Text and photos by Elizabeth Lolarga, VERA Files
Although the recent Third Philippine International Literary Festival, subtitled "Read Lit District" (a pun to sound like red-light district), gathered the country's literary lights in Makati City's Filipinas Heritage Library and Ayala Museum for three days, it was Nigerian-American author Chris Abani who virtually stole the show.
After he spoke at the first plenary on the subject "Broken: Literature Created from Human Sorrow," many participants flocked to the different sessions where he was listed as a panelist. Journalist Ruel de Vera cited his own favorite Abani quote when he introduced the author of the best-selling and acclaimed novels The Virgin of Flames and Graceland: "We are never more beautiful than when we are most ugly because that's when we know what we are made of."
Abani, 45, described himself as "a connoisseur of ugly things." In one of his books, there is a place called the Ugly Store that only sells ugly things like Barbie dolls with melted faces. He lamented that these days, what is pretty and what is beautiful are "conflated into one."
Pretty, he said, is superficial while beautiful applies to all aspects of things.
He joked, "I tried my hand in ballet, but tutus don't come in my size."
Born to Nigerian and English parents, he said he was educated globally, earning his BA in Nigeria, his MA in London and his Ph.D. in California where he teaches at the University of California Riverside and where he and his students greet each other by saying not "hi" but by swear words like "mother fucker."
Although raised a Catholic, he was kicked out early from school for heresy and his "secularized notions" that took some sacred beliefs out of their religious context. He said there were only two kinds of people in the world: the judgmental who, shame the self or others, and the discerning who do not attach value to the things that the judgmental does.
He said, "To be Catholic is to lose. Our universe is not a benevolent place. We truly see what is human about us when we are tested, pushed to the abyss. That's when we reach for grace and redemption, for beauty." Loss, in other words, is beautiful.
Abani, a former political prisoner in his country of birth where he was put in solitary confinement in a 10 by 10 feet hole in the ground, said he is "most in awe of people's ugliness rather than their prettiness or their goodness." He teaches his writing students that "stories exist for this reason: to cause change, to give a chance to be better or worse."
He said he was barely 20 when he was imprisoned and tortured for being active in the underground movement. He was put in a maximum security prison and yet allowed to go out to attend school.
He realized that "the human body can withstand tremendous physical torture but the mind can be elsewhere. You can forget the torture, you float mentally." He also said, "The body holds all kinds of memory. The highest is ecstasy, but it can also contain the worst trauma. Prison makes you realize how hard it is to be a good person. Good literature offers a confrontation to the reader to see the liminal space, see everything that is sublime and base about ourselves without judgment."
When asked why the protagonists in his books are people in their teens, he said, "Everything I write is about becoming." He added that teenagers are at an age when their brains are not fully formed, "when they are forming of conscience." His books work on the theme of slippage where the characters go through the grotesque to reach the sublime.
The prose of Abani has been praised for its inner music, its poetic, dreamlike quality. He said this is because he came from a multi-racial culture. He had Indian, even Filipino, teachers and was exposed to both Hollywood and Bollywood and heard a lot of patois as he was growing up so he has been, as a write, "assembling and re-assembling languages."
He observed how developing countries with a history of colonization have been doing the same with language. In the Philippines, "adidas" is a form of street food--chicken feet. He said he likes living and setting stories in Los Angeles because it is a place where "you can buy anything: a loaf of bread, a person."
He acknowledged Filipino -American author Jessica Hagedorn's Dogeaters as his model for Graceland. He could see how living in the Third World "could beat the shit out of you early," but he managed to keep to a high ethical standard.
He said he always tells his students, "Don't open a door that you can't walk through. Do it well."
(VERA Files is put out by veteran journalists taking a deeper look at current issues. Vera is Latin for "true.")