The Virgin of Flames is a novel by Chris Abani set in Los Angeles about a mural artist. On the back cover Walter Mosely suggests Abani has rewritten the American story. Its descriptions are original and vivid and as the title suggests, Abani uses the running metaphor of Catholicism and devotion as a backdrop in a number of ways. This novel puts humanity into the city the way Whitman does but there's a nod to the Girl with a Pearl Earring, I reckon, in its concentration on the artist - lots of details on how Black (the hero) makes his colours....
Black engages me, too, because he incorporates lines of poetry in one of his murals. I first encountered Abani when I picked up his collection of poems, Kalakuta Republic a few years ago and was knocked out by it. The collection is based on his experience as a political prisoner in Nigeria between 1985 and 1991 and isn't easy reading, but essential for anyone concerned about freedom of expression and the consequences of forgetting its importance.
What was a coincidence, though, was watching Jim Jarmusch's Down by Law last night and delighting in its leisurely, witty and humane world view, in Tom Waits, of course, and the way Whitman and Frost, those American giants, were knitted into the narrative. It took my teenage kids, used to snappy, action driven narrative and colour, a while to get into it, but they were entranced too.
Abani aside, I've been thinking about African writing again. I was reminded of Amos Tutuola by a friend and how much I love his slant on narrative, but I've lent his books and I don't think I have anything of his left on my shelves. But I read Andre Brink, for the first time thanks to my local library and plan a return to Nawaal el Sadaawi from Egypt, the wonderful poet Jack Mapanje and Ellen Kuzwayo.
It isn't easy being a writer. For most of us it's fitted in between earning a living and for women, looking after children. For writers in so many other parts of the world, add into that mix, censorship, political violence, domestic violence and few opportunities to be published. Many writers serve their apprenticeships over long, long years without recognition or support. I'm indebted to one of the publishers in this country, Saqi, for introducing me to that collection of Chris Abani's. Buy it. And from Algeria, another important voice is that of Soleiman Adel Guemar, whose collection, State of Emergency, is published by Arc. He'll be at the Kings Lynn Festival in September.