2010 Common Reader
Song for Night (Akashic Books, 2007)
by Chris Abani
NEW! Regents' Common Reader Award
The Regents' Common Reader Award provides an opportunity for individual chapters to organize and host a local event or activity around Song for Night by Chris Abani before March 17, 2010. Chapter members do not need to attend the convention to apply. Contact your Regent and you may receive a $50 award for your event or activity. View application guidelines.
Common Reader Convention Award
Awards of up to $150 will be given at the international convention for critical essays or other genres of work that deal with the common reader. To be elibible, students indicate on the convention submission form that their work is in the common reader category (presentation type). Members can submit a total of two works for the convention as long as they are in different categories. View convention paper submission guidelines.
by Peter Scholl, Immediate Past President
Luther College, IA
The young narrator of this novella could be the great-great grandson of Okwonkwo, the Igbo protagonist of Chinua Achebe's classic Things Fall Apart (1958). Okwonkwo's world was fractured by the coming of the British colonizers around the turn of the twentieth century, and in that land roughly a hundred years later, a boy of fifteen has been fighting for three years in unnamed civil war.
As Song for Night (2007) opens, My Luck, as the narrator is ironically named, awakens with a concussion, apparently left for dead following the explosion of a landmine, disoriented and alone. His tale unfolds, in and out of flashbacks and nightmares, as he wanders through jungles and war-blighted villages trying to rejoin his ragged platoon of teenaged soldiers.
My Luck's story is as much a vision as a tale, since his mental state is precarious and he grows increasingly incapable of discerning memories from dreams and from waking reality. What we read are the thoughts of this fifteen-year-old, who literally cannot speak because his vocal cords were cut--a precaution to keep the child soldiers from alarming each other with screams should a mine they are diffusing explode. With his mates, he used a silent sign language to coordinate their maneuvers and even to converse; most chapter headings are glosses for one of the signs. Thus chapter one is "Silence Is a Steady Hand, Palm Flat." He tells the reader, "If you are hearing any of this at all it's because you have gained access to my head. You would also know that my inner-speech is not English, because there is something atavistic about war that rejects all but the primal language of the genes to comprehend it, so you are . . . hearing my thoughts in Igbo."
My Luck's narrative is rich in tactile description and evocation of horrific violence, punctuated by recollections of better times before the eruption of inter-ethnic violence and the death of his parents. This is an evocation of the experience of war and pogroms as witnessed by a boy who is a victim, but also a participant and perpetrator: "Who taught me the joy of killing, a singular joy that is perhaps rivaled only by an orgasm?" Though we are not given dates or very specific locations, the setting is clearly Nigeria, and the riot that involved the death of My Luck's Catholic mother and Muslim father resembles conflicts that have disturbed postcolonial life in Nigeria, such as the civil war that followed the secession of Biafra in the late 1960s and the conflicts between the Hausa, Yoruba, and Igbo, exacerbated by religious, linguistic, and ethnic divisions.
Chris Abani (b. 1966) teaches writing at the University of California, Riverside, and is the author of some five novels and at least as many volumes of poetry and other works, and he is the recipient of dozens of major and minor awards. The story of his own life rivals that of his novels.
He wrote his first novel in Nigeria in 1985 when he was sixteen, and two years after it was published, he was thrown in prison because the plot resembled a real political coup. "This initial brush with the government was not deliberate on my part," Abani has said. "[B]ut having once been brushed by the wings of the demon, I became the demon hunter." He was imprisoned a second time in connection with his involvement with a guerilla theater group, and a third time because of a play he wrote. He was tortured, placed in solitary, and many of those imprisoned with him did not survive. Thus his writing is that of an engaged artist, and he lives as an expatriate in the United States. Still, he insists that art should be valued not for its political salience and much less because the writer is one who writes from personal experience of oppression and marginalization. He told an interviewer, "Artists were essentially shamans or priests or seers in the old days and I think art is still the primary focus of looking for ways to deal with the questions of being human. . . . OK, so I went to prison, I suffered, but I'm here drinking a three-dollar coffee checking my email on a fancy gadget. . . . There is either good art or bad art. Art is never about its content it's always about its scaffolding."
His art is very good and his life is fascinating, too. Abani will be one of our speakers at the 2010 Convention in St. Louis, and we hope many Deltans will read Song for Night, this year's Common Reader, and some will write essays on it or organize a panel on this and other works by this powerful and prolific voice.