Living in the 'perfect metaphor'

Times Staff Writer

LATE one night a few years back, the Nigerian-born writer Chris Abani showed up at Chinatown's Phoenix Inn, where his was the only black face. He wasn't made terribly welcome, he recalls, and on that visit he was served only after delay and "with great reluctance."

"But I turned up so much I became part of the furniture," said Abani, who on a warm February evening was greeted like an old friend, with the restaurant's signature soup -- to which Abani attributes magical power over jet lag and hangovers -- materializing just moments after his arrival.

"So pretty quickly the issue disappeared. That's one of the things I love about Los Angeles: It's not that the city isn't racially fraught. It's that part of the tension is created not just by the way you look but by self-segregation of ethnicities within the city. And one of the ways to stop it is by consumption -- consumption of food, consumption of cultures."

The locale, as well as the sentiment, is to be found in Abani's new novel, "The Virgin of Flames," which follows an African and Latino mural painter from East L.A. named Black, who is driven but emotionally and sexually disoriented.

Abani, a burly, engaging 40-year-old who speaks in a soft English accent, has published several well-received books of poetry and is best known for 2004's PEN/Hemingway-award winning novel, "GraceLand," about a Nigerian teenage Elvis impersonator. In the new novel, he's seeking what he calls "an uneasy grace." Critics have found the book both dazzling and frustrating but have been unanimous in praising Abani's ravishing vision of the city -- a Los Angeles, that, as Ruben Martinez noted in The Times, "has received only increments of mainstream literary representation."

"Virgin" was originally conceived as an L.A. noir in the tradition of Chester Himes and Raymond Chandler. But Abani was pressured by his editor to move away from genre fiction, and he had to rebuild the book almost entirely.

"The more I wrote," he said, "the more I realized it's a book about Los Angeles, the same way 'GraceLand' is a book about Lagos. And the more I began to think about L.A., and my first two years of not liking living here, I realized it was more and more like Lagos every day: a Third World city in the best possible sense. Dirt, decay and this idea that's held together by everyone's dream of it."

Nigeria, which Abani calls "the most Western black country in Africa," has produced more than its share of writers known in the West, among them Nobel Prize winner Wole Soyinka, "Things Fall Apart" author Chinua Achebe and Booker Prize-winner Ben Okri. Abani is close with the novelist Debo Kotun, who lives in Pasadena.

Abani, who teaches at the burgeoning UC Riverside writing program, attributes Nigeria's literary centrality to a high level of education, a Socratic philosophical tradition and a spirit both "feisty" and ambitious. "We joke that when we finally have a Mars landing there'll be a convenience store run by Nigerians. 'What took you so long?' "

But even before he became one of the rare Africans in the Phoenix Inn and one of the few blacks living in East L.A., Abani was what he calls "an outsider's outsider." He grew up in small Nigerian cities, the son of an Igbo educator father and a white English-born mother who'd met at Oxford, where she was a secretary and he was a post-doc student. Raised Roman Catholic, Abani studied in the seminary as a teenager.

Abani's world included a mix of the West African and the Anglo-European, and his tea-drinking English mother, who had little formal education, introduced him to everything from James Baldwin to the Bhagavad-Gita to Yeats, an early obsession alongside comics and American TV.

His mother also encouraged him to write, and because Nigeria was created by postcolonial boundaries with little recognition of tribal reality, he felt no reason to be confined to Nigerian tradition. "Writers themselves," he says now, "are only interested in subject matter, like what drives us. You're less concerned by national boundaries. I fit into all of these traditions."

Political reality was not so easy to evade. It was after penning a novel as a teenager -- intended as a thriller -- about a government takeover that Abani was imprisoned for the first of three times. .

In order to survive

HIS third trip to prison, during the Babangida regime, had a death sentence attached. He was also tortured, and he spent six months in solitary confinement. It was only after friends raised a ransom that he was released.

His thoughts during this period were not on the power of the written word, and he's uncomfortable with the way Americans have turned him into a free-speech martyr for something he calls fairly common among Nigerian writers of his generation. He was focused, he says, on "How do I survive this with any shred of goodness, any humanity, left?" He had to tap into what he calls a deep well of compassion to survive from one day to the next.

After being released, he moved in 1992 with his mother to London's South Tottenham, an immigrant neighborhood with a mix of Jamaicans and Chinese, and began taking writing workshops. Colin Channer, a Jamaican-born novelist who taught Abani there, was impressed with his work. "I was immediately struck by his sense of the image and his ability to engage difficult subject matter," Channer said.

Despite partaking in a wide range of London's culture -- Abani played saxophone onstage with the Asian Dub Foundation and had his poetry championed by Harold Pinter -- he felt constricted by England's class system.

Then in 2000 he moved to Boyle Heights; the low rent, during a period split between refurbishing old cars and graduate school, agreed with him. At first he found L.A.'s centerless quality frustrating and isolating after London. But he has fond memories of "chickens crowing in the morning, mariachi bands playing ... people pulling beautiful wooden donkeys down the street." And as he settled in, he realized that American culture, with its mix of ethnicities and classes, has always been impure, mongrel.

"And L.A.," he said, "is the perfect metaphor for all of this."

When it came to writing "Virgin," he wanted to show the city in a new way. "Crime has been done, East L.A. has been done, but mostly from the gang angle, the cholo angle, the immigrant angle. I wanted a book that talked about my experience of L.A.: middle class, biracial, with a hyper sense of surrealism." And he wanted to set it along the L.A. River, which he says the city has rejected but which "refuses to be contained or forgotten."

He uses Black's masculinity -- which is complicated by his obsession with a transsexual stripper -- as a symbol for the city's mutability, its constant self-transformation, "moving its fluid way back and forth."

More than once, Abani said, he's met or read about people who resemble characters in his book. "Whatever you imagine, the city already contains it. That's what's so beautiful about L.A.: It refuses to conform to any one person's view of it."

Abani himself, though, has grown tired of conforming to expectations: He sees himself as an Igbo writer, a British writer, a black writer and a Los Angeles writer. "GraceLand," said Channer, was "Chris rebelling against the idea of what an African writer should write about. The industry of postcolonial studies imposes on writers the obligation to write about being formerly colonized.... When you venture from that, I'm not sure a lot of critics or academics know quite what to do with you."

One of the most powerful and disturbing images in "Virgin" is an artwork created by Black that combines racist and sexist jokes -- Abani collected them from bookstore restrooms -- with lines of poetry from Wallace Stevens and Pablo Neruda.

This balance of extremes -- sacred and profane, in this case -- is central to the way Abani sees the world. "None of my characters are one way or the other: I'm always able to find the darkest things with the nicest people and the nicest things with the darkest people."

His fiction, he said, asks readers "to consider what it would be like to be this person."

It's also the way Abani sees his own past. When talking about his influences, he often comes back to his mother. In 1968, penniless and fleeing the Nigerian Civil War, she returned to the small town in Berkshire, England, where she'd grown up, now with five black children. Their only possessions, Abani recalled, were "the clothes we were standing up in."

She was met at first with whispers and disapproval. But soon, neighbors were coming by to bring food and clothes and welcome her back. It crystallized, Abani said, "the complex ways in which people are human: They're both prejudiced and nasty. But fundamentally good."

scott.timberg@latimes.com

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