men have no language for tenderness and for vulnerability because it’s usually erased from them,” Abani said.
Yet the presence of pain and even death is something that he seemed to have accepted as a natural part of life, even while he argued that it is one of the most difficult things for humanity to accept about existence.
“The difficult thing about life,” Abani said, “is that something has to die for everything to come to life.”
At the beginning of the discussion, as Abani and Holdengraber checked the microphone levels to ensure they could be heard, Abani described himself as a big man with a small voice. He was indeed soft-spoken, but by the end of the conversation, it was clear that he had an even larger mind.
The 2016 Calabash International Literary Festival took place at Jakes in Treasure Beach, St. Elizabeth June 3 - 5. Chris Abani has authored The Secret History of Las Vegas, Becoming Abigail, and Graceland among others. His collections of poetry include There Are No Names for Red, Dog Woman and Feed Me the Sun.