Graceland’s main character, Elvis, has an unusual relationship with the poor and downtrodden of Lagos. Unlike most residents, who ignore or even chastise beggars (who appear on every corner of the city), Elvis takes the time twice-over to buy lunch or offer a donation to unusual characters he meets on the street: first to a one-eyed man called the King of Beggarswho accosts Elvis on his way home from his job, and again to Okun, a panhandler fighting with a local restaurant owner for a plate of food. Chris Abani frames these actions as logical, as well as selfless, acts on Elvis’ part. Though he has little money of his own, Elvis recognizes that these men are even less well-off and offers just as much as he can spare. As readers, we are thinking to ourselves, “Yes, this is how it should be. Elvis is a good man, and it was wise of him to give to those less fortunate.”
And of course, Elvis is rewarded a few chapters later, in a classic example of karma, when Okun offers him a meal and a way to make some easy money by selling his blood to local hospitals. Charity has come full-circle, and all seems right with the world.
What troubles me about this portrayal is not so much that it is a very transparent narrative line, but that Elvis’ story makes charity seem like a common value held between the reader and the main character. Although we, primarily middle-class, educated Americans cannot directly identify with the life of 16 year old Nigerian boy thrust into poverty by his mother’s cancer and a bad political run by his father, we instinctively align ourselves with many of the values and ideas espoused by him: the desire for a better life; a love of reading and knowledge of things bigger than oneself; the struggle between loyalty to family and their shortcomings, etc. So we, as readers, naturally assume that, given a similar situation, we would act as Elvis did, and give the poor crazy men some naira even if it left our own pockets empty.
Such associations trouble me, because I see firsthand how untrue they are. Having worked with the homeless for many years, and worked with high school students around the issue of homelessness much of this year, I’ve seen firsthand how indifferent the majority of Americans are to this issue. In Graceland, it is convenient to believe that beggars are only a fixture of far off places, which leaves us free to assume the best in ourselves. But we are not the altruistic readers we assume ourselves to be. We pass men and women who sleep out in the cold on winter nights when snow is falling. We ignore the man outside Starbucks asking for change. And we perpetuate harmful stereotypes to our children about what homelessness is and why it exists. I know I am far from faultless in this system. It is the harnessing of this cognitive dissonance around issues of charity and hunger that makes Abani’s storytelling so impressive, and equally so irksome.