Iowa Alumni Magazine | February 2006 | Reviews

Graceland by Chris Abani

By Venise Berry
Venise Berry, an associate professor in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication, shares her impressions of Graceland by Chris Abani (Picador), which won the 2005 PEN/Hemingway Prize, the 2005 Hurston/Wright Memorial Prize in Debut Fiction, and the silver medal in the California Book Awards for Fiction.

What's it about?

Elvis Oke is a teenage Elvis Presley impersonator living in Maroka, a harsh urban ghetto in Lagos, Nigeria. He fantasizes of making a living through his dancing and ultimately wants to move to America, where he believes that dreams come true.

In the midst of this Westernized African wilderness and an eclectic cast of characters—including an alcoholic father, a money-hungry stepmother, a friend who lures him toward a life of crime, and a mentor, the King of Beggars, who pushes him in the opposite direction—Elvis learns to be a man.

What did you like most about it?

The intensity and honesty of Abani's writing hits immediately, from the first moment that Elvis (love the name!) watches a heavy rain flood his bedroom with swimming rats to the last pages when he realizes his dream to come to America under a false name. As a pampered American, it's hard for me to imagine living in a place overwhelmed by the smell of garbage from refuse dumps, unflushed toilets, and stale bodies. A place where the dead bodies of people hit by cars, buses, or trucks as they attempt to cross the street must remain along the side of the road until their families pay the appropriate fine to claim them. A place where it's common to hear the piercing scream and smell the burning flesh of a broken man who dances in fire to end his life of struggle and sorrow.

At five years old, Elvis is forced by his father and uncle to stand next to several rotting bird corpses hanging from a tree. When he turns away, his father chastises him: "Don't turn away from death, we must face it, we are men." Elvis says through tears, "But it stinks." His uncle replies, "So does life, boy."

In Graceland, much of life does stink, but Elvis's hopeless existence is offset by his love and compassion for others. When Elvis feeds a homeless man, that man ultimately leads a revolution; when he offers his protection to a lost young girl, she finds hope and redemption; when he befriends a bad boy, the boy makes his dream come true.

What would you say to recommend it to others?

Graceland is an impressive story, an interesting exploration of post-colonial Nigeria, and an exceptional literary achievement.