by Jenny Johnston
“What we know about how to be who we are comes from stories. It comes from the novels, the movies, the fashion magazines…it’s the agents of our imagination who really shape who we are.” -Chris Abani (TED Talk, 2007)
On Wednesday, April 26, UW-Milwaukee’s Department of English will play host to writer Chris Abani, winner of a Guggenheim Award, a Lannan Literary Fellowship, and the PEN Hemingway Prize. Abani’s presence in the literary world is deeply rooted in the narratives he tells about humanity, particularly in Nigeria and the diaspora. Born and raised in Nigeria, he started writing at a very young age and had his first book published as a teenager.
In the 1980s, his subversive writing gained the attention of the Nigerian government, who threw him in jail and eventually placed him on death row. He escaped, through the help of his friends, and now resides in the states. His collection of poems called Kalakuta Republic has the same name as the Kiri Kiri prison wing in Lagos, Nigeria, where Abani was imprisoned. He describes, in detail, the horrors that he witnessed there. In World Literature Today, Tanure Ojade writes that Abani “succeeds in elevating art and humanity above the meanness and inhumanity of tyrannical leaders and their cohorts.”
Abani’s other works include: The Secret History of Las Vegas (Penguin 2014), Song For Night (Akashic, 2007), The Virgin of Flames (Penguin, 2007), and Graceland (Picador, 2005).
His poetry collections are: Sanctificum (Copper Canyon Press, 2010), There Are No Names for Red (Red Hen Press, 2010), Feed Me The Sun – Collected Long Poems (Peepal Tree Press, 2010), Hands Washing Water (Copper Canyon, 2006), Dog Woman (Red Hen, 2004), Daphne’s Lot (Red Hen, 2003), and Kalakuta Republic (Saqi, 2001).
Abani’s talent isn’t limited to writing—he is also a gifted public speaker on the topics of humanitarianism, art, ethics and “our shared political responsibility.” One of his TED talks is called “Telling Stories From Africa,” and the overall theme of the talk is if you want to know about a culture, don’t watch the news. Instead, read its literature. These narratives form the identity of a particular group of people.
This event is not to be missed. It’s happening Wednesday, April 26, 7:00 p.m. at the Hefter Center, 3217 N. Lake Dr. It is free and open to the public.
Jennifer Johnston grew up in southeast Wisconsin but has lived in the Colorado mountains and Utah desert. All of these places she considers home, but feels it most in the Rocky Mountains. She loves anything that has to do with the outdoors, especially skiing and hiking. Jennifer is an English major at UWM and wants to travel and write about nature and the creative arts.