Poet and novelist Chris Abani recently finished “Eye of the Albatross” by Carl Safina about the seafaring birds that can stay aloft for months. The birds reminded him of his own nomadic life: born in Nigeria, educated in London and California, and now living in Chicago, where he teaches at Northwestern University. He’ll speak along with novelist Christina Garcia at 4:30 p.m., Tuesday, April 1, at Wellesley College’s Newhouse Center.
BOOKS: What have you read recently that you would recommend?
ABANI: Peter Orner’s “The Second Coming of Mavala Shikongo,” which is set in South Africa. Peter grew up Jewish in Chicago. Something about that gives him a certain sensitivity toward South Africa and apartheid. He’s so irreverent — like there is interracial sex happening on the graves of the Boers. Also, I liked Micheline Aharonian Marcom’s “The Daydreaming Boy” and Cristina Garcia’s “King of Cuba” novel about Fidel Castro. It’s funny in the darkest possible way.
BOOKS: How would you describe yourself as a reader?
ABANI: I have to have three or four books going simultaneously. If I’m not impressed in the first 20 pages, I don’t bother reading the rest, especially with novels. I’m not a book-club style reader. I’m not looking for life lessons or wanting people to think I’m smart because I’m reading a certain book. I find it difficult to like writers that other people like, like David Mitchell. Everyone loved “The Cloud Atlas.” I was like, really?
BOOKS: Does that mean you are not reading Donna Tartt’s “The Goldfinch”?
ABANI: I haven’t read it. Seven hundred pages, really? I think a book that is over 400 pages should be split in two. I don’t know that there’s anything that interesting that can go on for 700 pages. I think that is a little bit indulgent.
‘I have to have three or four books going simultaneously. If I’m not impressed in the first 20 pages, I don’t bother reading the rest, especially with novels.’
BOOKS: What kind of fiction do you read?
ABANI: I read mostly Irish, African, Japanese, South American, and African writers. You can count on Scandinavian literature for a certain kind of darkness, a modern mythic style.
BOOKS: When did you start reading Scandinavian literature?
ABANI: When I was 13 I read the epic poem “Beowulf” and that led me to the Icelandic epics. I had amazing intellectual privilege as a kid. My mom taught me to read when I was two or three. When I was five I read and wrote well enough to do my nine-year older brother’s homework in exchange for chocolate or cigarettes. By the time I was 10, I was reading Orwell, Tolstoy’s “War and Peace,” and the Koran. I was reading comic books too.
BOOKS: Does personal reading play a different role in Nigeria than here?
ABANI: Economics have a lot to do with reading. Reading is a privilege. It’s a middle-class pursuit. The size of the middle class is much smaller in Nigeria. But there still are many well-read people. In Nigeria, students read every book prescribed on a list for school. Most American students wouldn’t do that.
BOOKS: Which African writers do you think deserve to be better known?
ABANI: Helen Oyeyemi, who’s most recent novel is “Boy, Snow, Bird.” She’s an incredible writer. She’s takes fairy tales from African and the West, and she retells them. The Nigerian-British writer, Bernardine Evaristo, who wrote “Mr. Loverman,” and Teju Cole, who writes amazingly about the symbiotic relationship between people and place. His new book is “Every Day Is for the Thief.” Nnedi Okorafor writes amazing African science fiction. I teach one of her books, “Akata Witch,” in my class called The Other African Novel.
BOOKS: What’s your ideal reading experience?
ABANI: I’m not really a creature of habit that way. I read everywhere. It’s like a bodily function. I don’t need quiet. I write and read with the TV on. I follow the TV show while I read. TV doesn’t require a lot of brainpower. The more quiet it is the harder it is for me to concentrate. It reminds me of being a kid in a library and being told to be quiet. So then I feel rebellious and don’t want to read.