When Words Can Get You Killed: An Interview with Chris Abani

Chris_Abani

Chris Abani, Author and Poet

Crime fiction deals with life and death experiences all the time. The very nature of fiction provides the author (and the reader) an escape into the universe of a story. But what happens when these life and death experiences transcend the story and threaten the life of the author?

Chris Abani knows the answer to this question all too well. Chris is part of a new generation of Nigerian writers working to convey to an English-speaking audience the experiences of those born and raised in Africa during its divided past of apartheid and unrest. His first novel, Masters of the Board (1985), portrayed a government coup that eerily resembled a real coup carried out in Nigeria just as the novel was being released. This sounds like a perfect marketing platform for the novel, right? However, for Chris, it meant six months in prison on suspicion of an attempt to overthrow the government, which ultimately led to torture and a sentence on death row!

Today, Chris is a Board of Trustees Professor of English at Northwestern University where he continues to share his voice through award-winning literary works. Recently, he stopped by Noir Nation to share some fascinating insight into his journey as an author, as well as to discuss his exciting new crime novel, The Secret History of Las Vegas.

Noir Nation: Your writing career has spanned decades and started during your childhood in Nigeria. When did you know you wanted to be a writer?

Chris Abani: I published my first short story at 10 and my first novel at 16, so I guess I’ve always sort of known. But truly I believe all writers come from being avid readers, so that’s probably when the bug bit me. In the end, it doesn’t matter when we know, only that we spend the rest of our lives trying to get good at it.

The Secret Life of Las VegasNoir Nation: Your new crime novel The Secret History of Las Vegas has just been released by Penguin Books. Please tell us about the book.

Chris Abani: It’s Halloween night in Las Vegas when detective Salazar encounters a set of conjoined twins wading in Lake Mead, who upon questioning can’t explain the drum of blood near their pickup. Positive he’s apprehended the killers responsible for a series of murders of Las Vegas’ homeless—which has haunted him for years—Salazar enlists the help of Dr. Sunil Singh, a South African transplant who specializes in the study of psychopaths. But unknown to Salazar, Singh has been conducting a series of violent experiments on human behavior at a local institute, linking him to the killings.
Over the course of three days, as Singh simultaneously tries to psychoanalyze the twins and ward off Salazar, the implications of his study grow darker, and it becomes clear that he has his own demons to reckon with. Endlessly distressed by his betrayal of loved ones back home during apartheid, he seeks solace in the love of Asia, a prostitute with hopes of escaping that life. But Sunil’s own troubled past is hard on his heels in the form of a would-be assassin.

Noir Nation: Why did you set the story in Las Vegas?

Chris Abani: I love Las Vegas. It is perhaps the last frontier in America, one that is the fringe of a deeper inner self. Vegas gives the impression that everything is possible there, a place of total permission, and yet it is run with the tightest security. It is in many ways the only place left in the U.S. where everyone can feel free. A real place for nomads and transnationals. I could go on, but let’s just say it offers a lot of layers and possibilities.

Noir Nation: Where do you see Las Vegas in ten years?

Chris Abani: One of the world’s melting pots. A place that always grows and adapts – or else, a city buried under the sand and Lake Mead. All of it is possible.

Noir Nation: Media outlets have dubbed you as part of a new generation of Nigerian writers working to convey to an English-speaking audience the experiences of those born and raised in “that troubled African nation.” Do you feel this contributes to your creativity as a writer today or do labels inhibit creativity and expression?

Chris Abani: I think that I am a writer who is interested in the places of our common humanity. I have a global perspective and don’t feel I am trying to convey anything to the world. I simply put my humanity on trial with stories that have exciting plots and marginal characters and hope that my readers find a measure of themselves in the work.

Chris holds a BA in English (Nigeria), an MA in Gender and Culture (Birkbeck College, University of London), an MA in English and a PhD in Literature and Creative Writing (University of Southern California). He is a Board of Trustees Professor of English at Northwestern University and the recipient of many prestigious literary awards including the PEN USA Freedom-to-Write Award, the Prince Claus Award, and a New York Times Editor’s Choice for his novel Song For Night (Akashic, 2007). For more information, visit ChrisAbani.com

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