A former winner of the PEN Freedom-to-Write Award, acclaimed author Christopher Abani left his native Nigeria after being imprisoned and tortured as a young man for his writings. In his 2004 novel “GraceLand,” he describes his protagonist’s difficulty reconciling the many faces of the Nigerian city of Lagos, where skyscrapers and slums coexist: “How could a place be so ugly and violent yet beautiful at the same time?” (Photo courtesy of Northeastern University)
|The 2001 recipient of the U.N. Human Rights Award for Freedom of Writing, Iraqi-born poet Dunya Mikhail moved to the United States in 1996. In her homeland, she was threatened because poems she wrote were interpreted as attacks on the Hussein regime. Now she must “live on the hyphen,” between cultures, never fully belonging to her birth or adopted home. She and fellow writers Cristina Garcia and Christopher Abani will discuss this unique cultural trait during “Exile on Main Street: Voices from Cuba, Nigeria and Iraq.” (Photo courtesy of Northeastern University)|
|Cuban-born journalist and novelist Cristina Garcia’s family fled the island nation after Fidel Castro came to power, eventually settling in New York City and setting the tone for a lifetime of “living on the hyphen” between cultures. She says that writers like Dunya Mikhail and Chris Abani, with whom she will appear at the “Exile on Main Street” discussion, allow American readers an opportunity to see their country through different eyes. (Photo courtesy of Northeastern University)
The following is a meditation on the hyphen, that ant track of a punctuation mark used to separate words, join others and sometimes create new words altogether.
For all writers, the hyphen’s range of functions opens up a world of stylistic and grammatical possibilities. For some foreign-born writers who now call the United States home, the multifaceted hyphen also acts as an encapsulation of their very sense of identity.
In speaking about her experiences growing up in America, Cuban-born writer Cristina Garcia invokes the idea of “living on the hyphen,” an expression coined by another Cuban author, Gustavo Pérez Firmat.
“Whenever you grow up between cultures, you can hop over to one or the other depending on what the circumstances are, but you are not fully and consciously a member of either one,” she told the Banner.
This Friday, Garcia will discuss the idea of cultural observation, hyphenation and writing with two writers, Christopher Abani and Dunya Mikhail. The event — “Exile on Main Street: Voices from Cuba, Nigeria and Iraq” — is part of Northeastern University’s Diversity Week and Carnevale series.
Abani was born in Nigeria and left the country after being imprisoned and tortured for his writings, while Mikhail was born in Iraq and moved to the United States in 1996. Both writers, Garcia noted, would have difficulty returning to their home country.
“Chris and Dunya can’t go back,” she said. “Chris was jailed twice for things he had written when he was a young man and they would not welcome him back with open arms. Dunya’s life was threatened multiple times because poems she wrote were interpreted as attacks on the Hussein regime at the time.”
The sense of “living on the hyphen” frames Abani and Mikhail’s work, especially in light of the horrors they experienced in their homelands and their inability to return. Even as they write from their adopted homes in California and Michigan, where they now work, their gaze is directed in part at lands that lie across the ocean.
Several of Abani’s novels are set in Nigeria, while one of Mikhail’s best-known poems is entitled “The War Works Hard,” in reference to the two wars she witnessed in Iraq, the Iran-Iraq War and the Gulf War.
Abani and Mikhail’s willingness to tackle subjects that have made them the target of government repression — and their ability to do so with lyrical poise — has garnered them a host of awards, including the PEN Freedom to Write Award for Abani and the U.N. Human Rights Award for Freedom of Writing for Mikhail.
“There is something about traversing these hideous landscapes and experiences, and somehow coming out the other end and being able to spin something that will be able to resonate with others,” Garcia said. “They move through the grotesque into the sublime. That’s what they both do so astonishingly well.”
Describing the slums of Lagos in his 2004 novel “GraceLand,” Abani writes, “He hadn’t known about the poverty and violence of Lagos until he arrived. It was as if people conspired with the city to weave a web of silence around its unsavory parts. People who didn’t live in Lagos only saw postcards of skyscrapers, sweeping flyovers, beaches and hotels.”
“How,” his protagonist wonders, “could a place be so ugly and violent yet beautiful at the same time?”
In her poem, “Pomegranate,” Mikhail writes evocatively of the struggle for freedom.
“It has been a long time since we were imprisoned inside this pomegranate.
In vain, we rush and knock the surface by our heads, hoping that the hole might open upon us so that we could meet the air once.
Our losses are increasing everyday.
Some of the seeds have sacrificed their juice for freedom as they were opening a way through the trenches.”
It is difficult to read the work of such writers without seeing it through a lens of political relevance, Garcia said. While politics are an inevitable component of an evening reading about exile, she hopes nevertheless to direct audience attention at the event tomorrow to literary considerations.
“There’s nothing more boring than to sense an agenda coming off the page,” she said, “I don’t like being led by the nose politically and what I’m hoping to do is introduce the audience to two extraordinary writers … [who] are creating beauty from rubble. They take devastation on every level and spin it into these gorgeous ruminations that, while still sorrowful, are extraordinarily beautiful.”
Perhaps most intriguing, Garcia added, is that the displaced sense of belonging that runs through the work of such writers allows them to observe and comment almost anthropologically on the various cultural contexts in which they live.
“Not only are these writers refracting their own lives and looking at the notion of displacement and upheaval and what that does to people and their poetic sensibilities, but they also give us the opportunity to look at ourselves here in the United States through that refractory lens,” she said.
The “Exile on Main Street: Voices from Cuba, Nigeria and Iraq” reading takes place Friday, March 20, 2009, at the Fenway Center, located at 77 St. Stephens Street, Boston. The event begins with a reception at 5 p.m.; the colloquium begins at 6 p.m. Complimentary tickets are available in advance from Northeastern University’s International Student and Scholar Institute (ISSI). Visit http://www.northeastern.edu/issi/ for details.