UNCG Campus Weekly

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The writer behind the words: Chris Abani

Recently, UNCG hosted an internationally acclaimed writer, Chris Abani, known for his fiction, poetry and essays on humanitarian issues, art and political responsibility. His novels include the recent “The Secret History of Las Vegas,” the bestselling “The Virgin of the Flames” and “GraceLand,” winner of the PEN Hemingway Award. Although Abani has lived in the United States since 2001, he is originally from Nigeria, and his work is considered an important part of the postcolonial literary canon. His visit was part of the War and Peace Imagined series.

In Cone Ballroom, to a crowd of more than 150 undergraduates, graduate students and community members, Abani read from both his fiction and poetry around the theme of unsentimental love. After reciting Jack Gilbert’s poem, “The Forgotten Dialect of the Heart,” Abani read several poems from a book in progress, “Smoking the Bible.” He then read a section of one of his novellas, “Becoming Abigail” and the “Fairytale” chapter of “The Secret History of Las Vegas,” which undergraduate students had read for their literature classes with Dr. Alexandra Schultheis Moore.

Second year MFA student Rafael Gamero, a fiction writer with a particular interest in postcolonial literature, introduced Abani, highlighting the way that he writes mixed-heritage characters navigating contemporary landscapes, and the way that element resonates with readers.

Following the readings, Abani took questions from the audience, providing lengthy and thoughtful answers.

While at UNCG, Abani also visited classes to work with students, spending time in two of Moore’s literature classes as well as Craig Nova’s graduate non-fiction workshop.

“It was a great, and my first experience with a well-known author,” said Deanna Staten, who is a student in Moore’s class.

Many students, such as Brianna Hausner, also from Moore’s class, enjoyed being able to hear from a writer about his process. “Chris Abani’s visit, for me, meant that I was able to see the ‘behind the scenes,’” she said. “That information and the background on his life allowed me to understand and appreciate the novel even more.”

Abani encouraged aspiring writers not to think of themselves as “amateur” but just to work on their writing, and to persist.

Another undergraduate student, Nicholas Smurthwaite, said, “What Chris Albani’s visit meant to me was that the impact of literature today is extremely relevant. “Being able to be in a room full of people who had found themselves influenced by his work encouraged me all the more to pursue writing.”
While Abani’s work in three genres is widely known, even by such figures as Harold Pinter, he is also known for his generosity in speaking and in interacting with students.

“To say that his visit was about diversity might be an oversimplification,” said Gamero. “From the advice for writers, to his talk about race in America, it was all fascinating to experience.”

Through Abani’s visit students not only received the chance to hear great work, but to connect with the writer behind the words.

This event was co-sponsored by the Class of 1952, Vacc Distinguished Professorships and University Libraries.

By Susan Kirby-Smith
Photography by Martin W. Kane