[E]verything in Nigeria is about haunting. It’s about ghosts. The dead are everywhere, and just won’t stay dead. In my Igbo culture, dead parents used to be buried in the middle of the living room and not in cemeteries. So in this way the dead are always there, to guide us, to teach us. – Chris Abani in an interview with Colm Tóibín
According to Johannes Koettl’s paper ‘Human Trafficking, Modern Day Slavery, and Economic Exploitation’ the term human trafficking was first used publicly in the early 1990s in media coverage on the prostitution of women from Eastern Europe in Western Europe. So it’s a fairly new expression but it’s not a new problem; people have been being sold into slavery for thousands of years. The term—which broadly includes include child labour, forced labour, bonded labour, forced prostitution, and so forth—is only a part of a much wider problem though, that of exploitation. The figures are sickening. Even conservative estimates suggest that at least 2.5 million children, women, and men are lured or forced across international borders every year and many more are trafficked within their home countries. The International Labour Organization estimates that at any point in time, at least 12.3 million people are victims of non-consensual exploitation.
The thing about these kinds of figures is that we can so easily forget that every one of the twelve million people is an individual; they have a name and a family and a life. Much research has established that people tend to feel more compassion for single identifiable victims than large masses of victims. The reason? Studies find that a single individual, unlike a group, is viewed as a psychologically coherent unit. This leads to more extensive processing of information and stronger impressions about individuals than about groups. (See The “Identified Victim” Effect: An Identified Group, or Just a Single Individual?)
Both papers I’ve linked to above make sobering reading but I don’t imagine either will really move you terribly. You’ll probably feel you ought to be moved but something’s stopping you. This will not be an issue after you’ve read Becoming Abigail. But before that I have another essay for you. It’s by the author of Becoming Abigail. He’s called Chris Abani and he’s a Nigerian novelist and poet. The essay is called ‘Ethics and Narrative: the Human and Other’. In part:
Baldwin said, and I paraphrase, that suffering means something only in so much as someone else can attach his or her suffering to yours. He offered this as a point for young writers to find ways to make their work compelling, but it speaks often to our general tendencies towards the relational. We feel things for others only in so much as those things can fall within the realm of our understanding. This relational model, while laudable, is also, sadly, delusional.
French writer Marguerite Yourcenar says this: “Compassion emphasizes the experience of suffering with those who suffer and it is far from according a sentimental conception of life. It inflicts its knife-like pain only on those who, strong or not, brave or not, intelligent or not, have been granted the humble gift of looking the world in the face and seeing it as it is.” But what if we change the idea of gift to choice? What if compassion, true compassion, requires not the gift to see the world as it is, but the choice to be open to seeing the world as it really is, or as it can be?
This is my hope—to create an art that can catalogue the phenomenon of our nature, all of it, without sentimentality, but rather by leaning into transformation, so as to offer up what Diane Arbus would call the veritable, inevitable, or the possible, so that we can all have that terrible but necessary confrontation with all of ourselves. Whatever we feel about specific situations, we must at all costs avoid the sentimental.
“I love essays,” Abani says in this interview, “but they’re not always the best way to communicate to a larger audience.” The way he chooses is fiction and an adjective that crops up again and again when describing his writing style is “visceral”. Talking with Patty Paine he himself says:
The act of reading my books becomes a visceral, bodily experience. It’s no longer just an intellectual. You can throw the book across the room, and this has been interesting, people, I hear people say things like, “I was reading Becoming Abigail, it took me an hour, and I wanted to throw the book out the window, I wanted to be mad at you, and . . . .” These are good, these are good things. But even people who’ve left the book, Abigail has a way, as do other characters, too, of haunting you. But it’s not that the character’s following you, it’s simply that he’s triggered something.
The book kept my attention, rocking as it does between Then and Now. Abigail Tansi is fourteen when we meet her—or probably a little older but not much—and has arrived at Cleopatra's Needle on London’s Victoria Embankment:
Abigail looked at the cold smiles of the sphinxes. Like them, she was amused at the ridiculous impotence of the phallus they stared at. A time capsule was buried beneath the stone tumescence containing, among other things, fashion photos of the most beautiful women of the nineteenth century.
She stood gazing out at the dark cold presence of the Thames. Breaking open a packet of cigarettes she fumbled clumsily to light one. She didn’t smoke. With her first drag she imagined she could see the ghosts of those who had also ended it here. At the Needle. Suddenly afraid she smothered a sob, choking on the harshness of the tobacco, eyes tearing. Like the loss of her virginity.
She ends up sitting astride one of the two faux-Egyptian sphinxes that flank the monument. We don’t realise how young she is and it’s a long time before we find out but we do know she has a social worker, a man called Kevin, who’s clearly been kind to her and who she says she loves. In her bag there’re only two photos, one of her late father and the other of Kevin. So how has she ended up in London? Ah, well, that would be her cousin Peter’s fault:
Peter wasn’t really her cousin, but was married to her cousin Mary. A few years before, at twelve, Abigail had been a bridesmaid at their wedding. She had loved every minute of it. The ceremony, the flower petals strewn everywhere, even the ugly chiffon dress and having to dance with Uncle Ekwi, who stank of decay in the way even the cleanest old people did.
Peter had cornered her in the bathroom. She didn’t shrink away like other girls her age might have at being surprised in the bathroom with her underwear halfway down her legs and the skirt of her dress gathered in a bunch as she squatted over the hole. Nor did she seem impressed that he was a Johnny-just-return. She just held her dress up and peed, not taking her eyes off his. Surprised at her fearlessness he kissed her, his finger exploring her.
Later, when he was back at Mary’s side, she caught him sniffing his finger occasionally, a smile playing around his lips. If she had felt it was anything special, she certainly didn’t show it, and in time it simply faded into the distance, like an old wine stain on ivory muslin. Even at that young age she knew what men were like.
Abigail says nothing of this to her father and two years later Peter offers to take Abigail back to London with him:
Peter was apparently a successful businessman in London and was very generous to the villagers when he came home, paying for a hospital bill here, new glasses there, some child’s school fees over there, and so forth. Her father really liked him and had often told her about Peter and his trips when she got back from boarding school on breaks.
“He always takes one young relative back to London as well,” he used to explain. “Imagine how lucky those children are!”
Abigail is not the first he’s taken with him. There were others but apparently “[a]ll the other kids he had taken back had fallen in with bad crowds and run away” so he needed Abigail and her father lacks the common sense to see that there’s more going on here than meets the eye. Abigail has her doubts but acquiesces. “[S]he didn’t buy Peter’s story about the other kids he took back having run off with bad company. He had done something to them, she didn’t know what, but she was going to watch him closely, make sure it didn’t happen to her.” So her reasoning’s flawed but then she’s only fourteen and all she knows of the world is her small corner of Nigeria.
And, of course, the unimaginable happens.
We know from the opening chapters that Abigail survives but she’s clearly a damaged individual. The question is: How damaged was she before all of this? When Abigail was born her mother—also called Abigail—died. And even though she was a babe in arms at the time her mother’s death comes to have a terrible effect on her:
The shape of that Abigail was so clearly marked, the limits traced out in the stories that filled the world around this Abigail, that it was hard to do anything but try to fill the hollowed-out shape. Insatiable
This is the Abigail she’s trying so desperately to become. In the meantime her father has allowed himself to become crippled by the loss of his wife. And try as she might his daughter can’t fill his void:
She pulled up her left sleeve and absently traced the healed welts of her burning. They had the nature of lines in a tree trunk: varied, different, telling. Her early attempts were thick but flat noodles burned into her skin by cashew sap. With time came finer lines, from needles, marking an improvement. But there were also the ugly whip marks of cigarette tips. Angry. Impatient. And the words: Not Abigail. My Abigail. Her Abigail? Ghosts. Death. Me. Me. Me. Not. Nobody. She stared at them.
This burning wasn’t immolation. Not combustion. But an exorcism. Cauterization. Permanence even
I’d heard of children cutting themselves before but not burning:
Insatiable for her mother, she would seek out anyone who had known Abigail and offer to trade a chore for an anecdote, trying to create memory, make it concrete, physical. She collected vignettes about Abigail, hoarding them fiercely. Then late at night, when all was silent apart from the occasional call of night birds and dogs baying at the moon, she would unwrap them in her mind and feast, gorging herself. Sated, she traced their outlines on her skin with soft fingers, burning them in with the heat of her loss, tattooing them with a need as desperate as it was confused. She tried to talk to her father about this need to see herself, but he couldn’t understand what she meant. Or maybe he just pretended not to. The desire to be noticed for herself didn’t go away though. She couldn’t be the ghost he wanted her to be.
Is Abigail a victim-waiting-to-happen? Is that what Peter sees in her from the jump? Perhaps. But one thing she’s not is a two-dimensional statistic. Even though there’s a lot we never learn about Abigail it’s hard not to think of her as a flesh and blood individual and not simply a character created by an author to make a political point. She existed—or at least did her best to exist—before she was ever taken advantage of.
There is much symbolism in the book but the most obvious one that jumps out at you is cartography. Transforming her skin as she does she turns herself into a personal and collective map of trauma. At one point she shows her social worker her scars:
“This one is you, this, me. In the middle is Greenwich. Here,” and she was down on her stomach, “is my hunger, my need, mine, not my mother’s. And here, and here and here and here, here, here, here, me, me, me. Don’t you see?” and she showed him the words branded in her skin. How had he missed them when they made love? But he had. “This is my mother,” she was saying. “This is my mother. Words. And words. And words. But me? These dots. Me, Abigail.”
This is a heart rending tale but it’s far more than a record of a young girl’s exploitation—that bit’s over in two or three short chapters—it’s a study in the nature of identity. If there’s one thing Abigail could not be or become it’s an anyone. She could not, despite her best efforts, become her mother. Only in London, bereft of any form of identity (having come over on false papers) she does become something of a ghost. But is there ‘life’ after ‘death’? In a conversation with Zuade Kaufman (which you might want to leave until after you’ve read the book because there’re a few spoilers) Abani had this to say about his creation:
[T]his young woman has so much taken away from her and yet she continues to be human. Even though she exists as a fictional character, when I read it sometimes I think: “Where does this come from, because I don’t remember even writing half of it.”
She humbles me as a person, and that is sort of the impetus behind this work. [That,] and all these amazing people in the world who will not be broken…
You can read the opening four chapters here and a long essay here in which Abani discusses the origins of the novella which, again, you might want to leave until later. You can also hear the author read a selection here.
Chris Abani was born on 27 December 1966 in Afikpo, Nigeria, to an English mother, Daphne, and a Nigerian Igbo father, Michael. In 1968, young Chris, his mother and four siblings fled Nigeria to escape the Biafran War. They lived in England for three years, and subsequently returned to their home country, where Michael had stayed behind to work as a Red Cross official. He is the author of six books of fiction and seven collections of poetry.
Abani started writing stories when he was six, had his first piece of short fiction published when he was ten, and wrote his first novel, a thriller entitled Masters of the Board (1984), at the age of sixteen. Because the narrative recounts the attempt of an ex-Nazi officer to seize power in Nigeria, the country's real-life authorities accused Abani of providing the blueprint for a failed coup against the Babangida regime in late 1985—an absurd claim devised after the purported leader of the conspiracy, General Vatsa, was found in possession of the book. Following these allegations, the writer was sent to prison, where he spent a total of six months. The publication of his second novel, Sirocco (1987), again elicited a violent reaction from the authorities. They destroyed all copies of the book, closed down the publishing house that had issued it and arrested the writer once again, holding him for a year at Kirikiri maximum security prison in Lagos. After he was released from jail this time, he composed several anti-government plays that were performed on the street near government offices for two years. He was imprisoned a third time and was placed on death row. Luckily, his friends bribed government officials for his release and in 1991, immediately after being freed, Abani moved to the United Kingdom where he remained until 1999. He then moved to the United States, where he now lives.
Over the course of his career, he has received numerous awards and distinctions, including the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award (2005, for the novel GraceLand) and the PEN/Beyond Margins Award (2008, for the novella Song for Night).
In addition to his occupation as a writer, Abani works in academia. He used to be a Professor in the Department of Creative Writing at the University of California, Riverside, and is now Board of Trustees Professor of English at Northwestern University in Illinois. Finally, he is also active in the publishing industry, as the founding editor of the Black Goat independent poetry series, an imprint of Akashic Books whose title humorously refers to its creator's complexion, astrological star sign and self-avowed stubbornness.