Sunday, August 17, 2008

Nigerian Writer Chris Abani on TED

Chris Abani, I'm beginning to think he's a genius--not opined lightly. Nigerian writer, poet, publisher (and occasional saxophone player?), currently living in the U.S., creator and editor of Black Goat the Akashic Books poetry imprint.

TED is? For those who don't know TED stands for Technology, Entertainment, Design. It was started in 1984 with the intent of bringing together people from those three arenas but since then its "scope has become ever broader. The annual conference in Monterey, California now brings together the world's most fascinating thinkers and doers who are challenged to give the talk of their lives (in 18 minutes)." The TED site makes the best of these talks available for free on their website. I've known about TED for a while but only occasionally check their site.

gave a talk in February 2008 that was posted 22 July 2008. (Thanks to Abdel Shakur via Tayari Jones for hipping us all to this talk). TED must have really liked Abani because there are at least two talks up on their website!

• Here's Abani talking about African narratives from August 2007, ending with a poem from Yusef Komunyakaa.

• Here is Abani telling stories about our shared humanity from February 2008, ending with a poem by Lucille Clifton.

A little bit of why TED says you should listen to Chris Abani: "Chris Abani's first novel, published when he was 16, was Masters of the Board, a political thriller about a foiled Nigerian coup. The story was convincing enough that the Nigerian government threw him in jail for inciting a coincidentally timed real-life coup. Imprisoned and tortured twice more, he channeled the experience into searing poetry.

What is Black Goat? The poetry imprint is dedicated to "publishing well-crafted poetry and will focus on experimental or thematically challenging work. The series aims to create a proportional representation of female, African, and other non-American poets." (Abani is also a generous mentor/advisor to emerging artists.) Among the current Black Goat imprint publications are: Karen Harryman, Auto Mechanic's Daughter; Uche Nduka, eel on reef; Kwame Dawes, Gomer's Song; Gabriela Juaregui, Controlled Decay; and Khadijah Queen, Conduit.

(Interestingly, in his talk on humanity Abani notes that the voice of the goat sounds like that of a human being, and its eyes are that of a human child. I don't know if that has any relationship to the name of the imprint.)

• I've just finished reading Abani's novella, Becoming Abigail, (Akashic Books, 2006) and still am unsure what to think of it. I was riveted; pissed off; caught up in the beauty of his language; frustrated with his repetitions of the word "loam"; riveted again with visceral evocations of his language; with his ability to acknowledge the absolute messiness of life and allow you to simultaneously feel the profoundity, revulsion, despair, awe, and relief that messiness can compel; and again ultimately felt disquieted, and unmoored by the work. I read the last lines at least three times while walking. I had read the last pages walking outside because I couldn't be still, or out of the day (the trees, and the sun) while reading them. I wondered that I somehow came out of that work feeling a sense of hope of all things, alongside my frustration.

I want to read more Abani.

• If you'd prefer to watch Abani on the TED website here's the link for the humanity talk and for the African narratives talk.

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