March 17, 2014

Novelist, poet Abani to give public reading

Chris Abani

Novelist and poet Chris Abani has spent time all over the world. He was born and raised in Nigeria, attended graduate school in England and the United States and has given talks on several continents.

But in one way, the opportunity to spend two weeks teaching graduate students in a writing workshop and give a public reading and discussion at UNL is kind of like coming home.

Abani, the author of 13 volumes of fiction and poetry, is a visiting writer in the Department of English. He is teaching an intensive graduate workshop and will deliver a public reading and lecture at 7:30 p.m. March 17 in the Heritage Room of the Nebraska Union.

Abani earned his bachelor’s degree from Imo State University in Nigeria, which was just getting established when Abani enrolled. He was aware of UNL, because while Imo State worked toward its British accreditation, UNL assisted in developing the curriculum for the fledgling institution.

“The British system that had always been used for accreditation took forever so they struck a deal with American universities and Nebraska was one of the first ones to reach out,” he said. “When I was talking to some of the students in my class who are from Nebraska, about how people outside Nebraska perceive Nebraskans, I said ‘There’s a whole bunch of people in west Africa who don’t think of you as strange.’

“I just love that about the world: the really funny ways things like that are connected. So, now I am here, sort of coming back to my parent institution and it’s really sweet that way.”

It’s those connections that drive Abani’s storytelling and poetry, and they will be the focus of discussion during his public talk. He will start with a reading from his most recent novel, “The Secret History of Las Vegas,” followed by a discussion on human connection and how it drives us.

“A lot of my approach to writing and thinking is about connection building,” Abani said. “I see connections where most people see differences. There’s a way in which we tend to think of people as different.

“We are different in certain, specific ways, but deep down, as humans, we’re not different. We want the same things. So really, my talk is around this idea that we are more the same than we are different. Wherever you go in the world, you’re going to find echoes of everywhere else and that’s what is beautiful at a human level, I think.”

Abani will also open the floor for a question and answer session with audience members. He said these portions are always his favorite part of any presentation he does, because he loves interacting with people on a variety of topics.

“Those discussions always grow in exponential ways,” Abani said. “I’m open to anything – the Kardashians, shoes, pop culture. I think popular culture is a vital way of coming to understand ourselves.”

Abani said he is driven to explore human connections in all of his writings. In addition to “The Secret History of Las Vegas,” he’s authored two novels, two novelas including “Song for Night,” and seven volumes of poetry. He was named the Guggenheim Fellow in Fiction in 2009 and four of his publications have appeared on The New York Times Editor’s Choice list.

His credentials made him a perfect candidate as this year’s visiting writer in the Department of English. Each year, a committee of creative writing faculty selects a major author from a list of recommendations from students and faculty and that author is invited to teach a workshop and give a public lecture. The program offers English graduate students the opportunity to learn from and bond with working authors.

Abani, who teaches at Northwestern University, said he, too, is gleaning new perspectives from his students.

“This visit is an opportunity to meet new people, but also to test my knowledge,” he said. “Teaching is a symbiotic process. You learn as much from your students as you teach them.”

One of his goals for his students during the UNL workshop is to help them understand what drives them to write.

“When writers know why they write, they become better writers,” Abani said.

Abani is also leading discussions with his students about story structure and how writers evolve that structure, their style and voice in their writing. He’s also trying to impart his wisdom of why humans enjoy stories, which he believes is because stories illustrate the patterns in our own lives.

“And we love patterns,” he said. “We can’t be random even if we try.”