Chris Abani is the author of The Secret History of Las Vegas, published earlier this year. He will be reading from the novel Wednesday evening in Harris Hall. Born in Afikpo, Nigeria, he published his first short story when he was 10, his first novel at 16. The Nigerian government imprisoned him three times in the late 1980s and placed him on death row after suspecting him of attempting to stage a coup. He was released in 1991, and has since published multiple works of fiction and poetry. He is currently an English professor at Northwestern.
You published your first novel, Masters of the Board, which was about a Nigerian coup, when you were 16 years old. Characterize the experiences and the emotions that fueled the writing of that book when you were just a boy.
That’s a tough one. I was a precocious reader, so I started reading very, very early. I remember reading James Baldwin’s novel Another Country. For some reason, more than anything else I’ve read, that book really did something to me because it’s also about being a writer and making art and so suddenly I thought 'I want to do this.' And so I started. I wrote a short story when I was 10 and then that got published in the paper. Then I just thought 'Well I’m going to write this novel.' And I was reading a lot of thrillers and watching a lot of James Bond movies so I thought why not write a book about a regime change, and that’s what I did. It was exciting, but I was a teenager, so I had no real sense of failure, and maybe that’s a good thing.
You were imprisoned three times and placed on death row on charges along the lines of being suspected of attempting to overthrow the Nigerian government. How much do you allow those experiences to color the work you’ve produced since you were released?
I was a writer before and so I don’t think it colors it that much. I think I’m more colored by the books I read when I was younger and also by the way my parents shaped my political ideology. You know I went to seminary when I was very young to become a priest, and so I think part of that experience and the notion of a kind of redemptive work in the world is really what fuels my novels.
What does Las Vegas mean to you?
I think that Las Vegas for me is really this remarkable notion of freedom, the idea that you have absolute permission to do whatever you want, but then I think permission has to be so tightly policed so that no real incident happens. It’s all about, 'Whatever happens in Vegas stays in Vegas,' but not very much ever tends to happen in Vegas, despite movies like The Hangover. But the more I started to research the history of Las Vegas, the more blown away I was – the idea that there were nuclear tests six miles from the city center and that casinos used to hold parties for people to watch the explosion. All the time, Area 51 is not far away, and all these secret government tests, and I thought, ‘It’s kind of amazing that it’s called sin city’ – this place that’s almost like the unconscious gone crazy is also the place where all of these strange UFO sightings and desert people live. It’s such a beautiful landscape for any writer, and I started to think about it as a possible meeting place for all people. If you go to Vegas in the winter, there are very few Americans there, and by Americans I mean Americans who celebrate Christmas. They’re all back home doing Christmas. And so typically it’s full of Buddhists from the Far East and so it seems like there’s always a different group of people in Vegas at different times of the year. Las Vegas is very much an international city now, and people come from Dubai to gamble, and so I started to think of it almost as this crossroads of the world.
The Secret History of Las Vegas seems full of darkness and mystery – murder, blood, betrayal, prostitution. Where does that darkness come from?
I think that all things that are beautiful, all light, comes from darkness. If you really look at the physics of things, there’s never a moment when there’s not darkness and there’s never a moment when there’s not light. The genre itself lends that whole darkness to it – it’s a crime thriller. Las Vegas already brings so much darkness to it. But also the darkness is populated with a lot of black humor, and I think with all the movies made in Vegas, there’s never straight comedy – there’s always little black comedies like The Hangover for instance, really dark but funny at the same time. Vegas produces all these amalgamations of darkness and humor and light. Maybe it’s something about the landscape itself. In terms of my own life, I’m not really drawn to darkness, but I am drawn to places people don’t want to look at…. What I do is I kind of embrace that difficulty, those oddities, those places where things become uncomfortable, and I try to steer them into the light so everyone can see them.
Who do you write for?
I write for my 12-year-old self, this kid who wanted to read all these fantastical stories and could never quite find them. As a kid, I was reading things like Crime and Punishment by Dostoevsky, and then I would read comic books. My favorite character was the Silver Surfer. I would read things like Arabian Tales and Aladdin and all that stuff, so I’ve always wanted books that really synthesized all of those aesthetics into one. So that’s what I do. I write for all the 12-year-old nerds out there.