Under the stairs
As a teenager, the Nigerian author, Chris Abani published his first novel, Masters of the Board, to unexpected acclaim but also, unfortunately, to much suspicion. The imagination of a boy writing about a make-believe coup was somehow seen as a credible threat to the Nigerian government. Abani was imprisoned at the age of 18 for inciting treason. This early trauma served to deepen his political sensibilities. When he was released after six months, he continued writing, but with sharper political intent. This, of course led to further arrests and more time in prison—much in solitary confinement—and even a death sentence. Eventually released through the efforts of well-connected friends, Abani lived in London until even that became too dangerous. He fled to the US, where he has lived and worked for the past decade.
After all the terror and punishment his words created for him, it’s remarkable that Abani continued writing at all. But continue he did. He spent a ten-year period writing without publishing, bursting onto the literary scene in 2001 with Kalakuta Republic, a volume of poetry, which led to the first of many awards.
At a recent workshop for writers, Chris Abani, began by speaking of his long struggle as a writer. “I had all these manuscripts of novels and poems that had been rejected over and over. I used to be so mad about it. But now I look back, and I think I should send those publishers flowers in thanks.”
The writer he is now is the writer he was meant to be. Abani considers all those unpublished manuscripts as part of his apprenticeship. After a decade or hard work–and silence–he is now the master of intelligent, poetic, tender, poignant, important works, poetry and fiction he’s proud of.
“Try, but don’t be afraid to put aside,” he encouraged. “Move on to the next thing. You have many stories inside you. If you keep reworking the same story over and over in an attempt to get it published, you’ll never write those other stories.”
Someone asked where he got the idea for his latest work, the mesmerising Song for Night. He laughed and, with the flair of a master storyteller, shared the anecdote.
Years before, when he moved to LA, he had shoved a number of unpacked boxes under the stairs in his house. Like many faced with working on a PhD thesis, he looked around for a way to procrastinate. He tidied the house. He did yard work. Then, he remembered the old boxes and decided to unpack them at last. Inside of one, he found some of his old manuscripts. He picked up one at random, flipped through it, and landed on a page in which a boy named My Luck helps an old man across a river. Accident led to inspiration, and inspiration to weeks of furious work. The result? His novella, Song for Night, the haunting story of My Luck, a child soldier who has been separated from his platoon.
Song for Night was inside of Abani all along, hidden under the stairs, closed up in an old manuscript. My Luck was frozen there, but the idea of him was inside of Abani, biding time, gestating for eight long years before he was ready to appear in the world.
In Australia, Song for Night is published by Scribe Publications.