Chris Abani teaches Nebraska to walk gracefully and live creatively

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September 15th, 2014

Lincoln, NE – Chris Abani draws inspiration from everything. That’s partly because he has a lot to draw from, with an Igbo father and English mother, a childhood in Nigeria and England, and an adulthood spent living all over the United States.

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“I’ve grown up biracial, at least tricultural, multilingual. I work in multiple genres. I have a very crazy approach to teaching. I’m a bit like a snake charmer,” Abani said of himself.

Abani is a big man with a big presence. His close cropped hair and beard are slightly graying. Abani was in Lincoln to give the Governor’s Lecture after friend and author Natasha Trethewey had to cancel her visit due to a family emergency. He told the students he learned to be a writer from growing up with Nigerian folk sayings and reading James Baldwin and watching reality shows like Love and Hip Hop in Atlanta.

“Because if you watch this show you realize the producers have put together one of the most incredible scripts there is. Everything you need to learn about conflict as a writer is in there. Everything you need to learn about the frustrated desires of human beings is in there. All good art is really an exploration of people. Being human. If you ever got stuck, watch Maury Povich. Watch Oprah,” Abani said.

Award winning writer Chris Abani delievered the 19th Annual Governor's Lecture at the Lied Center in Lincoln. (Photo courtesy Chris Abani)

Award winning writer Chris Abani delievered the 19th Annual Governor’s Lecture at the Lied Center in Lincoln. (Photo courtesy Chris Abani)

Abani wrote his first book, Masters of the Board, at just sixteen years old. Since then, he’s never stopped writing — even after the Nigerian government threatened to execute him for writing critically about the government. He’s written coming of age stories set in Los Angeles and Lagos, murder mysteries in Las Vegas, and epic poems about his own family. Fellow novelist Junot Diaz has called him “a force of nature.”

Today, Abani teaches creative writing at Northwestern University. As a teacher, he tries to instill in his students that creativity and art are just a part of being human.
“Most people make art all their lives. I don’t think there’s anyone who doesn’t lead a creative life. Creativity is not a product you make. It’s a process. You live creatively, you don’t make things creatively,” Abani urged.

Abani says the trick is to teach yourself to look and notice art anywhere.

“I’ve been watching people, but not in a creepy way, in the Starbucks in Evanston, and this particular woman, she’s in her late 60s, she gets coffee once a week with some friends. When she’s mixing her sugar into her coffee. She shuts the lid and then she tastes the stirrer. And that’s how she decides if it’s sweet enough. She doesn’t know she’s doing it ‘cause she’s always talking. Beautiful way she does it and then she flicks it like that. And it always lands. If I could film that every day it would make an amazing short film,” Abani said. “I think if we could just find ways to bring attention to those moments, we’d realize how elegant and graceful our lives are. And the more you realize that, that creates a symbiotic relationship with lives around you.”

That’s ultimately his goal as a writer: to get readers to connect with someone outside themselves, whether it’s a character in one of his books or Abani himself.

“As a writer, all of my work is an examination, putting my own humanity on trial. I’m always humbled because people want to go on this journey with me. What really happens is there’s an unfettered conversation between you and the reader. That’s really when a book is finished anyway. A book is never finished until there’s a reader. Writers don’t really know what they’re writing about until someone responds to it.”

Watch Chris Abani read at the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival in Waterloo, NJ

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