Friday, August 04, 2006


Graceland, Chris Abani, Farrar Straus and Giroux, 2004, 321 pp

I first learned about this book on the lit blogs. Then I saw Abani on a panel at the LA Times Festival of Books and was impressed by his presence and words. He teaches at UCLA, I think, but was born in Nigeria, where he published a novel at 16 years of age and was imprisoned for it. He considers himself to be in exile.

Elvis, the main character, is a teenage boy living with his father in the slums of Lagos, Nigeria. His mother is dead but from her he got his love of American music (hence his name) and his dream to be a dancer. After his father lost in a political campaign, they moved from a relatively good life in the country to the city. The father is now a drunk and Elvis is pretty much on his own.

It is not a happy story. Kids who have lost a parent are always to a degree lost themselves. Elvis has seen a lot of bad stuff in his few years and has not got very good judgment, so he gets into plenty of trouble while trying to survive.

The book therefore is universal and yet particular to the Nigerian scene in the 1980s and 1990s. The military rule is harsh and totalitarian. The economic scene is dire. The dream is to go to America, which is hard to do. I liked it very much but it was a highly disturbing story and once again reminded me of how terrible it is in most of the world.

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