Chris Abani has suffered for his writing. Imprisoned on several occasions by the Nigerian authorities, once when he was only 16, he now lives in America, the country that has a powerful cultural pull on the characters in GraceLand, his debut novel. Indeed, Abani explores both Western and Nigerian themes to create a unique perspective on Nigerian culture and its place in a neo-colonialist and globalised world.
Elvis Oke is a teenager, growing up in the harsh environment of urban Lagos. Following the death of his mother, Elvis and his father, Sunday, are living in the ghetto of Maroko. His father has remarried and is drinking his life away while Elvis scrapes by, dreaming of becoming a dancer and working as an Elvis impersonator for the rich tourists who line the beaches close to, but a world away from his own home.
Desperate for guidance, for somewhere to anchor his life, Elvis befriends a political activist called King of the Beggars who tries to steer Elvis from a life of violence. However, in need of money, Elvis joins forces with his friend Redemption in some shady business dealings with a terrifying army captain called only the Colonel and becomes unwittingly embroiled in the illegal trade of human body parts.
This coming of age novel is told in contrasting chapters that go from the present to Elvis’ childhood growing up with his mother in the Igbo village of Afikpo, miles away from the Lagos slum. Each chapter opens with a brief description of the kola nut ceremony, an important Igbo tradition in Nigeria symbolising hospitality and respect and closes with a recipe from Elvis’ mother’s journal, which he carries with him at all times in an attempt to keep her spirit with him.
This is the kola nut. The seed is a star. The star is life. The star is us.
The timeframe of the novel, from 1972 to 1983 spans an era when Nigeria was at the mercy of either military dictatorships or corrupt democratic rule and Abani is careful to show the trouble with both eras. Afikpo, the village of Elvis’ childhood is one where he has sweet memories of his mother gardening, the wisdom of his grandmother, swimming with his cousin and the close camaraderie and comfort of extended family. It is in stark contrast to his life in the Lagos slum ten years later where he regularly wakes up in a pool of rat infested water and struggles to find money to eat.
His mother’s journal is his talisman for remembering his childhood days, but as he looks back it becomes clear that those early years were as pervaded with violence and pain as his current situation and that the Igbo society he came from was fracturing and letting go of the rituals that once gave life order. When Elvis has to undergo the ritual of manhood that involves spearing an eagle, he has to make do with a pre-stabbed chick.
‘Is this an eagle chick?’ Elvis asked.
Joseph laughed. ‘Elvis, you funny. No, it is chicken, eagle is too expensive’
Western civilisation, depicted as music in the novel, is starting to have an effect on the old ways of life. There is growing violence towards women and children, Elvis and his cousin Efua are both raped by a family member and a community watches in silence. It becomes apparent that life may not have worked out very differently for Elvis, even outside of the Maroko slum. Violence is a part of everyday life for Elvis -and for Nigeria as a country, which is cowering under vicious leadership and scrabbling to live with crippling poverty.
We are who we are because we are who we were made. No forget.
Shocking violence is perpetrated throughout this novel, but Abani is clever enough to show that the violence is coming from everywhere in the community. The violent dictatorship is personified by the Colonel, who kills with impunity and subjects Elvis to horrifying torture. But likewise, ordinary village people are capable of their own violence, carrying out vicious lynchings against some of their own for the sake of a few Naira. Elvis asks
How long can we use the excuse of poverty?
Abani may use the novel as a way to make a political statement against the Nigerian authorities, the World Bank and wealthy westerners who use the country for their own gain, but he also turns his criticism to the Nigerian people themselves.
Every time we complain that we don’t want to be ruled by military dictatorship; but every time there is a coup, we come out in the streets to sing and dance and celebrate the replacement of one despot with another. How long can we continue to pretend we are not responsible for this?
In the face of such violence and poverty, the body becomes commodified. Children become prostitutes, parents maim their babies to make them more profitable beggars, Elvis considers selling his blood for cash and children are being kidnapped to harvest fresh organs for western buyers. Where the body is valuable, life is cheap. In one striking metaphorical scene, vast numbers of Nigerians are hit by vehicles on the busy Lagos highway because they would rather try and dodge the traffic than take a detour to the footbridge. Their bodies then lie where they have fallen, getting run over again and again as their families have to pay a fee to have the body removed by the authorities and they cannot afford to pay it.
Abani creates a vivid portrait of a society in chaos and the terror of living with within it on a daily basis. Much of the violence is clearly designed to shock, but the prose is fluid and effective despite some stilted passages in the novel, where the presentation of facts gets in the way of the narrative.
As Elvis matures and tries to reconcile his wish to dance and perform with the reality of life in Nigeria, he is faced with more violence and upheaval and must decide where to find his redemption – in his art or in his homeland
There was a positive side to not trying at something: you could always pretend that your life would have been different if you had.
Elvis is a great creation – a reader and a dreamer, he is kind to those who need his help and stands up to those who persecute him, be it the Colonel or his own father. Abani has said that
What I’ve come to learn is that the world is never saved in grand messianic gestures, but in the simple accumulation of gentle, soft, almost invisible acts of compassion, everyday acts of compassion
This is how Elvis lives – with grace. He may not be able to save the world, but there is a possibility that he can save himself.
For me the ending is slightly disappointing, but GraceLand manages to be both specific and universal in its depiction of a boy’s journey to manhood in the face of violence and upheaval. Abani has created a memorable and moving portrait of a country and a people in turmoil.
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