At 7:00 p.m. on Wednesday, March 22, a crowd of people filled the Cone ballroom in the EUC at UNCG to listen to author Chris Abani as he read passages from his works, as well as provided insights and advice in a question and answer session.
The event began with a brief introduction from UNCG professor, Alexandra Moore, who, along with fellow faculty member Michael Parker, co-sponsored Abani’s visit to UNCG. Following Moore’s introduction, a second speaker provided a more extensive overview of the author the audience was about to hear from.
Abani was born in Nigeria, and published his first book there when he was just 16 years old. Shortly after, Abani was arrested by the Nigerian government based on the content of his novel. The government felt the political thriller he had written was a plan to overthrow Nigeria’s government.
This oppression early on in Abani’s career didn’t stop him. Since then, Abani has continued to have his writing published. In addition to several novels, Abani has published a memoir as well as multiple collections of poetry.
He has also given Ted Talks, in which his comprehension of the workings of the world and understanding of humanity are made evident in his clear and impassioned speeches. This worked its way into his talk at UNCG as well.
He stepped up to the podium after the series of introductions had been made.
“Can you hear me?” Abani asked. “I’m a big man with a small voice. It’s weird.”
The audience answered with a laugh, and doses of humor continued to find its way into Abani’s presentation for the rest of night, despite an initial warning before he read that what he was going to read was not necessarily easy-listening.
It was a fair warning. Most of the readings were rather intense, especially being that the audience was listening to them read from the mouth of the man who wrote them.
He read short sections from multiple poems, as well as a few novels, including, “Becoming Abigail” and ending with “The Secret History of Las Vegas,” as this was the novel students read in Moore’s class attending the reading. He chose to center the readings on the theme of love, thinking of that love as transformative.
Following the reading, Abani invited the audience to ask him questions.
Some audience members chose to focus on the content of his works, with one student noting how he tends to focus his works on a specific person or small group of people, even while the story may be set in a time period where the world is chaotic.
Abani responded by saying that History with a capital H is unapproachable to him. “Focusing on two people or on individuals,” he said, is when it becomes real to him and he is able to write about something substantial.
Other event attendees asked more technical questions, from the standpoint of a writer. One student present asked, “What advice do you have for an amateur writer, like myself?”
“Don’t use the word amateur,” Abani instantly responded. He went on to say how important and valuable language is. Abani explained that if you continue to tell yourself you’re an amateur writer, you’ll believe it — it’s as though you’re waiting for someone to confirm to you that you’re not an amateur writer.
“Read like a writer,” was Abani’s major advice to writers in the audience. He had other advice as well, including avoiding sentimentality, understanding that writer’s block is an emotional block, as well as his opinions on criticism.
“Don’t think of things as criticism,” Abani said. “Think of them as critiques.”
In addition to writing, he spoke briefly on some more difficult topics. When a member of the audience asked how he dealt with despair, as one may read or hear about Abani’s life and surmise that he has death with his fair share, Abani responded with, “If you understand that you have choice, you will never despair.”
Many of the replies and advice that Abani responded to the audience with were concise and logical, yet articulately stated, ideas that seemed ready to go to print the moment he spoke them.
The event concluded with a book signing at the opposite end of the Cone ballroom. Many came prepared with their own copies of Abani’s books, but a selection of his works were also available to purchase.