Chris Abani is a novelist, poet, essayist, screenwriter, and playwright. Born in Nigeria to an Igbo father and English mother, he grew up in Afikpo, Nigeria, and published his first book at age 16. Jailed three times and sentenced to death in Nigeria for his writing, Abani’s humanitarian outlook has come to characterize his writing, which Dave Eggers has called “the molten heart of contemporary fiction.” He has resided in the United States since 2001, and currently teaches at Northwestern University.
Abani will appear at Hugo House on October 18, 2019, to give a Word Works: Writers on Writing lecture on “Mining for Awe.” In anticipation of the event, Abani gave us some insight into his early writing years, his approach to storytelling, and the gift of language.
You published your first book, Masters of the Board, when you were 16 years old. How did you first become interested in writing?
When I was six I wrote a short story for class, a retelling of the King Wenceslas story. I got sent home ’cause my teacher didn’t believe I wrote it. She said my mom wrote if for me. My mom had to go and sort that out. Then at ten I wrote a bad story called “The Lion” that got published in the state newspaper and then I wrote the novel and it won a prize and got published.
I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t writing. There was nothing conscious about it.
You’re a novelist, poet, essayist, screenwriter, and playwright. What drives you to write in all of these different forms? Is there one that you’re most comfortable working in?
The story determines the form. If you listen to what’s trying to come through, the form that can hold it best comes. You then practice the form and then merge the story.
Story telling is a craft, a skill. Anyone can do it, anyone can learn it. People talk about talent but I don’t know what it is. You work at it until it comes together. It’s all quite ordinary and practical really. Story is what is magical, not the form or the writer. Oxygen is magical not whether it comes in a tank or occurs in the freedom of nature.
In your Ted talk on storytelling, you said: “We often think that language mirrors the world in which we live, and I find that’s not true. The language actually makes the world in which we live.” How, if at all, did this realization affect your work as a writer?
If language makes the world then it means we live in the magic of constant change and possibility. What a gift consciousness is. It doesn’t affect my work, it is my work. Me, the human, the writer, and the work are products of it. There is no separation so it can’t affect it, it is it.
As a professor of creative writing at Northwestern, what is the most important lesson you want your students to take away from your classes?
There is only the joy of hard work, constant and diligent practice and staying power. If there is more to life, then it’s outside of your control. Stay in your lane and apply yourself to what is in control. You’ll have a happy and productive life.
Your upcoming Word Works talk is on the topic of “Mining for Awe.” Tell us: What does this phrase mean to you, and how do you mine for awe in your own writing practice?
Come to the talk.