By Melina Bourdeau
“If the sand on the road to Egesa can be used to teach a child to walk, it can be used to teach us all to walk gracefully – Igbo proverb.”
Chris Abani, a Nigerian novelist, poet and essayist, opened his talk in the Forum on Tuesday with this Igbo proverb, which explained that, in his culture, it is believed that “if walking is something that must be done, it should be done well.”
The same beliefs that the Igbo have about walking are applied to all aspects of life, which Abani also connects to his writing.
Infused with jokes, proverbs and observations about what it is to be human, Abani discussed his philosophy of art with moments of lightheartedness as well as harsh realities.
“To set you oF in the right tone, I’ll tell you the only joke I know,” he said.
Abani told a joke about eight people riding a plane. When the engine on the plane started to fail, two passengers were asked to volunteer to jump. The captain said he would ask the passengers to jump based on the alphabet “in spirit of the new South Africa,” calling first for Africans, then blacks, then coloreds. A black African father and son refused no matter how pointed the commands were from the captain that they should be the ones to volunteer to die. The father told his son, “Today we are Zulus.”
At the end of the joke, amid laughter from the audience, Abani urged audience members to remember that “this is the way in which we should approach difficult subjects: not taking ourselves too seriously, but having some kind of struggle with it.”
The purpose of proverbs, Abani explained, is to “play with and within language.” They use wit and puns to provide insight into the Nigerian culture, he said.
Abani emphasized how similar writing is to the proverbs which he admired. They must be witty, yet provide insight and a deeper understanding.
Identifying with the proverb of walking in sand, Abani described the ritual of how children in his culture learned to walk. They were taught on the sand so that they could have something comfortable to fall back on. Yet, also because of the unstable quality of the sand, they had to develop muscles in their feet that would help with balance and grace.
Later on in life, they would have to walk that sand again. The second time around would not be as comforting as the first. Adolescents would have to go barefoot across the scorching sand with grace as a rite of passage. Abani reflected how he dreaded the experience, but his grandfather wouldn’t let him get away from it so easily.
Abani stated that in America, people have turned language into a form of “transaction” which leaves no room for discussion of “cultural norms such as race, gender, disability and other forms of difference.”
Abani argued that “we must remember what we write, what we speak and how we use language and mere words. As powerful as these words are, as easy as they are to limit certain people, these words are also still limited to ideas.”
Although words are limited, the emphasis Abani focused on not only in the dialogue, but also in his writing, was that not “bringing attention to the language to ideas of what language can do divorces us from the fact that things are not just textual bodies – they are also real bodies.”
The “danger,” however, is that “ideas that are limited to the conceptual limit of our own humanity.” Abani stated that although there are often no answers and many obstacles in writing, especially since language naturally alienates, he still writes. He strives to create what he deems a “compassionate imagination,” which is a powerful tool to understand the universal struggle in all its varieties and forms.
“My argument, my struggle, is how to make the limitation itself a thing of beauty. ... I have always believed in the power of stories – that they shape the world, that they shape things, that they bring presence into focus, that they give it form. They give us space to negotiate the space between the body and the world. ”