I broke one of the fundamental rules of life to get to Chris Abani’s GraceLand. It happened like this: I was about to head back home to Nigeria last summer, and needed a book to make the twenty-hour trip (including layovers) crawl by a little quicker. I was in the African fiction section of a bookstore, unconsciously dismissing every book I happened upon whose cover didn’t appeal to me. Until one caught my eye: the entire cover was the face of a defiant, hardened black boy who could not have been a day over twelve. His dark lips held fast a half-smoked cigarette, and the whites of his eyes had that deep yellowish tint that my mother once described as what happens when one has “seen too much.” The smoke coming out of the cigarette was animated and written over a green stream of fumes was the word, “GraceLand.” “Like Elvis’s Graceland?” I thought. Yes and no.
The story follows a Nigerian teenager Elvis Oke (named after America’s legend) who is an Elvis impersonator in Lagos. It takes place in the desperate, slimy slums of the country’s then-capital in the seventies, though flashbacks to his early life with his dying mother in an Eastern village take us back to the late sixties. Elvis’s life-long dream, propelled by the illusions of out-of-date American pop culture (Elvis and John Wayne), is to go to America. It becomes not just a desire, but an obsession. Everything he does is for money for a plane ticket and connections for a visa. We watch as Elvis—a gentle, reasonable mama’s boy from a small Igbo village—becomes a hardened Lagos man who has dipped his fingers into the heinous endeavors of one of Nigeria’s filthiest underbellies.
One of the most striking things about this book is its authenticity—the description of the streams of waste lining the ghetto streets (if one can adequately call them streets); the easy-going gently-paced lifestyle of the village; Elvis’s frustrations at being the only good guy in a city where one needed to be all kinds of grimy just to get a meal. And, as a treat, Chris Abani introduces each chapter with the recipe of a traditional Igbo dish along with the social and spiritual significance of the ingredients and the entire meal. To make you understand how exciting it was for me to see the breakdown of yam pepper soup in the pages of an internationally-praised book, imagine opening a magazine and seeing your face shining back at you.
While Nigerians may find a comforting familiarity in GraceLand, it is a book for everyone. The characters are incredibly human and, at the end of the day, they desire the same things as everyone else: warm meals, a comfortable bed to sleep in, and the freedom to be who they are.
Bio: Adaeze Elechi is an intern at Guernica. Read her last recommendation “here”:http://www.guernicamag.com/blog/1138/staff_pick_adaeze_elechi_1/.