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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

Nigerian-born novelist Chris Abani wowed critics with his first novel, Graceland. It told the story of a young Elvis impersonator coming of age in a Nigerian slum. Abani's new book, Becoming Abigail, tackles questions of identity from a female prospective.

The title character is a Nigerian girl named for her mother, who died during her birth. Her father sends her to London to give her a better life, but that opportunity comes at a staggering price.

Earlier, I asked Abani how he got the idea for his main character.

Mr. CHRIS ABANI (Author, Becoming Abigail): One day, I was watching TV in England, probably about '96, and I turned on the television and the news came on. And there was this Nigerian girl on the television and her face was just beaten to a pulp, and one eye was closed over. And this was the time when a lot of Nigerian immigrants were just arriving, so this whole mutual shame of seeing Nigerians doing this.

And apparently what had happened is that some Nigerians had brought her over as domestic, and then, I don't know what she did but they had beaten her so badly and chained her up in the backyard. And the neighbors had called the police.

And I remember not being able to focus on it - I just couldn't watch it - so I changed the channel. But she never went away. Then, months later, I was in the South Bank and I was reading a newspaper. There was a story about a young woman, who was a Moroccan immigrant who was being deported. She was about 15. And the judge who sat on her case fell in love with her. And it wasn't clear whether they'd actually had a sexual relationship or not, but he was fired. And this young woman, in a sort of misguided attempt to save him through her understanding of love, actually committed suicide.

So those two stories kept hovering and hovering around in the back of my mind. And essentially that's where Abigail began to come from.

CHIDEYA: How did it feel to write in a female voice?

Mr. ABANI: Um, it felt less strange that it should. Which, well, I have friends who are convinced that I swallowed a little girl and that she's inside my stomach. So I think what happens when you're writing, if you approach a character with integrity, and you break the distance between as the writer and the character, something happens where you become the character.

It is very humbling, because it called all of masculine sexism - but not in the way of being overtly sexist, but the sense of privilege, into question. Men tend to thrust out onto the world, but here's a complete young inversion of all of her pain and anger. So it certainly put me on check, I have to say.

CHIDEYA: Compare Abigail to Elvis from Graceland...

Mr. ABANI: Right.

CHIDEYA: ...the novel that got you a lot of critical acclaim. Graceland has Nigeria in the foreground...

Mr. ABANI: Right.

CHIDEYA: ...and in Becoming Abigail, Nigeria is almost as much a ghost as Abigail's character is.

Mr. ABANI: Right. I seem to be caught in these sort of teenage moments of becoming. Obviously, a young Elvis impersonator from Nigeria. In one way, the book is actually a manifesto that sort of, in many ways, announces all the themes of my future books: war, gender, sexuality. But as I started to approach Abigail I realized that Nigeria is - we're obsessed with the dead.

In the old days, they used to bury the dead in their living rooms. So the dead are always with us, and they don't stay dead; they influence everything we do. And so this book was - in many ways Abigail is the untold story, that, sort of the ghost of Nigeria, in many ways. Although there's places of silence that we don't like to go, and the sad thing about that is that those places of silence are often littered with the bodies of women.

CHIDEYA: You paint a portrait of this girl who is already obsessed with the dead; with her mother, who's also her namesake, who died giving birth to her, and then who goes through all of the trauma of being treated as chattel. And also, at the same time, you paint this really interesting picture of London through the eyes of an outsider.

Mr. ABANI: Right.

CHIDEYA: You've lived in Nigeria...

Mr. ABANI: Right.

CHIDEYA: ...in the U.K.?

Mr. ABANI: Right.

CHIDEYA: ...in the U.S.?

Mr. ABANI: Right.

CHIDEYA: Are you alone, are you a transient through this world?

Mr. ABANI: That's interesting. Sometimes I feel very alone. I am a bit of a nomad. Many people in sort of emerging countries, emerging economies, find themselves displaced. So there is that sense, and so I'm part of a whole, I think, group of displaced people. But this is not new. I mean, African-Americans are here, and Africans are all over the world.

So I think that part of the sense of displacement continues because I think that we are a people who have been - who have a core that has been evacuated, not by us, but by others, and part of the journey I suppose is recouping. Rather than it being a place of terror or loss, it really, for me, has become a place of recovering those traces - those lost ghosts and sort of assimilating them back into the body to crate a wholeness. Yeah.

CHIDEYA: Chris Abani, thank you so much.

Mr. ABANI: Thank you.

CHIDEYA: You can hear Abani read from his new book, Becoming Abigail, and read an excerpt on our website: npr.org.

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