Posted January 20, 2007on:
Becoming Abigail is a haunting novella by Chris Abani, who wrote the highly praised Graceland. I don’t have a strong memory of it but what I do recall shows that Abigail is a distinctly different creature: in style and in tone. There’s no humour here and the prose is is poetic, more overtly conscious of its rhythm and purpose. I found the style off-putting for a while, particularly when it came up against some quoted poetry, which revealed what I then thought of as Abani’s shortcomings. But I gradually came to see towards the end that the chanting rhythms, the incomplete sentences, sometimes composed of one word, all of it was written for a purpose or, rather, had a legitimate source. It wasn’t Abani trying to be “literary” or “artistic”. It was Abigail: every chant, every “this”, was tied into her idea and image of herself, her personality, her voice, her thoughts, her mental processes, her emotions.
Abigail is an only child living in Nigeria with her widowed father. Her mother, who she was named after, died in childbirth and the father never allows himself or her to forget this. He relinquishes his parental role, rarely if ever looking at or responding to his daughter without filtering her through memories of his past. Consequently, Abigail is consumed with thoughts of her mother, a woman she has never met. She does chores for neighbours in exchange for memories of her paragon mother. At the end of the day she feasts on the joy they provide and, as she grows older, the frustration and rank reminders on the figure she must emulate, and embody for herself and her father. She carries out strange rituals in which she metes out real and imagined death, performing funerals on birds and dolls, even her mother’s photographs. Her father is helpless, faced with the effects of his chronic grief on his daughter, who looks so much like his wife; he carries her to shrinks (who deem her problem negligent compared with patients who are murderers) and a witch. They continue in this miasma until an uncle from England offers to take her back to London with him, to provide her with better opportunities. The father sacrifices his only tie to reality for what he thinks will be a better future for her. As all else in this tale it does not work out to Abigail’s good.
The title reflects Abigail’s own ambiguity. Her life is defined in her father’s eyes, by her mother’s life and death. She seeks to craft herself, to plant herself within the memories of others but she knows how shaky a foundation she builds, how memories by definition are nebulous paths of conscious, even more insubstantial because they are not her own. At the start of the story she recalls the funeral of her mother as told to her by others. In her own version she is there standing by her father and he is holding her hand, both watching the coffin descend into the earth. “And this. Even this. This memory like all the others was a lie.” She still tries to make it more concrete, tries to merge with this ghost of her mother by writing down the anecdotes about her mother on bits of paper and placing it inside her clothes so that it would chafe against her skin throughout the day. As she grows older and enters puberty the idea of herself became something more tangible as she observes her changing body. So she writes “me” over and over on her skin, trying to impress it, to make it permanent.
Connected to this is her love of old maps even this reflecting her absorption with the past. One of the only things she read she would lay them out on the floor and note the mountains, the rivers, continuing on her journey of earnest exploration, bent on discovery of the world and of her own place in it. Inevitably she would project the image of her mother on to them. “The hook of Africa became her nose. Australia her bottom lip.” Even the poetry, her other choice of reading material, speaks of sadness, loss and the passing of youth: “Autumn Wind…I am happy for a moment/ And then the old sorrow comes back/ I was young only a little while/ And now I am growing old/…”
This feeling of age is not only hastened by her father’s depression which often forced her to fill the role of care-taker but by early sexual experiences. The first is at ten where an older cousin bribes her with a bag of sweets, then strokes her softly, threatening death if she tells anyone. Peter, a distant uncle by marriage, fondles her two years later at his wedding, and then returns two years after that from London, promising her father she would have an improved quality of life and a better future there. So he has done for many other young people in the family. The reader and Abigail knows that benevolence is the last thing of his mind but nothing prepares you for the lengths he will go to achieve his aims. Abigail’s father imprints the identity of another over her; Peter seeks to erase any trace of an identity, of any claim to humanity. It is partly the memory of her mother and Abigail’s own redoubtable spirit that helps her escape.
Abani describes Abigail as a “cartographer of dreams”. She discerns her mother in scale on maps; she positions herself into her parents past. She marks her own emotions, her experiences on her skin not, she says, as immolation but “an exorcism. Cauterization. Permanence even.” But near the end Abigail feels nothing more than used. Her one doomed chance of taking something for herself, of sharing and being seen and appreciated was with her London social service worker who had been assigned to her after she escaped from Peter. I left the book in wonder and sadness at this forceful, intelligent, creative, beautiful woman who, in the end, had only enough heart left for a last sacrifice.
Chris Abani is a gifted, impressive writer who deserves a robust readership to follow him as his talent evolves.