The Possibility of Redemption
“What we know about who we are comes from stories. It’s the agents of our imagination who really shape who we are.”
—Chris Abani, Technology, Entertainment, Design conference, Arusha, Tanzania
Nigerian-born novelist and poet Chris Abani understands the power of stories. Born in 1966 at the beginning of the Biafran-Nigerian civil war, Abani lived a childhood of privilege, growing up with servants, cooks, nannies, the things the typical Nigerian, locked in a continual struggle with poverty, corruption, and violence, could barely dream of. When he was 16 he published his first novel, a thriller called Masters of the Board that won awards and got him anointed “Africa’s answer to Frederick Forsyth,” an appellation he refers to now with a grin.
He was thrown in jail two years after the book was published because the government believed it served as the foundation for a failed coup attempt. Abani spent time in prison on three occasions for his “subversive” writings, once in solitary confinement in the Kiri Kiri maximum security facility that few made it out of alive. After his unexplained release, he left for England where he lived for several years before moving to the US where he now teaches at the University of California, Riverside.
All of this matters because history and landscape cannot be ignored when speaking of Abani’s work. Whether it’s the sprawling, complex Lagos of GraceLand, the bright decay of Los Angeles in Virgin of the Flames, or the unnamed war zones of his newest novella, Song for Night place determines his characters’ perceptions of their pasts, reactions to their present and their hopes for the future.
In an interview on the website Truthdig, Abani says, “the particulars of my incarceration and what happened to me there… it’s shaped the questions that I ask of life or of myself. And I think one of those questions always is: Is redemption a possibility?” On the scarred battlefields and treacherous abandoned villages of Song for Night, the answer to that question is not easily discerned.
My Luck, Abani’s protagonist in Song for Night, is a 15-year-old boy soldier who has been trained as a sapper. He roams ahead of his comrades, scouting for mines and disabling them, part of a team of children who perform this vital function. Early on in their training, their commanding officer ordered that they have their vocal cords severed so that if one accidentally tripped a mine, “we wouldn’t scare each other with our death screams.”
The novella involves a journey beginning immediately after the explosion of a mine that has knocked My Luck out. When he wakes, the other members of his unit are gone. He goes to look for them, wandering through dangerous areas that may or may not be enemy territory. Much of the book reads like a dream. In fact, the novella is as much a prose poem as it is fiction. Abani’s gorgeous, elliptical sentences twine around each other like a profusion of vines tangled together in the tropical landscape.
In his interview on Truthdig, Albani says, “Much of Africa is presented through poverty, through drought and war. [But] you’re not presenting people, you’re not presenting countries, you’re not presenting complexity, and so people can’t care about an amorphous mass called Africa.” What people can and must care about are the individuals like My Luck that Abani portrays in his work. Characters who are unfinished, always in perpetual states of becoming, unsure, unwise, and always searching.
In Song for Night, My Luck‘s search for his lost comrades runs concurrently with a search that travels into the past, as My Luck seeks to understand his place in this world of child soldiers, cannibalistic grandmothers, and horrible cruelty that defies all attempts to describe and thus contain it. Abani’s novella descends deeply into My Luck’s scarred past, and offers it as ambiguous counterpoint to the horror and beauty of his treacherous present.
In an interview on the literary website The Elegant Variation, Abani wonders “What is faith if it is not the tenuous idea that we somehow matter in the scheme of things?” Thus the search for his comrades, for his girlfriend who died in an explosion, and for his dead family becomes a search for the meaning of his own life.
The fevered dream world of Song for Night is fertile ground for a search for meaning. In a silent world, My Luck looks for clues in an open door, a stray footprint, any symbol of other lives and a possible connection to them. After the child sappers were silenced, they developed a sign language that would allow them to communicate. Chapters are titled with descriptions of that language, such as “Home Is a Palm Fisted to the Heart.” The silence grows with each new attempt at communication between My Luck and the outside world.
In the Technology, Entertainment, Design conference in Arusha, Tanzania, Abani said, “I’m asking us to balance the idea of our complete vulnerability with the complete notion of transformation of what is possible.” And what is more vulnerable than a mute child, possibly shell-shocked, wandering around behind enemy lines searching for his friends? Yet My Luck’s struggle is not only for survival, but also with the idea of the “transformation of what is possible.” My Luck understands the horrors he’s seen and participated in and now he wants to escape that world and begin again.
Near the end of his talk in Arusha, Abani makes reference to a film about the Rwandan genocide called Sometime in April. He describes a scene in which a Hutu man is ordered to kill one of his best friends, a Tutsi. He asserts that from their interaction, the terror and the humiliation, arises the possibility of a redemption born not of mercy, but of understanding. “This is a redemption we can all aspire to,” Abani says. And that, in the end, is the heart of the beautiful and moving Song for Night, a young man’s search for self-comprehension in the midst of war.