In moody, lyrical prose reminiscent of Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Chris Abani takes us into the mind and world of a strong-willed 14-year-old Nigerian girl who is kidnapped and sold into the modern-day sex trade in Becoming Abigail (Akashic Books, $11.95). As she recounts her heart-stopping journey from Nigeria to a London underworld, you will shake your head in awe at how this indomitable spirit responds to the sinister plot hatched by her “cousin” Peter to sell her. Caution: This novella is not for the fainthearted. Abigail is forced to confront experiences as brutal as being raped, beaten and shackled in a doghouse. What keeps the story from lapsing into one horrific scene after another—and what will save your book-club members from having a complete breakdown in your living room—is the grace and humanity of its prose.
Abani’s much-praised 2004 novel, GraceLand (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $24), was showered with literary prizes, including the 2005 PEN/Hemingway and the Hurston/Wright Legacy awards. In his newest work, he takes us to the edge of terror, yet he also manages to uplift and infuse his narrative with a sense of hope. “Nothing should be inconceivable to a writer,” says Abani, 39, who was imprisoned three times in Nigeria for agitating against the government. “All that’s required is that you hold on to your integrity and go where the story requires you to go.”
In 1991, at the age of 25, the author fled his home for London; he now lives in southern California, where he wrote Abigail. As a teenager, he was inspired to write the story after watching Ashanti, a little-seen 1979 film starring model Beverly Johnson as a woman kidnapped by slave traders. Over the years, the idea haunted him. He later learned that thousands of women and children continue to face this hidden epidemic of sexual bondage and abuse. Child trafficking and sexual slavery are not solely relegated to Nigeria, western Africa or the African continent. The practices are rampant across the globe—in South and Central America, India, Eastern Europe. In fact, London and Italy are major destinations to which Nigerian children are sent.
Though the fictional Abigail exists only on the pages of Abani’s novel, her character will seize the imagination of everyone who reads her story. Fascinating personalities like hers come to Abani in a way that even he has trouble understanding. “With stories, something spiritual happens,” he says in a Brit-tinged cadence he credits to his Igbo father and English mother. “You tap into something that’s way beyond you. Someone wants their story told, and they’re going to have it told.” Lucky for us, they find Chris Abani.
Look for Becoming Abigail, featuring the Essence Book Club Recommended Read logo, in stores now. For more on Abani, visit akashicbooks.com. To help stop child-trafficking and to join our book-club discussion, visit essence.com.
Photo Credit: Shay Meir Peretz
Chris Abani, at home in Los Angeles, tells a chilling tale.