Chris Abani’s Becoming Abigail, the follow-up to his PEN/Hemingway award–winning Graceland, is rich with suffering. In 34 brief and lyrical chapters, Abani sketches the life of Abigail Tansi, a 14-year-old Igbo girl. It is abjectly Hobbesian: solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short. The novella begins with a flashback to the funeral of Abigail’s mother (also named Abigail), the air filled with the sound of women weeping: “A deep lowing, a presence, dark and palpable, like a shadow . . . a thing that circled the grave and the mourners in ?a predatory manner.” This is an apt description of the novella itself — if Becoming Abigail were a noise, it would be a wail.
Abigail’s life is a chain of tragedies. She spends her childhood in elaborate and crazed rituals of grief for her dead mother: muttering incantations over her photographs, cutting and burning herself. She loses her virginity to one cousin, and is sexually abused by another cousin, Peter. Eventually, her father sends her off to live with Peter in London, but not before hanging himself from a hook. Once in London, Peter tries to turn her into a prostitute, and when she resists, he handcuffs her in a doghouse, urinates on her, beats and rapes her. In defiance, she bites off his penis and flees. She has a brief affair with her social worker, a kind man whom she falls in love with; however, he is caught having sex with her and sent to jail. In the end, unable to bear it, she throws herself into the Thames.
Abani has the biographical goods to back up his bleak tale — he was imprisoned multiple times in Nigeria for his poems and plays, and as a political prisoner he was tortured: beaten, electrocuted and locked in solitary confinement. But unlike the peddlers of abuse lingering on the “nonfiction” best-seller list (James Frey, David Pelzer, etc.), Abani doesn’t simply serve up another steaming dish of atrocity; he strives for something more sublime and illusive, to delve into the dark heart of a bewildering reality, groping in the night for pathos.
It doesn’t always work. The characters, despite Abani’s poetic insights, are frustratingly obfuscated. The death of Abigail’s mother plays a huge role in the book, but Abani tells us next to nothing about who she was. Abigail obsessively seeks out anecdotes about her mother, “trying to create memory, make it concrete, physical. She collected vignettes . . . hoarding them fiercely.” Abani never describes any of these stories, and so she remains intangible. And Abigail too, aside from her love for ancient Chinese poetry, is utterly defined by her own sorrow, as if “grieving her own death in advance.” It is impossible to discern who she might be outside of her terrible situation.
Abani speaks eloquently about how the men in Abigail’s life had never properly seen her: “She was a foreign country to them . . . None of them knew she had cracked her left molar falling out of a mango tree.” Abigail’s story is like the face of a hungry girl staring from a magazine page, simultaneously haunting and remote, something with which we cannot properly sympathize or contend.
Of course, we here refers to a Western, privileged perspective, a reader standing at the edge of a cultural chasm. It is a problem that Abani has considered. In an interview with Tayari Jones in The Believer, he talks about the difficulty of writing about such an incredibly violent culture: “You’re torn between representing what you know to be true,” he says, “and worrying how it will be perceived by a Western reader . . . We allow access to a Western reader but also say we don’t care about what you think.”
Politically, his point makes a lot of sense, but artistically it is insufficient. Surely Abani cares about linking the experiences of the “other” to the reader — that marvelous trick of literature. Suffering is so abundant, is such a saturated market, that the fiction of suffering (fiction so intently focused on trauma) becomes an almost obscene endeavor; it absolves itself not by being “true,” but by creating empathy.
This is not an easy task: starvation, torture, AIDS and murder have become the background noise of our entertainments, the wallpaper pattern of our newspapers. We are so inured to tales/images/instances of pain that a direct assault on our cauterized nerve endings no longer works. Literature must come upon us athwart, enter the heart by sneak attack. Peter’s debasement of Abigail — “Filth. Hunger. And drinking from the plate of rancid water. Bent forward like a dog” — is disturbing yet remote. The staccato rhythm and the graphic language are so direct, so lurid, that they fail to pierce the skin. The scene is grimly fascinating, but lacks emotional resonance. Suffering in literature must be more oblique, more sideways; it must be a void into which the reader falls.
Ironically, a nearly perfect example of the covert nature of suffering can be found in Abani’s own “Jacob’s Ladder,” a poem about his release from Kiri Kiri prison: “You step out and stand in the/sun thawing like a side of beef/from a freezer . . . The smell of frying plantain,/carried gently hurts inexplicably/Cold, sweet Coca-Cola stings you/to tears.”
Literature cannot truly provide access to traumatic experiences — being chained in a doghouse, stabbing ourselves with a red-hot needle — but a poem like “Jacob’s Ladder” brings us one step closer, creating the ghost of trauma in our minds. In Becoming Abigail, such profoundly empathetic moments are rare. We are like Abigail’s social worker, touching her body in the darkness, feeling her burns and scars, wondering what shape they would make if they could only be connected.
BECOMING ABIGAIL | By CHRIS ABANI | Akashic Books | 120 pages | ?$12 paperback