GraceLand A Novel

Chris Abani




Trade Paperback

336 Pages



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A Los Angeles Times Best Book of the Year
Winner of the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award
Shortlisted for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award

Chris Abani's GraceLand is a dazzling debut by one of the most talented new voices to emerge from Africa.

This gorgeously written and haunting novel is set in Maroko, a sprawling, swampy, crazy, and colorful ghetto of Lagos, Nigeria, and unfolds against a backdrop of lush reggae and highlife music, American movies, and a harsh urban existence. Elvis Oke, a teenage EIvis impersonator spurred on by the triumphs of heroes in the American movies and books he devours, pursues his chosen vocation with ardent single-mindedness. He suffers through hours of practice set to the tinny tunes emanating from the radio in the filthy shack he shares with his alcoholic father, his stepmother, and his step-siblings. He applies thick makeup that turns his black skin white, to make his performances more convincing for American tourists and hopefully net him dollars. But still he finds himself constantly broke. Beset by hopelessness and daunted by the squalor and violence of his daily life, he must finally abandon his dream.

With job prospects few and far between, Elvis is tempted to a life of crime by the easy money his friend Redemption tells him is to be had in Lagos's underworld. But the King of the Beggars, Elvis's enigmatic yet faithful adviser, intercedes. And so, torn by the frustration of unrealizable dreams and accompanied by an eclectic chorus of voices, Elvis must find a way to a Graceland of his own making.

Nuanced, lyrical, and pitch-perfect, GraceLand is the remarkable story of a son and his father, and an examination of postcolonial Nigeria, where the trappings of American culture reign supreme.


Praise for GraceLand

"GraceLand teems with incident, from the seedy crime dens of Maroko to the family melodramas of the Oke clan. But throughout the novel's action, Abani—an accomplished poet who published his own first novel at Elvis's tender age of 16—keeps the reader's gaze fixed firmly on the detailed and contradictory cast of everyday Nigerian life. He shows how decades of authoritarian political rule breed indifference, and indeed weary fatalism, in the face of corruption and political terror, even while symbols of resistance such as the King of the Beggars become cultural heroes . . . Energetic and moving . . . Abani [is] a fluid, closely observant writer."—Chris Lehmann, The Washington Post

"GraceLand amply demonstrates that Abani has the energy, ambition, and compassion to create a novel that delineates and illuminates a complicated, dynamic, deeply fractured society."—Merle Rubin, Los Angeles Times

"Abani's Lagos is such an extraordinary place . . . This book works brilliantly in two ways. As a convincing and unpatronizing record of life in a poor Nigerian slum, and as a frighteningly honest insight into a world skewed by casual violence, it's wonderful . . . And for all the horrors, there are sweet scenes in GraceLand too, and they're a thousand times better for being entirely unsentimental . . . Original [and] worthwhile."—Sophie Harrison, The New York Times Book Review

"This is a coming of age novel – of an adolescent boy and a young and troubled country searching for direction. The teenage habits of swagger and posturing which both employ only serve to exacerbate their vulnerability. Nigeria is presented as a country rich in activity—its people are constantly talking, eating or moving; but also one steeped in casual violence, poverty and death. 'Life in Lagos is a gamble,' says Elvis' best friend Redemption, and not everybody is cut out for survival. Nigerian writers have consistently defied intense persecution by the state to produce some startling work, and Chris Abani is no exception . . . Some of the most affecting episodes in Graceland are the descriptions of physical torture which rarely last for more than a paragraph, but which linger in the reader's memory. Abani is adamant that he is not just a product of these experiences and has repeatedly stressed in interviews that he is interested in the craft of writing, not just the impulses behind it . . . The verve of the writing is captivating. A novel on such a large scale, encompassing different decades and a host of characters . . . is at its best when describing vignettes of daily life, which are affectionate and funny, the struggle of a boy and a country full of contradictions."—Elaine Moore, Africa Policy Journal

"Striking . . . Set against the terrible Nigerian political realities of the 1970s and '80s, GraceLand marks the debut of a writer with something important to say . . . [The book] wins the reader with its concept [and] keeps him with strong storytelling and characterization . . . [Abani] speaks in a fresh new voice. His elaborate examination of the rituals of manhood, his true-to-life description of the reality of the streets, his compassion for his characters—all ring with authority and insight."—Susan Larson, The Times-Picayune (New Orleans)

"[A] fine book . . . When I call Chris Abani original, I don't mean he has arrived at some new and slightly novel way of indicating the suffering of the artist in our unfeeling culture or of indicating the racial origins of his characters. I mean that his perception of the world is beyond or outside the common categories of contemporary fiction and that he is able to describe what he perceives compellingly and effectively."—Tim Marchman, The New York Sun

"Abani's novel is a clear-eyed view of postcolonial Nigerian life during the 1970s and 1980s . . . It provides compelling insight on this period that many historians would envy . . . Abani brings this world to milieu with considerable skill. Among the distinguishing characteristics of this book is its rich portrayal of the cultural life of Lagos's migrants and working class, particularly the influence of American culture through film, books, and music. Elvis and his companions are well familiar with James Baldwin, John Wayne, and the Everly Brothers, among many others. Such points of reference offer a different angle from most depictions of consumer taste in African fiction, or history for that matter. Like many of his predecessors, Abani also offers a complex portrait of family life under difficult social conditions, carefully weaving together the politics of the street and society-at-large with the politics of the family in equal measure . . . A rewarding novel [that] is also suggestive of the richness of the postcolonial condition as a realm of historical inquiry."—Christopher J. Lee, Harvard University, International Journal of African Historical Studies

"Abani is a skillful descriptive writer . . . GraceLand draws a searing picture of a country devouring its own children. What you learn about Nigeria will make you want to weep."—Dinaw Mengestu, The New Leader

"Powerful . . . A lyrical and terrifying glimpse of a place saturated in American icons and pop culture, but entirely unlike America."—Michelle Chihara, Mother Jones

"[A] vivid, original portrayal of life in Lagos, Nigeria . . . Compelling, troubling, and delightful. Its language, though exotic, is always credible and often enthralling . . . Abani's intensely visual style—and his sense of humor—convert the stuff of hopelessness into the stuff of hope."—Carlo Wolff, San Francisco Chronicle

"An invaluable document from a [writer] whose continued development will be a pleasure to witness."—Gregory Miller, The San Diego Union-Tribune

"A wonderfully vivid evocation of a youth coming of age in a country unmoored from its old virtues . . . As for the talented Chris Abani . . . his imaginary Elvis is easily as memorable as the original."—Dan Cryer, Newsday

"[Abani's novel is] deeply concerned with how Western colonialism transformed Africa in ways both major and minor . . . Abani masterfully gives us a young man who is simultaneously brave, heartless, bright, foolish, lustful, and sadly resigned to fate. In short, a perfectly drawn adolescent . . . Abani's ear for dialogue and eye for observation lend a lyrical air . . . In depicting how deeply external politics can affect internal thinking, GraceLand announces itself as a worthy heir to Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart. Like that classic of Nigerian literature, it gives a multifaceted, human face to a culture struggling to find its own identity while living with somebody else's."—Mark Athitakis, The Star-Tribune (Minneapolis)

"Chris Abani's Graceland is a richly detailed, poignant, and utterly fascinating look into another culture and how it is cross-pollinated by our own. It brings to mind the work of Ha Jin in its power and revelation of the new."—T. Coraghessan Boyle, author of Drop City

"Graceland is a grotesque, painfully hilarious look at the dark underground world of Lagos, Nigeria, and it brings back vivid memories of an urban culture seemingly always on the verge of a complete societal breakdown. Abani's riveting novel is an unrelenting focus on blight, squalor, savagery, and violence. It is a superbly written, structurally fascinating work and I found myself captivated by the hilarity of some of the scenes, often as I found myself on the verge of tears. It is a stunning debut by an immensely talented writer."—Quincy Troupe, author of Transcircularities and Miles and Me

"To say that this is a Nigerian or African novel is to miss the point. This absolutely beautiful work of fiction is about complex strained political structures, the irony of the West being a measure of civilization, and the tricky business of being a son. Abani's language is beautiful and his story is important."—Percival Everett, author of Erasure

"This is a new kind of book. We will look back on its publication as a watershed moment in the history of postcolonial literature. It is, as the best of such novels are, hybrid, monstrous, exilic, an indictment of the global terrorism of capital, yet it is also something we have not seen before. In Elvis we meet an African man who suffers incandescently, who watches others suffer more, yet emerges not as another figure of tragic masculinity, but as that rarest of creatures, a hero. This is Chris Abani's gift, to transmute the harrowing into the transcendent. Believe it: Elvis is redemption."—Wendy Belcher, author of Honey from the Lion: An African Journey

"Poet Abani sets his vivid coming-of-age novel in crumbling, postcolonial Nigeria . . . Abani chronicles this rapid decline of Nigerian culture in general and the Oke family in particular, jumping back and forth from the early 1970s to the mid-1980s. Each chapter is prefaced with an excerpt from a tattered notebook that once belonged to Elvis's mother, filled with traditional Nigerian recipes and herbal preparations. A former political prisoner in Nigeria, Abani contrasts the contemplative world of the notebook with chaotic street scenes showing the triumph of Western music, film, and fashion over traditional culture . . . A fresh take on postcolonialism."—Library Journal

"A Nigerian-born poet and first-novelist limns a teenage boy struggling for direction in Lagos under the heel of a brutal military dictatorship. Elvis Oke is 16, saddled with an alcoholic father, a hostile stepmother, and fading memories of his dead mother, who named him for her favorite American singer and whose tattered journal is his only connection to happier days in the Nigerian countryside. Abani weaves the journal's recipes and tribal lore together with Elvis's memories of his early years to provide background for the main action during 1983. The Okes are Igbo, 'one of nearly 300 indigenous people in this populous country,' the narration informs us . . . Elvis's father, Sunday, ran for elected office in a hopeful period between juntas, but he didn't have enough money to compete in Nigeria's hopelessly corrupt system, the army seized power again, and now Sunday is drunk and jobless in Lagos, while his son wonders what kind of life he can fashion for himself in this desperate land. Sensitive and bookish, Elvis tries to make a living as a Presley impersonator, dancing and singing for handouts from tourists, but he's tempted by his friend Redemption to make quick cash ferrying drugs and other contraband for the sinister Colonel, nastiest of the corrupt, vicious soldiers whose arbitrary whims rule the lives of ordinary people in Nigeria. A horrific lynching scene shows the mob to be as savage as the military—'How long can we use the excuse of poverty?' Elvis asks—and Abani paints a compelling portrait of a society in frightening chaos . . . Worth reading for its searing depiction of modern Africa."—Kirkus Reviews

"Abani's debut novel offers a searing chronicle of a young man's coming of age in Nigeria during the late 1970s and early 1980s. The vulnerable, wide-eyed protagonist is Elvis Oke, a young Nigerian with a penchant for dancing and impersonating the American rock-and-roll singer he is named after. The story alternates between Elvis's early years in the 1970s, when his mother dies of cancer and leaves him with a disapproving father, and his life as a teenager in the Lago ghetto, a place one character calls 'a pus-ridden eyesore on de face of de nation's capital.' Relating how an innocent child grows into a hardened young man, the novel also gives a glimpse into a world foreign to most readers—a brutal Third World country permeated by the excesses and wonders of American popular culture. Sprinkled throughout the book are recipes and entries from Elvis's mother's journal, as well as descriptions of the kola nut ceremony through which an Igbo boy becomes a man . . . In this book, names are destiny, 'selected with care by your family and given to you as a talisman.' One of Elvis's friends is named Redemption, but in the end it is Elvis who claims this moniker, both literally and symbolically."—Publishers Weekly

"Elvis Oke, a teenage Elvis impersonator in Lagos, Nigeria, attempts to come of age in spite of an alcoholic father who beats him and a soul-crushing ghetto environment that threatens to engulf him. Beset by floods, vermin, and the ubiquitous Colonel, chief of military security in Lagos, Elvis lives from day to day, saturated by a bizarrely out-of-date, misunderstood version of American pop culture and remembering his life in the country before his mother died and his father lost his career. Immigration to the U.S. is Elvis' dream, shared by his underworld friend, Redemption, although their notion of America comes mainly from untranslated, decades-old movies, all of which are interpreted only in terms of the conflict of John Wayne (all good guys) and Actor (everyone else). The novel offers a vibrant picture of an alien yet somehow parallel culture . . . The mix of surrealistic horror and cross-cultural humor is irresistible. Abani is a first novelist with a very bright future."—Bill Ott, Booklist

Reviews from Goodreads



Read an Excerpt


Book I

It seemed almost incidental that he was African. So vast had his inner perceptions grown over the years ...

--BESSIE HEAD, A Question of Power


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  • Chris Abani

  • Chris Abani was born in Nigeria. At age sixteen he published his first novel, for which he suffered severe political persecution. Abani went into exile in 1991, and has since lived in England and the United States. His book Daphne's Lot, a collection of poetry, won him a 2003 Lannan Literary Fellowship. He is also the recipient of the PEN USA West Freedom to Write Award and the Prince Claus Award. Abani now lives and teaches in Los Angeles.

  • Chris Abani Copyright Sally Hubbard




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