Chris Abani by David Shankbone

Chris Abani in 2007. Photo by David Shankbone. Licensed under Creative Commons, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Chris Abani
Born Template:Birth-date and age
Afikpo, Nigeria
Occupation Author, poet, professor

Christopher Abani (born December 27, 1966) is a Nigerian poet, prose author, and academic.


Abani was born in Afikpo, Nigeria. His father is Igbo, while his mother was English born.[1]

After a third third stint in prison in 1991, Abani moved to the United Kingdom where he lived until 1999. He then moved to the United States where now lives.[2]

Education and careerEdit

He holds a B.A. in English (Nigeria), an M.A. in Gender and Culture (Birkbeck College, University of London), an M.A. in English, and a Ph.D. in Literature and Creative Writing (University of Southern California).

He is a Professor at the University of California, Riverside and the recipient of the PEN USA Freedom-to-Write Award, the 2001 Prince Claus Awards, a Lannan Literary Fellowship, a California Book Award, a Hurston-Wright Legacy Award and the Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award. Selections of his poetry appear in the online journal Blackbird.

A self-described “zealot of optimism,” poet and novelist Abani bravely travels into the charged intersections of atrocity and love, politics and religion, loss and renewal. In poems of devastating beauty, he investigates complex personal history, family, and romantic love.

His most recent book of poetry, Sanctificum (Copper Canyon Press, 2010), is a book-length sequence of linked poems, bringing together religious ritual, the Igbo language of his Nigerian homeland, and reggae rhythms in a postracial, liturgical love song.[3]

Abani's foray into publishing has led to the formation of the Black Goat poetry series, an imprint of New York-based Akashic Books. Poets Kwame Dawes, Christina Garcia, Kate Durbin, Karen Harryman, Uche Nduke, Percival Everett, Khadijah Queen and Gabriela Jauregui have all been published by Black Goat.

Controversy Edit

Questions are being raised over Abani’s claims to imprisonment in Nigeria amongst other things. He was challenged about this in 2003 by his fellow Nigerian writers in a Yahoogroups listserv they all belong to called krazitivity. He tried to raise a defence at the time which didn’t address the issue. Kennedy Emetulu, a Nigerian public commentator based in London raised the issue again in an article published on Thursday, December 15, 2011:[1] Abani has not responded.


Template:Refimprove section While Abani is best known for his fiction, his poetry, arguably, is what introduced to the world some of the key qualities of Abani’s skill as a writer—his fascination with language, his use of ritual and his delight in the juxtaposition of suffering and beauty. In many ways, Abani’s poetry could be viewed as the more “personal” aspect of his writing, but a close reading of his work reveals that his capacity for invention, narrative and the shaping of character are as much a feature of his poetry as they are of his fiction. Where Abani’s fiction has won him major awards and received a great deal of critical attention, his poetry has garnered a few important awards, but comparatively modest volume of critical reception in the area of reviews. The work has been routinely recognized and reviewed in Library Journal. Abani’s endorsements by some of the more important poets writing today, does speak to his growing reputation as a poet. He has published to date nine collections of poetry and he has been invited to some of the most prestigious poetry festivals around the world. In 2003, a selected volume of his poems, titled Maar mijn hart is onvergankelijk (“My Heart is Unending”) was published in a bilingual edition in the Netherlands (Wagner Van Santen).

Kalakuta Republic (2000)

Abani’s first collection of poems, Kalakuta Republic, was published by Saqi Books in the UK in 2000. The book included an introduction by poet Kwame Dawes who concluded that in Kalakuta Republic, Abani “has emerged with poems that are graceful pieces of art, almost ready to be hung in a gallery for others to come and enter them and rest in them and weep in them and admire them.” Titled after a prison cell familiar to many of Nigeria's political prisoners and dissidents, Kalakuta Republic is a powerful collection of poems detailing the harrowing experiences endured by many at the hands of Nigeria's military regime in the late 1980s. In them he describes the characters that peopled his dark world, from the prison inmates to their torturers. While intense episodes are vividly described, it is above all a work greatly tinged with humanity and a durable tribute to the triumph of the human spirit. Inevitably, most of the critical response to this work focused on the assumed autobiographical implications of the work as the testimony of someone who has survived victimization. Yet what stands out in most of the reviews is the manner in which beauty is achieved despite the harrowing nature of the subject matter. World Literature Today, for instance, speaks of how the collection “elevates art and humanity above meanness and inhumanity.” Robert Winder of The New Statesman (May 21, 2001) speaks of the work as “an unheralded chunk of authentic literature . . . “ Winder wrestles with the value of so called “literature of suffering”, and argues that for Abani, that art is created from suffering is not enough compensation: “The literature of suffering - though it seems tacky to think of it as a genre - often invites us to wonder whether appalling experiences are somehow "worth" the poetry they can inspire. Abani gives us a terse answer: no.” At the end of it, Winder admonishes readers to listen to these poems. Perhaps the most notable endorsement of Abani’s collection came from playwright and subsequent Nobel Laureate, Harold Pinter who declares in his blurb for the book, “Abani's poems are the most naked, harrowing expression of prison life and political torture imaginable. Reading them is like being singed by a red hot iron.”

Daphne's Lot (2003)

In 2004 Red Hen Press published Abani’s first collection of poems to appear in the United States, Daphne’s Lot. The work, according to Abani, is based on the life of his mother, an English woman who raised her family in Nigeria beginning in the 1960s. The title poem of the collection has an epic scope, functioning essentially as a long narrative poem at the center of which is a story of flight, exile and loss. In their blurbs for the book, poets like Joy Harjo, David St. John and find themselves dwelling on the manner in which Abani manages to explore very difficult topics even as he writers poetry that Harjo describes as constantly singing. The work is set during the Biafran war, a period that for many Nigerian writers represents a haunting reminder of chaos, uncertainty and rupture in the Nigerian psyche. This shadow of memory haunts, for instance, Abani’s novel, Graceland, and is a defining presence in much of his poetry. David St. John concludes in his endorsement that “Chris Abani's new collection is a revelation and victory in every way.” Ronald Grottesman, editor of the Norton Anthology of American Literature, identifies the same general themes of other commentators: “Chris Abani's poems remind us of what happens when moral boundaries are obliterated and the sacredness of life becomes a kind of cynical joke. But these poems also remind us of the human capacity for compassion and love in the face of unspeakable cruelty and fiendish conditions.” Especially striking in this collection is the way that Abani seeks to immerse himself in the mind of a woman who goes through a process of maturation and self awareness in a world that is at once beautiful, exciting and frightening. The poems are as much about the body as they are about the imagination, and Abani seems to have written a convincing and moving homage to his mother, while employing his formidable skills as a novelist to create suspense, intrigue and pure storytelling.

Dog Woman (2004)

In 2004, Red Hen Press published Abani’s second poetry collection to appear in the US, Dog Woman. In her blurb for the book, Maurya Simon, describes the work as “a mesmerizing, haunting, and sometimes subversive exploration of the personal and cultural politics of disempowerment and power.” She identities several key themes that will come to characterize much of Abani’s work from that time forward, particularly his exploration of feminine sensibilities and experiences. For Simon, Abani “enacts the reconstruction of his feminized selves, and his personae struggle to re-form and transform both themselves and the difficult worlds they inhabit.” Kwame Dawes, Ghanaian/ Jamaican poet and reggae scholar speaks of Abani’s broad points of reference and interests. He describes Dog Woman as a work in which Abani dares to “to span a historical continuum that takes us as far back as the rituals of Christ suffering, through the tragic history of the Mayans of Mexico, to the starkly modern concerns of contemporary life.” Speaking to the contained emotion of Abani’s poetic line, Dawes says that the poet manages to write lines with “precision that turns a scream into a line of memorable lyric music without losing the emotion and force.”

Hands Washing Water (2006)

In 2006 Copper Canyon Press published Abani’s collection of poems, Hands Washing Water. By the time of its publication, Abani had already garnered quite a strong reputation in the US for his fiction, and his success at landing a contract with Copper Canyon, one of the more prestigious independent poetry presses in the US heralded his arrival in the US as a poet. Hands Washing Water is Abani's fourth poetry collection — a mischievous book of displacement, exile, ancestry, and subversive humor. The central section, “Buffalo Women,” is a Civil War correspondence between lovers that plays on our assumptions about war, gender, morality, and politics. In this collection, Abani’s subject matter is far reaching—his poems take him from the US, to the UK and to Africa. He also travels back in time even as he explores themes that are rooted in contemporary society. In his endorsement of the work, African American poet and subsequent National Book Award winner, Terrance Hayes argued that Abani’s work reminded him of James Baldwin’s statement that “the purpose of art is to lay bare the questions which have been hidden by the answers”. Hayes declared that the poems in the collection “teach that nothing buried is dead.” Natasha Tretheway, Pulitzer Price winning Poet, in her endorsement of the book, offered that “throughout… Abani’s unflinching vision shows us not only love and sorrow but also atrocity and the possibility of redemption, the line that pulls us from despair to salvation.”

There Are no Names for Red (2010)

In 2010, Los Angeles based Red Hen Press published Abani’s fifth collection of poems, There Are no Names for Red—a collaboration with prolific novelist, poet, and gifted artist, Percival Everett. Abani’s lyrical poems are a study in the possibilities inherent in ekphrasis poetry—work finding lively and dynamic dialog with art. Abani employs his usual combination of incantation, prayer and narrative in these poems, at the same time, his poems assume an often impressionistic bent, likely in response to the paintings of Everett. This compact (59 pages) collection contains riveting color prints of Everett’s often surreal and rivetingly abstract paintings.

Sanctificum (2010)

In 2010 Copper Canyon published what is arguably Abani’s most accomplished collection to date, Sanctificum. Combining elliptical narrative, chants, incantations, lyrical self-revelation, and tightly constructed verse, Abani’s collection is marked by a carefully thought out architectural framework that works with and against conventional religious themes: sacrament, divination, descent, processional, pilgrimage, benediction and so on. These are not mere poem titles, but meditations on very real human experiences. The collection is interspersed with compact epistolary “dialogs” with major poets like Derek Walcott, Yusef Komunyakaa and Kimiko Hahn. In many ways, the collection almost demands that it be read as a long poem in the style of Derek Walcott’s seminal Another Life, rather than a collection of individual poems. The sequence ends with hope, despite taking us on a sometimes harrowing and painfully honest journey into the memory, imagination and morality of the poet. And while it cannot be said to achieve or even attempt what his publishers propose as a “post racial” understanding of the world, it certainly celebrates the triumph of love and art over hardship:

This is not a lamentation, damn it.
This is a love song.
This is a love song.
Like reggae – it all falls on the off beat.
If there is a way, it is here.
They say you cannot say this in a poem.
That you cannot say, love, and mean anything.
That you cannot say, soul, and approach heaven.
But the sun is no fool, I tell you.
It will rise for nothing less.

A self-described “zealot of optimism,” Abani bravely travels into the charged intersections of atrocity and love, politics and religion, loss and renewal. In poems of devastating beauty, he investigates complex personal history, family, and romantic love. Sanctificum, Abani’s fifth collection of poetry, is, according to his publishers, his most personal and ambitious book. Utilizing religious ritual, the Nigerian Igbo language, and reggae rhythms.

Feed Me the Sun

A collection of imaginative and witty poems, Abani’s Feed Me the Sun represents his first poetry publication in the UK since Kalakuti Republic was published by Saqi Books in 2000. Feed Me the Sun was published in 2011 by Peepal Tree Press, the leading publisher of Caribbean literature, and more recently, an important venue for Black British poets and fiction writers. This selected collection of poems (subtitled, “Collected Long Poems”), draws from several of Abani’s earlier collections, and offers very generous selections of his longer poems. The work, according to the publishers, “displays astonishing energy; beauty of expression; and a range of reference to contemporary life, history, art, and literature. Including both meditative and narrative poems”. Full versions of Abani’s longer sequences like the extremely moving narrative poem, “Daphne’s Lot” in which he explores the life of an Englishwoman, the poet’s mother, as she is caught up in the madness of the Nigerian civil war appear in this collection. Also included is the experimental, “Buffalo Women” — an epistolary sequence of poems that follows two lovers mired by the American Civil War.




  • Winner, PEN Beyond the Margins Award for Song For Night.
  • Nominated for Lamada Award (the Virgin of Flames)
  • Recipient, Distinguished Humanist Award (UC, Riverside)
  • 2007 Pushcart Nomination for Sanctificum. (poetry)


  • New York Times Editor's Choice (Song for Night)
  • Finalist, PEN Beyond the Margins Award (Becoming Abigail)
  • A Barnes and Noble Discovery Selection (The Virgin of Flames)
  • A New York Times Editor's Choice (The Virgin of Flames)
  • A New York Libraries Books For Teens Selection (Becoming Abigail)


  • A New York Times Editor's Choice (Becoming Abigail)
  • A Chicago Reader Critic's Choice (Becoming Abigail)
  • A selection of the Essence Magazine Book Club (Becoming Abigail)
  • A selection of the Black Expressions Book Club (Becoming Abigail)
  • Pushcart Nomination (poetry) (A Way To Turn This To Light)
  • Shortlisted for International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award (GraceLand).


  • Winner, Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award. (GraceLand)
  • Winner, Hurston-Wright Legacy Award (GraceLand)
  • Silver Medal, California Book Award for Fiction (GraceLand)
  • Finalist, Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Fiction. (GraceLand)
  • Finalist, Commonwealth Writers Prize, Best Books (Africa Region)(GraceLand)
  • Pushcart Nomination for Blooding. StoryQuarterly.


  • Lannan Foundation Literary Fellowship, USA
  • Hellman/Hammet Grant from Human Rights Watch, USA.


  • Imbongi Yesizwe Poetry International Award, South Africa.


  • PEN USA West Freedom-to-Write Award, USA.
  • Prince Claus Awards.
  • Middleton Fellowship, University of Southern California, USA



  • Kalakuta Republic. London: Saqi Books 2000.
  • Daphne's Lot. Los Angeles: Red Hen Press, 2003.
  • Dog Woman. Los Angeles: Red Hen Press, 2004.
  • Hands Washing Water. Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon Press, 2006.
  • Sanctificum. Port Townsend, WA:Copper Canyon Press, 2010.
  • Feed Me the Sun: Collected long poems. Leeds, UK: Peepal Tree Press, 2010.
  • There Are No Names for Red. Los Angeles: Red Hen Press, 2014.


  • Masters of the Board (Delta, 1985)
  • GraceLand. New York: Farrar, Straus, 2004.
  • The Virgin of Flames. New York: Penguin, 2007.
  • The Secret History of Las Vegas: A novel. New York: Penguin, 2014.


  • Becoming Abigail: A novella. New York: Akashic Books, 2006.
  • Song For Night: A novella. New York: Akashic Books, 2007.


  • Seven New Generation African Poets: An introduction in two movements (edited with Kwame Dawes). Sleepy Hollow, NY: Slapering Hol Press, 2014.

Except where noted, bibliographical information courtesy WorldCat.[4]

Audio / videoEdit

  • Kwame Dawes with Chris Abani (videodisc). Santa Fe, NM: Lannan Foundation, 2010.

Except where noted, discographical information courtesy WorldCat.[4]

See alsoEdit


  1. Timberg, Scott (February 18, 2007). "Living in the `perfect metaphor'". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 2009-01-25. "He published his first novel, "Masters of the Board" (1985) at the age of 16 and for which he suffered severe political persecution including imprisonment. He would go on to face similar consequences for his early writing while at university in Nigeria. 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." 
  4. 4.0 4.1 Search results = Chris Abani, WorldCat, OCLC Online Computer Library Center Inc. Web, Aug. 18, 2015.

External linksEdit


Audio / video
This page uses Creative Commons Licensed content from Wikipedia. (view article). (view authors).
Community content is available under CC-BY-SA unless otherwise noted.