October 2, 2013
I just finished reading Becoming Abigail by Chris Abani – a beautiful, harrowing little book that tumbles through the readers ears like music, and rakes over the heart like nails. I read this in one sitting, while soaking in the tub after my family had gone to sleep (my favorite…and mostly, only, time to read:).
As Abani’s language danced through my mouth (I read many passages out loud – this book screams to be heard, like so many of Virginia Woolf’s books do…I highly recommend you do the same) I could hear the influence of jazz in his writing. Abani is not only a writer of books, he is also a poet, and a talented jazz musician. (He often begins his readings with his saxophone; I also heard him read once with a full band behind him…definitely get out and hear him if you can). The way he assembles language is often percussive; it pops and hops, leaps unexpectedly…“And even light can become dirty, falling sluggish and parchment-yellow across a floor pitted by hope walked back and forth, the slap of a slipper on concrete echoing the heat gritting its teeth on the tin roof, the sound sometimes like rain, other times like the cat-stretch of metal expanding and contracting” (p. 31). …and then flows into the languid river of softness, like a breath…“She dipped her finger in the pool of him and brought it to her lips. The salt of him. The sum of him. There is no way to leave anything behind. She soaked her hands in him. Brought them wet and shiny in the sunlight to her face. Smeared. But water is just that. Nothing left behind but the prickle of his evaporation and the faint fragrance of loss.” (p.. 84)
Abani is a consumate wordsmith, and this book is a showcase of his deep love for language itself. As I read, I often felt like I was chewing my way through Abigail (the story’s tragic heroine), consuming her, along with her strength and despair – which was perfectly fitting, because Abigail herself, is chewing her way through her own life, through her horrifying existence, her thread-bare hopes, her painful losses.
I love that language can be used as timber – solid hard wood splayed out on the page in the shape of words. I do not find anything ethereal about writing; to me it is the hard work of hammering down beam after beam – the same as an architectural scaffold, a skeletal structure built and constructed in order to house occupants – and in the case of literature, those occupants are words. Words tell story, they create picture, they transport us through time and space; they evoke feeling, pathos, ethos…Becoming Abigail has done all of these things, with great artistry, skill, and humanity. A beautiful read.
*check out the above links, one will bring you to the book (Becoming Abigail) and the other will bring you to an interview with Abani where he discusses his history of imprisonment as a boy and young man while living in Nigeria, for challenging the “establishment.”