Accomplished novelist and poet Chris Abani visited Pomona College on Mar. 4 – 5. Abani is the final of three candidates for the Roy E. Disney Professorship in Creative Writing.
The first day, Abani led a sample workshop with students and faculty where student work was discussed. Later that day, he gave a public reading of selections from his untitled forthcoming novel as well as an essay, “Ethics and Narrative: the Human and Other.”
Abani’s interest in the position is largely based on his previous experience teaching at the college. “I had taught here as an adjunct in 2005 for a semester and was absolutely blown away by not only the quality of the students…but [also] the sense of community and support,” he said.
Abani, the son of an Igbo father and English-born mother, is a native Nigerian. He was imprisoned by the Nigerian government after the publication of his first novel, Masters of the Board, in 1985. His artistic endeavors led to his imprisonment two more times. After being freed in 1991, he lived in exile in London until he moved to the United States in 1999. Once in America, Abani completed an MA and PhD at the University of Southern California. He currently teaches at the University of California, Riverside.Abani first began teaching for community-based workshops while working for social housing in London. Writing, however, is a lifelong passion.
“I’m one of those nerdy people who’s always been a writer,” he said, remembering that his first short story was published in a local paper at the age of 10.
“I grew up in very small towns in Nigeria and the libraries were very small,” Abani said. “I kind of grew reading in an un-hierarchical way, just reading what’s on the shelf.”His formative influences were Russian writers, particularly Dostoevsky, 20th century Americans, noir fiction, and Marvel and DC comics.
“I think that until today all of my characters are based around Raskolnikov from Crime and Punishment and the Silver Surfer.”
Abani described teaching as an “enriching” experience. “The classroom is an exchange. The professor is learning as much from the students as the students are learning from the professor,” he said.
He also noted that he approaches workshops both as a professional writer and as an academic. “My approach to writing is a mix of theory and practice. My workshop method includes a lot of cross-genre stuff,” he said, noting that he uses examples such as architecture and computer programming to illuminate fiction writing.
Abani’s prose works include 2007’s Song for Night and The Virgin of the Flames, 2006’s Becoming Abigail, and 2004’s GraceLand. He has also published four collections of poetry. He has received, among other awards, the PEN USA Freedom-to-Write Award, a California Book Award, a Hurston/Wright Legacy Award, the PEN Hemingway Book Prize, and a Guggenheim Award.