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Abani opens up to City Honors students

The Just Buffalo Literary Center concluded its 2010-11 Babel Series on Friday with a visit from Nigerian-born author Chris Abani, who discussed his latest novel, "Graceland."

Each year four authors are hand-picked to travel from around the world to Buffalo to discuss their literary works.

In addition to the lecture Abani delivered at Kleinhans Music Hall, City Honors high school students also were part of the Babel event.

Abani began his question-driven discussion with the City Honors students by stating, "Nothing is off the table, there is nothing you can't ask me."

Abani is a world-renowned author and college professor who captivated the students not only with his astute parlance but also by making everyone feel like no topic was "off the table."

He articulately addressed every question he was asked. His responses generated conversation not only about "Graceland" but also about morality, politics, culture and the power of young people.

"For me, it's always been important to talk about the things that people don't want to talk about," said Abani, which has inspired his works and influenced the ideals he advocates.

Abani's eclectic and extraordinary life story is a fascinating topic of discussion in and of itself. In 1985, at 18 Abani was arrested under the suspicion of organizing a political coup in Nigeria with his first novel published two years earlier serving as the evidence for his conviction. Since then, Abani has been imprisoned twice more, sentenced to death, written works of both prose and poetry and received numerous literary awards.

Still, Abani has never allowed his hardships to impair his ability to spread his message of optimism, courage and progress for change.

"Even in the darkest moments, there is always hope, and that's what redeems us," Abani said. "Healing is learning to live with what's damaged, but not passing the damage on to anyone else."

Despite his middle class upbringing, the great wealth disparity in Nigeria was evident in his neighborhood, where children living down the street from him could not even afford shoes. Abani uses the immense poverty gap in "Graceland," which speaks passionately about one of Nigeria's most serious economic and social issues.

Abani explained: "Everything you interact with when you're young becomes your influences [later on]. I have always been influenced by the remarkable resilience of young people. A lot of change in societies happens among young people."

This inspiration is reflected in the protagonist of "Graceland," a teenage Elvis impersonator living amid corruption, violence and brutality in a slum of post-colonial Nigeria, the same period in which Abani grew up.

Abani's abundance of rich experiences and ability to articulate his opinions and beliefs in such a soft-spoken yet affirmative way left a lasting impression on his City Honors audience.

Ultimately, Abani affirmed that on the journey we take as young people to cure the ills of society and become an agent for change, "the most important thing to do is to never stop asking questions."


Natalie Murphy is a senior at City Honors.

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