I Need Distractions all the Time: An Interview with Poet Chris Abani
Chris Abani is at least a triple threat: As a poet, novelist, and playwright he has produced 13 works since he was sixteen, when his first novel, Masters of the Board (1984), was published. In addition, he is self-taught on several instruments, including the saxophone. Originally from Nigeria, Abani moved to the UK before settling in Los Angeles in 1999. Currently he is a professor in the Department of Creative Writing at the University of California, Riverside.
In June Abani came to Pittsburgh as a guest poet of the African American poetry organization Cave Canem. While here he read with Cave Canem poets Toi Derricotte, Cornelius Eady, and Harryette Mullen at an annual event conducted in partnership with City of Asylum/Pittsburgh. Before the show Abani sat down for a conversation with Sampsonia Way.
Ebullient and ever-interested in collaging and layering, in this interview Abani talks about his writing and editing processes, where he gets his ideas, why he’s never experienced writer’s block, and his many cross-discipline obsessions.
What are the writers and the books that you come back to read again and again?
Toni Morrison is a writer that’s very close to my heart. I’ve read everything she’s written and I return to her work over and over. I love James Baldwin. He’s my muse, actually. I have a picture of him hanging over my desk and one of my biggest regrets is never getting to meet him. My influences also include painters and sculptors, people like Antony Gormley. People who are dealing with the ways in which consciousness is embodied, and the distance between silence and what can be represented or spoken.
I also love photographers. I’m an amateur photographer, so I’m fascinated by framing and composition. What an Ansel Adams will hold for you in the scope of a landscape is quite different from Eric Kim, who does street photography. So the question for me is how do I create an encyclopedic sense of the mythic in the small works that I make? How does a novel follow a straight plot line but still try to have all the other layers that a photograph effortlessly seems to have?
And when you’re writing, asking yourself all of these questions, what does your routine look like?
It usually depends on the time of year. I have a full time job as a tenured professor, so if I’m teaching, then I’m up nights, sometimes all night.
I write everything longhand first. I grew up in West Africa so computers only started to be commonly used when I was around 26. I’m used to writing everything by hand and then transcribing it onto the computer, so that’s already my first step of editing.
I’m also very old school; I don’t like editing on a screen. For me, it’s a process of transcription, erasure, print, transcription, erasure, print.
Sometimes a month will go by and nothing happens, and then there’s a week where I don’t leave the house. If it comes during summers when I’m not teaching, I can do 72-hour stretches. Usually within two to three months I’ll end up with a strong first draft.
Additionally, a lot of my work comes from lying in front of the television, moving my thumb and changing channels. When I’m working on a computer, there’s always a window—either Hulu or Netflix—open and a TV show or a film playing. I can’t write while it’s quiet. I grew up in a very noisy house and if it’s too quiet I get distracted. I need a background hum that I can pull away from. Years ago, in London, I used to take the train to Heathrow Airport and write in the departure lounge just to have energy around. I need distractions all the time.
“People think that writing is writing, but actually, writing is editing. Otherwise, you’re just taking notes.”
Can you describe your editing process in a more specific way?
People think that writing is writing, but actually, writing is editing. Otherwise, you’re just taking notes. In a sense, the entire project of writers is to figure out their process.
For me, the process almost always starts with a title and then fragments of images and, sometimes, a character will emerge. Then I start to chase the idea and find that maybe 17, 18 drafts later the novel or poetry book is completely different from where I started.
In the case of some novels I scrap 299 of 300 pages and start again. I do what a close friend and one of my teachers told me: “Don’t go back to cut and paste. Locate what is left, read it, and then start afresh.” What happens is that 80% of what you just jettisoned comes back, rearranged in the new direction it needs to go in.
Part of my revision process consists of testing and asking how much wider the circle of influences can get before cutting it back. It’s a process of layering and removing; it takes months, years and is fed by different things.
As a whole it’s difficult to give a simple answer to this question because, for me, the process is very collage-driven, very expansive. I like to push things almost to the point of failure. If you have a spectacular failure as a work of art, it usually means you’re in uncharted territory, you’ve moved the form forward—if not for the genre, then at least for yourself. A friend of mine, Junot Díaz, says that the only time you’re doing something new is when you’re lost, and I love that.
Do you have an editor? What’s your relationship with that person like?
I have multiple editors.
My editor at Penguin, Kathryn Court, is amazing. I remember one time when I sent her a draft and her edits cut 40 pages from the novel.
I also have a tight group of friends who are editors that read my work. One of them, Cristina Garcia, took one of my books that was 410 pages initially, and sent me back 350 pages. I called her up and said, “Hey, there’s 60 pages missing; did you mislay them?” There was a pause on the phone and she’s like, “Ay, mijo, those are the pages that don’t belong in the book.” [laughs] She’s an incredible writer and I trust her, so I immediately made a file with her name on it and cut those pages out. After printing it out and reading it again I pared it down even further and rewrote certain things. My editor loved it and took off another 27 pages, and now the book is very lean and powerful.
So the old, romantic, 19th century idea of the writer in his garret—the idea that writing or any kind of art is a singular vision—is ridiculous. It takes a community to make art. It’s really important for me to have other gazes I trust to look at the work.
Have you ever experienced writer’s block?
No, and I don’t know what that means. I think if you watch one episode of Oprah or Maury Povich, you have enough ideas for six books. If you watch a Fellini movie, that’s enough inspiration for two or three books of poetry. Every time you revisit stuff, you’re a different person, so it’s always new.
Well that’s not the case with many of the writers who have been interviewed at Sampsonia Way…
Maybe it’s just luck for me. I started writing very, very young. I published my first novel when I was 16 and my whole process of growing up has been writing. Writing is also my job—it’s a real craft. For me it’s like being a carpenter. There’s no illusions or romanticism around it. Ideas are always streaming through, because my brain is so attuned to “What if” and “What about that” and even if it’s not about a new project, it’s always like, “Well that’s interesting, I could layer that over this thing that’s happened…”
I usually work on two books simultaneously, if not more things. A novel and a book of poetry, or sometimes a novel, a book of poetry, and a screenplay. When my momentum starts to lag in a particular project, I roll into a different one, and by the time that’s reached its lag point, I roll back into the first one fresh. This allows me to continuously have work coming out.
“The idea that writing or any kind of art is a singular vision is ridiculous. It takes a community to make art.”
What internal limits have been placed on your writing?
I have very little internal constraints. Part of this has to do with my parents. I was raised with an incredible amount of intellectual privilege. Apart from the privilege of being middle-class, there were all kinds of books around, and even though my parents were heavily Catholic, I was encouraged to read the Koran, the Bhagavad Gita, everything. So by the time I was twelve and going into seminary, I had read everything from Baldwin to Dostoevsky and would have heated conversations with my parents. My mother was really nurturing; she was the one who opened up my imagination. My father was a geographer by training and was much more critical.
But I read in a nonhierarchical manner and was also reading comic books at the same time. Even today my protagonists carry an existential melancholy that’s a combination of the Silver Surfer and Rodion Romanovich from Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment.
One of the only limits I have is that the internal logic of my work must hold together. The other requirement for me is that the language has to be transcendental, because story alone is not enough for me, even as a reader.
What about external limits?
Of course, there are other forms of censorship, which come from the market and are sometimes imposed on you, but you must always resist that—not with the rebelliousness of a teenager, but with the deep questioning of a grown person, of an artist.
In my personal life, I’m probably still a teenager. But in my professional life I’m very balanced. When I reject something, it’s only been rejected after I’ve considered all its ramifications, not before.
Do you think that society and the market pressure poets of color to write “black”?
Well, I don’t even know what black means. I’m black, middle-class Nigerian, but also half English. Does “black” mean black-Haitian or black working-class Jamaican? There is no blackness. It’s like casting a movie: You wouldn’t say “the white guy.” It would be a French or a German guy.
If we think of black poets, there is a lot of pressure on them because the dominant culture is white. The historical perspective that belongs to that hegemonic whole tends to be what remains. As a result I think black poets struggle with the idea of how to locate a fringe history while at the same time creating a work of art.
What are your obsessions?
Music is a big obsession. As a kid I always wanted to be a musician and sing, but growing up, my father didn’t want us to play musical instruments. In a middle-class Nigerian home, he didn’t want the temptation. You had to be a doctor or a lawyer and the idea of his kids making art terrified him. At one point in college I dropped out for a year and joined a Nigerian band called The Funky Dreads. Eventually, over the years, I’ve taught myself to play several instruments, including the saxophone.
I’m obsessed with the way music continues to defeat the notion of boundaries. Linguistically alone, you can hear a song in Portuguese and be completely heartbroken. Most of the time, when you read a translation of the lyrics, you realize that you were able to understand—almost down to a line or two—exactly what the story of the song was, even though you didn’t understand the words. This is amazing, because writing—anything involving language the way writing does—is so bogged down by misinterpretation and the inability of language to convey this larger thing. If I could have, I would have been a musician, but I’m not good enough, so I write. That’s my compensation.
I’m also obsessed with art in any form—painting, sculpture, or film.
I’m obsessed with the idea of how people see this world we all inhabit differently. How is it that a fixed form can yield infinite interpretation? If you think of Plato’s The Allegory of the Cave, and then you think about Werner Herzog’s movie about cave-painters–and what is that, 10,000 years, 20,000 years, 60,000 years between those people?—and yet it’s like a modern conversation. Or you hear a Bob Marley song now, and you think it could have been made a year ago. The man’s been dead for nearly 30 years. That just humbles me. So I’m obsessed with the ability to render things that are specific, but simultaneous. That’s a big obsession. If I don’t find that, I’m not interested in whatever it is I’m looking at or reading. It’s not that I don’t think it’s good, I just think you’ve wasted an opportunity to layer something.
That’s my obsession: Multiplicity all the time.
“I love when people misunderstand my work; it opens up a conversation I would never have considered.”
You said that writing is bogged down by misinterpretation. At the same time it seems like you love those misunderstandings.
I do love misunderstandings. I love when people misunderstand my work, because it opens up a conversation I would never have considered. My work is very widely translated, and my translators are often frustrated with me because they say, “What does this mean?” and I say, “Well, what do you think it means? What do you think it can mean?” Because it’s entering new language, and therefore it has to have a new context.
I look at my translators as people who are rewriting the work to fit a particular place. I love that concept—that things cannot transfer, that there are misunderstandings.
What does a young writer need to know?
A young writer needs to know how to read. We’re reading for meaning all the time, we’re reading relationally all the time. But as a writer you have to strip back how you’re reading. It’s not whether you like a thing or not. It’s how the thing has enacted itself. If you’re repulsed by a character, why are you repulsed by that character? You’ve gotta dig behind it, because you can’t have judgment. It’s the most important thing: You can’t judge your own characters. If you do, you’ll write in a very limited form; instead, what you hope to do is confront your own humanity in the work you’re making, or lack thereof, which is often the case with me.
You have to write yourself into writing. You can’t know the risks until you take them. There are no guaranteed outcomes. You can invest six months into writing 300 pages and then throw them away. You have to be willing to throw them away, and not be attached to them in that way, because you’re not making a product—you’re refining a process. Occasionally along the way a product emerges, but refining the process is a lifelong thing. Remember: You’re never going to be a good writer; you’re always trying to be a good writer.