In one interview, Chris Abani offered that “the cause of all our trouble is the belief in an essential, pure identity.” In his writing, he says, he endeavours to move the reader to a place of “ethical questioning” by balancing our notions of “vulnerability” with our notions of “transformations” through narratives that are a polemic of both the wonderful and the wounded. It is therefore no surprise that we see such novels as Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man and James Baldwin’s Another Country being cited in Graceland. Ellison’s Invisible Man is well known for the exploration of the social and ideological constraints on personal identity formation along with the ideas of invisibility and blindness .ie. how people willfully avoid seeing and confronting the truth. In same measure, one of the main themes of Baldwin’s Another Country is also willful ignorance — humanity’s uncanny ability to ignore the unpleasant parts of reality. Our ability to don these blinkers may be through our manipulation of language. And Abani does believe that language complicates things and that “we often think language mirrors the world in which we live but [instead] – it makes the world in which we live.” Abani plays with these ideas of alternate reality and contradiction through his bilateral description of character, names, setting and incidents.
Elvis’ grandmother, the beggar, Innocent and Redemption stand out. For one, Abani confounds our expectations of the stereotype, also one of the main efforts of Invisible Man, by creating a Nigerian-grandmother-witch-with-Scottish accent combination. The beggar’s title – “The King of Beggars” is contradictory in itself and Redemption doesn’t really offer Elvis salvation but delivers him into “sin.” Innocent is far from living up to his name tormented by ghosts of the those he’d killed in war.
There are other moments where Abani toys with the very idea of the objectivity of truth and interpretation. On page 84 grandma Oye receives a letter in German and claims to have the required “magic” to decipher it and by “hold[ing] it like this.” On page 96 the King of Beggars tells a story we can neither make heads or tails of, claiming that the “straight road is a liar.” On page 74, there is that grueling scene where the distraught clothes salesman jumps into a fire and is called a “madman.” But, it is a matter of interpretation. If we look at the scene within context his actions seem almost practical in a “Lagos that betrays dreams” but, outside of context, he is perceived as foolish and impulsive.
Lastly, there are images that Abani paints that seem “out of place” or “fantastic.” On page 48 Maroko is described at once as a town of poverty, clapboard and wooden walkways as well as a pristine township filled with a profusion of flowers. Another moment occurs on page 87 where the dancers allowed themselves to be strapped to the wooden crosses. They are described as graceful and beautiful but these are undermined by Abani’s describing them as “stapled” and “stiff” as well. It seems that there is no one way of seeing – it all depends in which direction you look.