Went to see Chris Abani read at the Rhapsodamancy Reading Series last night. I had seen him twice at the UCLA/LA Times book fair last year, and was impressed by the way he spoke – with gravity, authority, and insight into the way that literature works.
What I knew about him before the Rhapsodamancy reading was that he wrote a prodigious amount of words on a daily basis, that he was hired as an associate professor at University of California Riverside before he even graduated from USC with his PHD in creative writing, that he came from Nigeria and wrote poetry as well as fiction, and that his work often contained Catholic elements.
What I quickly learned during the reading was that he played the saxophone, that the saxophone’s name was Janice, and that he could make a song called "Iraqi boy" sound soulful.
Aside from his musical talents, we all got to hear several of his poems, as well as a selection from The Virgin of Flames, his novel which comes out in January 2007 from Penguin. The Virgin of Flames displays Abani’s encyclopedic knowledge of Los Angeles, especially downtown, as the main character "Black" is taken on a quest around the city by the angel Gabriel, who appears as a pigeon. It’s a search for identity for Black, who is a muralist living in East L.A., and somehow this identity will be found through a transvestite stripper and the Virgin Mary who keeps on appearing. Strange sounding, I know, but Abani’s got the prose to pull it off.