Various Nigerian Narratives, Part Three: Memory, Music, Tradition

March 2, 2010 § 1 Comment

Finished a while ago: GraceLand.

A quick catch-up post before moving on.  GraceLand is a complicated book in a lot of ways, not least in form and audience.  Its author is a Nigerian exile living in the U.S., and as such the book was first published in the U.S.  (though there may be — probably was — a simultaneous U.K. edition).  I’ve already given some examples of how the book acts as a kind of Baedeker to the Nigerian cultural and societal landscape of the author’s formative years.  It does this in well-integrated, well-written ways.  It does not in the least partake in the sort of anthropological objectification that Elvis would surely despise.

One example to add to the print and film cultural practices already described: near the book’s end, when Elvis hits the road with the King of Beggars and his band, we get a glimpse of how Nigerian concerts worked, and their parallels with past Western practices:

The evening’s show always started with a dance during which the band played all the popular tunes of the day.  The play followed, and then there was another dance afterwards.  For a big audience in a big town, the total number of songs played in one night came to about forty, not counting those played as part of the play.  Most evenings began at nine p.m. and finished at four in the morning.

It’s quite like Vaudeville, in other words.  The band members consider themselves primarily musicians, but must also act and canvass the town “displaying their instruments” to drum up interest.  The plays are mostly “didactic,” somewhat like morality plays or after-school specials.

Totally fascinating.  However, all of this is potentially fraught postcolonial ground — especially in a book that was featured as a selection of the “book club” on Today.  Who is Abani writing to/for: himself, a la Proust, as an act of memory?  The interested folk of his adopted country, who also happen to be the cultural and (in ways) economical hegemons of his homeland, and those of his homeland’s former colonizer, Great Britain?  His fellow expatriates, or those he left behind in Nigeria?

The form of the novel is interesting in light of these questions.  GraceLand is a synthetic novel, by which I mean it is made of different sorts of texts.  The vast bulk is the narrative of Elvis, a tale with incident, dialogue, and language deeply informed by Nigeria but with a form out of the Western canon (as mentioned before, it can be read as a Bildungsroman, with an interesting parallel plot with an Igbo twist in the tale of Sunday’s own possible spiritual maturation and transformation at the novel’s end).  I speculate that it is especially influenced by Invisible Man and Things Fall Apart: one American, one Nigerian.

But there are also interstitial bits of text, loosely connected to the narrative.  Between chapters we get recipes, descriptions and definitions of Nigerian herbs and plants, and pieces of different texts like the Bible and the aforementioned Onitsha Market pamphlets.  Many of these are (or at least could be) extracts from Elvis’s mother’s journal, we are led to infer from the description Elvis provides of the journal.  With this narrative connection, we, the Americans-ignorant-of-Nigeria, can read them as the cultural primer they clearly are, but can also read them through Elvis’s eyes, and/or Abani’s.  They can be read as expressions of  Elvis’s longing for and estrangement from the homelands of his mother and his country, added after the events of the novel.  The formal heterodoxy is a powerful tool to convey information to the ignorant, but also to reveal the novel’s meaning — its soul.

In addition, each chapter begins with two brief passages about the Igbo ritual of the kola nut, a powerful ceremony important in divination rites but also in hospitality customs and religion more generally.  The first of each of these passages, in regular type, is from the Igbo point of view and often contains a kind of mystical or oracular language.  The second, in italics, is rather more anthropological, talking about the Igbo rituals as objects of study and anthropological data.  Again, we see the dual consciousness of the expatriate.  But more than that, these passages are epigrammatic, and often indicative of the content of the chapter to follow.   This could suggest to the reader either that Abani wants to convey that the form of the narrative follows a persistent path in Igbo mythology, or that Abani has deliberately structured the events of the novel to do so.  The dual epigrams, perhaps, allow for both interpretations at once.  Joycean.  Ingenious.

Xerox City

February 20, 2010 § Leave a comment

Now reading: GraceLand, by Chris Abani.

“Name it and Lagos had a copy of it, earning it the nickname “One Copy.”

Our narrator, Elvis, is a copy of sorts himself: named after Elvis Presley, and in love with dancing, he makes the logical choice to become an Elvis impersonator.  He’s growing up in ’70s and ’80s Nigeria, in the slums of Lagos, having moved with his father from a smaller town after his father loses an election.

But there’s no such thing as an exact copy or a perfect impersonation, and therein lies the interest.  Wearing a wig and “white shoes and trousers,” covering his face with talcum powder when he runs out of “sparkle spray” — but still aware that “this was not how white people looked” — he sings “Hound Dog” and dances for tourists at expensive hotels.  Humiliatingly, in the encounter we witness at the beginning of the novel, the tourists try to get him to stop with chocolate, then pay him a pittance to go away.  And when he goes back to the bus after this embarrassment, a woman getting off asks him, laughing, “Who do dis to you?”

If Elvis took it all as a joke, just bilking tourists out of their money with a minstrel show of one of their Western heroes, it would be one thing.  But he grew up listening to Presley, his hero.  His identity is intertwined with the white American’s.  And he takes his act very seriously: it is what he loves to do.  It is an act of art.  Constrained by his inability to use makeup (so as not to be confused with a prostitute or homosexual), confused with a beggar or huckster, he is stuck with his existence like a cheap copy.

Abani weaves these threads of cultural cross-pollination, post-colonialism, and skewed facsimile through the beginning of his narrative quite skillfully: songs on the radio (American, Caribbean, African), the movies Elvis becomes addicted to (the cheapest old silents, the newer Bollywood films), the snacks he eats watching them (American soft drinks), many other subtle asides.  It’s not simple symbol or allusion, though: there’s nothing forced or artificial about these references, just a portrait of lived life in Nigeria at the time.  A cool example that made me laugh in delighted surprise: the girls and women of Elvis’s family plaiting their hair into elaborate patterns and shapes, as Al Green plays on the radio in 1976.  “Aunt Felicia had invented a plait called Concorde, complete with a Concorde-shaped aircraft taxiing down the crown of the head to the nape.”  Even the dialogue of  Elvis’s grandmother Oye, who speaks with a kind of Scottish accent and idiom she picked up from missionaries, is utterly believable in a strange way.

Is Abani playing with one of the great themes of world (especially European) literature in the 20th century, the Double?  Is Lagos a doppelganger of sorts for a western city, a kind of distorted mirror image, with its massive disparity between large numbers of  millionaires in mansions and hotels and a huge impoverished population in swampy shanty-towns built on stilts?  I think there’s more to this than that; I think Abani’s novel is shaping up to be rather distinctively its own thing, just as his Lagos seems like quite its own thing despite its “One Copy” of everything; but I also think he’s keenly aware of and interested in traditions, literary and cultural.  Elvis reads a lot of western literature (which I hope to talk about in the next post), and before most of the chapters there are descriptions of Igbo rituals and recipes.  This novel’s blazing a trail between canon and experiment.

Just for the hell of it, and because it’s pretty great and I’d never heard of it, here’s one of the greatest music hits from Nigeria in the ’70s, mentioned in the novel, “Sweet Mother” by Prince Nico Mbarga:

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