Africa Scene: Chris Abani
Lagos Featured in New City Noir Collection
On a recent trip to Botswana I picked up a copy of LAGOS NOIR, an anthology edited by well-known Nigerian author Chris Abani. It’s unusual to feature short story collections in this column, but this one is quite special—and when I discovered it was published in the US by Akashic, I was keen to chat to Abani about it.
The stories run the gamut from atmospheric pieces with a vicious twist in the tail, through to mini thrillers and some unusual police procedurals. All are set in Lagos, and although the sense of place is strong across the collection, the authors’ styles are quite different. It’s one of the most interesting collections I’ve read in the genre.
If there is a theme that runs through the collection, it’s that people believe what they want to believe—reality has little to do with it until it catches up with them. If it does. Before we get into the interview, here’s a whistle-stop tour of the book:
COPS AND ROBBERS
Jude Dibia kicks things off. Born in Lagos, he’s a prize-winning novelist, now living in Sweden. In “What They Did That Night,” a thoughtful and honest police corporal tries to solve a nasty murder case. These things are always hard, and in Lagos, a lot harder, as he discovers.
While you’re still digesting that one, Chika Unigwe hits you with “Heaven’s Gate.” In it, a young man comes to Lagos from the country and gets help to start a scooter taxi business. All goes well until he gets in trouble with the police—because of his honesty.
Nnedi Okorafor’s story is simply a gem. One would expect no less from the winner of Hugo, Nebula, and World Fantasy awards. Her debut won the Wole Soyinka Prize for Literature. “Showlogo” is the story of a man who believes himself invincible. First sentence: “Showlogo fell from the clear warm Chicago skies at approximately 2:42 p.m.” Talk about a hook! Showlogo, too, has a run-in with the police in Lagos, and his solution is unusual to say the least.
A. Igoni Barrett’s story “Just Ignore and Try to Endure” isn’t a mystery or a thriller in the usual sense—yet it’s probably the darkest piece in the whole collection.
IN A FAMILY WAY
Sarah Manyika’s story opens this section. A well-off family. A bullying patriarch. A scheming wife. An accident. Or not. “The Swimming Pool” has rich characters you wouldn’t want as friends.
“What Are You Going To Do” is a bad day in the life of a sociopath. Not only does Adebola Rayo give us a twisty story, but it’s written in first person. Watch your back.
“For Baby, For Three” is a poignant story rather than classic noir. It’s about people duped, and about why people believe impossible things. But you’ll ponder Onyinye Ihezukwu’s characters for a long time.
Next is “Eden.” Uche Okonkwo’s take on adolescent awakenings of a girl and her brother is deep and original. Like so many good stories, the noir is in what you imagine rather than what you read.
Then there’s “Joy” by Wale Lawal. Be careful who you allow into your home and your life—once in, it’s hard to get them out.
ARRIVALS AND DEPARTURES
Pemi Aguda’s “Choir Boy” isn’t about sex crime. It’s about the effect of the crime on the victims. That’s often when crime fiction is at its best. The narrator is one of the victims, so he alone understands the reactions of the other.
“The Walking Stick” by E.C. Osondu once again addresses the dangers of belief. Don’t tell stories if you don’t want people to believe them.
Then—another of my favorites—Leye Adenle gives us a different take on Nigerian email scams in “Uncle Sam.” I’m willing to bet you haven’t thought of this one.
Chris Abani himself has the last word in “Killer Ape.” This is a police procedural with a knock-out punch. Would you believe that a pet chimpanzee would turn on its owner and kill him? Detective Sergeant Okoro doesn’t either. But, in the end, belief and reality depend on the politics of the day.
For this issue of The Big Thrill, I asked Abani about “Killer Ape” and about putting together this collection.
What motivated you to edit a collection of stories set exclusively in Lagos?
As you may know, LAGOS NOIR is part of the City Noir series developed, managed, and published by Akashic Books of New York. The format of the series is that an editor picks a city, and using existing neighborhoods, collects and edits crime/noir stories from those areas in that single city. It’s a beautiful format and has led to more than 30 books from different cities across the world.
LAGOS NOIR is an eclectic collection, with stories ranging from depressing darkness to tongue-in-cheek humor. How did you go about selecting the stories to get such a broad and fascinating range?
The theme of noir, possibly the most interesting and flexible form of literature in recent times, invented late 19th century but perfected post-World War II, already allows for the range you find in the stories. All I had to do as an editor is reach out to a pool of brilliant and talented Nigerian writers—well known and early on in their careers—and ask them to trust me with their work. I am humbled that they did. Nigeria has always been on the cutting edge of world literature, and this continues to be the case.
You are a senior and well-known author, but there is a broad spectrum of authors here of different ages and styles. Did you invite authors to contribute, or did you open it to anyone?
I have been privileged to read and know writers at various levels. I basically reached out to a cross section, and was humbled by the range and quality of work that was sent in.
The collection closes with your own story, “Killer Ape,” which works at several levels. Set in colonial times, it’s a mirror to the attitudes of the day. But it goes beyond attitudes to display a type of corruption both unexpected and inevitable. What drew you to that topic for a story?
My mother was English and lived in Nigeria with my father for much of her adult life. She came to Nigeria in 1956. At that time there were still many expatriate English people working at different levels within the colonial system. My mother was reticent to befriend them, feeling that they had views of “natives” that she didn’t share and one day she visited a couple who had a pet monkey that my older siblings wanted to play with. Seeing my mother’s trepidation, the woman waved her fears away with the comment—”Oh let the children play together.” In that moment she realized the woman had conflated my siblings with the monkey. They never went back. Homosexual relationships were also part of the reality of the colonial experience. I wove the two together with a little of my own strangeness and the story was born.
What has been the reaction to the collection in Nigeria?
Books are often expensive and hard to get, but through the amazing Bibi Bakare and Cassava Republic Press, the book had been given a local book run and seems to have been received well. Nigerian publishers are brave and visionary people.
About half of the authors in your collection seem to work outside Nigeria. Is it harder to get broad exposure and recognition from inside the country?
It’s harder to get exposure from within of course, but there are dedicated publishers and booksellers and festivals like the amazing Ake Festival created and run by Lola Shoneyin and the workshops that Chimamanda Adichie and Farafina Press run, and the African Poetry Book Fund that I am part of, that are working hard to change all of that. In the end, the stories I thought most successful just fell into that demographic. They are all multi-talented Nigerians, that’s the most important thing.
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