All the hearts of the people are my identity/so take away my passport – Mahmoud Darwish
I grew up bi-racial (English and Igbo) in a very cosmopolitan 1970s Nigeria. The Biafran-Nigerian Civil War, which sought to carve a new nation from one country, had just ended. It sadly claimed the lives of many of the young teachers of Igbo descent, so I had Indian, Pilipino and Indonesian teachers. I read British, American and South African comics and graphic novels – yes they were around even in the 70s. I chose mostly American and Russian novels. Watched British, American and Australian television, as well as Hollywood and Bollywood and Chinese Kung Fu movies. And in a country of 250 languages, I heard more than 50 languages around me, including Tagalog, Urdu and Hindi. With four elder brothers, and parents with different tastes, I listened to everything from James Brown, Coltrane, Patsy Cline, and Motown Soul through to Bach. So it should come as no surprise that the quote from a poem by Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish best expresses my relationship to identity and to boundaries.
However the core of my aesthetic, a fluidity of being, was a gift from James Baldwin. Baldwin, in all his work, while being specific to the experience of African-American blackness, reached always into a deeper humanity, a common pool that sought to defy categories. This is what my work does, it reaches beyond politics, race, gender, genre, experience and nation, to attempt to voice something deeper and more common to all of us, without losing the drive of my specific life experience, one that is fluid and multiple and global. I write against forgetting and for all those who know the pain of exclusion, from American high school teens to Somali pirates. Every attempt is not successful, but my understanding of my flawed humanity deepens, and hopefully, so does that of my readers.
—Chris Abani has been the recipient of the PEN USA Freedom-to-Write Award, the PEN/Hemingway Book Prize, the Prince Claus Award, a Hurston/Wright Legacy Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Lannan Literary Fellowship and others. His next novel, The Secret History of Las Vegas, is forthcoming from Penguin in January.
2paragraphs gives special thanks to Anderson Tepper for curating our International Writers Interviews. Mr. Tepper is on the staff of Vanity Fair and is a Contributing Editor at Words Without Borders.