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This novel is set in Maroko, a sprawling, swampy, crazy and colorful ghetto of Lagos, Nigeria, and unfolds against a backdrop of lush reggae and highlife music, American movies and a harsh urban existence. Elvis Oke, a teenage Elvis impersonator spurred on by the triumphs of heroes in the American movies and books he devours, pursues his chosen vocation with ardent single-mindedness. He suffers through hours of practice set to the tinny tunes emanating from the radio in the filthy shack he shares with his alcoholic father, his stepmother and his stepsiblings. He applies thick makeup that turns his black skin white, to make his performances more convincing for American tourists and hopefully net him dollars. But still he finds himself constantly broke. Beset by hopelessness and daunted by the squalor and violence of his daily life, he must finally abandon his dream.

With job prospects few and far between. Elvis is tempted to a life of crime by the easy money his friend Redemption tells him is to be had in Lago's underworld. But the King of the Beggars, Elvis's enigmatic yet faithful adviser, intercedes. And so, torn by the frustration of unrealizable dreams and accompanied by an eclectic chorus of voices, Elvis must find a way to a Graceland of his own making.

Graceland is the story of a son and his father, and an examination of postcolonial Nigeria, where the trappings of American culture reign supreme.

321 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 2004

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About the author

Chris Abani

52 books251 followers
Christopher Abani (or Chris Abani) is a Nigerian author.

He was a political prisoner in Nigeria at various times during 1985 and 1991. At times he was held in solitary confinement and he was held on death row for some time after being sentenced to death for treason.

He is a Professor at the University of California, Riverside and the recipient of the PEN USA Freedom-to-Write Award, the 2001 Prince Claus Awards, a Lannan Literary Fellowship, a California Book Award, a Hurston-Wright Legacy Award and the Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award. Selections of his poetry appear in the online journal Blackbird.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 252 reviews
Profile Image for Jon.
179 reviews33 followers
August 23, 2015
I have mixed feelings about this book and while I’m glad I read it, it’s a difficult book to recommend to anyone. I’d say one of the main weaknesses is an inconsistency in tone throughout the book. Abani veers all over the place and the book alternates between passages that are broadly satirical and comical to lurid and disturbing passages that involve incest, child rape, and torture. There are also times when Abani’s anger towards the corruption and oppression in his native country results in didactic dialogue as he uses the characters to express his feelings and political beliefs.

The book is at its best when it sticks to the coming of age story of its protagonist, Elvis Oke. The book alternates chapters between Elvis’ early life in rural Nigeria where his father was a man of some importance and his teenage years in the slums of Lagos after his father’s fall from grace. Elvis is well drawn and his story is iconic as he struggles to make his way into adulthood and often feels alienated from his culture and those around him. Abani is also very good at writing satirical and humorous passages. In the beginning of the book, Elvis tries to support himself by doing his version of an Elvis impersonation for American tourists. His impersonation consists of putting on white face, a wig (accidently worn backwards), singing (badly), and dancing (very well), while the baffled tourists try to figure out what he’s doing. When Abani keeps the satire subtle, like in these passages, the book is far more effective than in some of the over the top plot points that occur later in the story.

One of the best passages in the book describes movie night in a Lagos slum. The movie is “The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly” and movie night is a weekly event put on by an American tobacco company. In the spirit of Western capitalism, free cigarettes are handed out at the beginning of the movie. The movies are all shown un-dubbed and those in the audience that can’t speak English just make up their own dialogue and story while watching (though the projectionist shouts out his version of dialogue throughout the movie on a bullhorn). Every hero in every movie is called “John Wayne” and all the other characters in the movie are simply referred to as “Actor”:

“They simply invented their own stories, resulting in as many versions as there were people. Still, for him. It was magical.

The screens were dirty, hole-ridden, once-white bedsheets stretched between two wooden poles. The projectors, archaic and as old as many of the silent stars, sounded like small tanks. Moody, they tended to burn films at the slightest provocation, melting the plastic into cream and brown cappuccino froth. They vibrated so badly, the picture often blurred and danced insanely from side to side, sometime spilling out onto a nearby wall.

At first, Elvis found it was dizzy work just trying to keep focused, until he learned the popular trick was to sway from side to side while squinting off to the left. Barring the occasional bout of motion sickness, this worked quite well, and Elvis often wondered what it would be like to stand above and look down. He was sure the crowd made quite a sight: hundreds of people swaying from side to side, chattering away like insane birds, worshipping their new gods. They drowned out the commentary provided by the projectionist, who, undeterred, continued his litany on a battered megaphone”

The humor in these passages is well done and the satire is subtle as Abani pokes fun at Western influences. This would have been a far better book if he could have kept that tone of gentle parody up for the length of the novel.

Abani also does a good job of representing daily life in a Lagos slum and the vast inequality of wealth in a country that’s rife with corruption and poverty. Many of the slums in Lagos are makeshift structures built above swampland:

“Half of the town was built of a confused mix of clapboard, wood, cement and zinc sheets, raised above a swamp by means of stilts and wooden walkways. The other half, built on solid grounds reclaimed from the sea, seemed to be clawing it’s way out of the primordial swamp, attempting to become something else”

Overall, I’d say this is a flawed first novel, but with enough redeeming value to make it worth reading.
Profile Image for Daisy.
204 reviews72 followers
July 15, 2022
I found the premise of this book intriguing, its protagonist being a 16 year old Elvis impersonator who lives in a 1983 Lagos slum. What initially appears like a comic premise soon reveals itself to be the misplaced aspirations of a motherless teenager named after the king whose act involves him dusting his face with flour and mistakenly wearing his wig back to front. Elvis sees America as the land of possibilities where he can make a living dancing rather than working in a factory as he does, being a gigolo for foreign female tourists and undertaking some criminal activities.
Elvis is a captivating character, wise beyond his years in some ways, heartbreakingly naïve in others. We share his failings, his embarrassments, his friendships and triumphs and I could have read about him for many, many more pages. Elvis and his story is a 5 star read.
The three star is because the final third is somewhat rushed and confusing. It may have helped if I had some knowledge of the history and political situation of Nigeria at that time but I don’t and the book didn’t enlighten me as to the significance of the Colonel, a quasi-dictator in the area, what fighting his friend had been involved in as a child soldier nor the wider picture of the slum clearances. The violent finale seems to have little build up and is all over in not much more than a paragraph.
The weaknesses of the book should not detract from its strength which is the main character and it is definitely a worthwhile read to get to know the wonderful Elvis.
Profile Image for David Sasaki.
244 reviews349 followers
November 21, 2008
In the very first scene of the book, when the protagonist Elvis is awoken by a pounding Nigerian rainstorm, we read this:

The book he had fallen asleep reading, Ralph Ellison's "Invisible Man", fell from his side to the floor, the old paperback cracking at the spine, falling neatly into two halves as precisely as if sliced by a sword.

That's the kind of first-scene statement that has symbolism written all over it. Here is what Abani tells Tayari Jones about the scene in an April 2004 interview in The Believer when she asks for his thoughts on "global blackness". (Jones is African American, but spent a year in Nigeria when her father was a Fulbright scholar there.)

I grew up conflicted about this whole notion [of global blackness]. Especially about Pan-Africanism. Especially since [Nigerian] independence came quickly and was inspired a lot by Ghana's independence, which was led by the Pan-Africanist Kwame Nkrumah. Also in Nigeria was Nnamdi Azikiwe, who was also very into Pan-Africanism. But it is interesting that these guys were educated mostly in America. These guys had contact with Du Bois and Marcus Garvey long before they came back. You can see this link much more in music. Enslaved Africans brought the roots of the blues with them to the United States and it made its way back to us in Africa. Sailors would come back and teach kids on the docs of Accra and Mali all the American guitar movements, which later produced people like Ali Farka Toure, who plays this hybrid Malian music that sounds so much like the blues. And he influenced people like Fela Kuti. There's that dialogue going on all the time ...

And I see a lot of it happening in literature as well. "Invisible Man" becomes such an icon. In the opening of GraceLand there's that metaphor of the book falling off Elvis' chest and splitting open. This not only represents the splitting of the diaspora but the ability to enter the text in a way that he wouldn't be able to if he didn't share that fundamental racial heritage.

Much of the book works as a collage - a collection of brief accounts of how Igbos offer the sacred kola nut to visitors; horrifying accounts of poverty and exploitation in modern day Lagos; moments of tender love between close friends and complete strangers; and detailed Igbo recipes which come from the diary of Elvis' mother. And throughout the book there is the waning influence of British colonial rule, the loss of indigenous knowledge, and the expanding influence of American pop culture.

What I found most interesting about the book, though, is the almost complete congruence of Elvis and Black, the protagonist of Abani's later novel, The Virgin of Flames. Both are lower class artists, always with a sophisticated book tucked under their arm, with one dead parent and one abusive one. Their friends are concerned about them, they are self-centered, and yet also completely selfless, always willing to go hungry to help feed a stranger. They are moral anchors in a world that has seemingly lost its moral compass. There are multiple scenes in which they try on make-up and contemplate homosexuality. It is almost as if Abani took Elvis' soul stuffed it into a half-African, half-Salvadorean overweight LA artist. Which begs the question, how much Chris Abani is there in Elvis and Black?

At the Calabash Literary Festival in Jamaica earlier this year I had a chance to find out. Chris Abani was there looking a little like Jabba the Hutt as he shoveled a plate of food into his mouth while his fiancee looked on across the table. There was something gluttonous about the scene, with the swimming pool in the background, and all the fawning attention. Besides, I've never been one to approach celebrities, literary or otherwise. From my experience, the interactions tend to be recipes for disappointment. Apparently, once you reach a certain level of fame, conversations are easily mistaken for interviews.

But up on stage Abani impressed me more than just about anyone else (with the exception, probably, of Kei Miller). His poems were beautiful, his stories where funny, and the man knows how to play sax.

GraceLand left me satisfied, but I hope that Abani - who was raised in a mansion with cars and servents - doesn't continue to romanticize the poor, abused artist. Now that he's been living in Southern California for some time, I'd love to read a book about LA targeted specifically toward Nigerian readers. ("The Virgin of Flames" was very much not that. And, no, such a book would not produce any money. But it's the type of book that both Black and Elvis would want to write.)

It's interesting, in his interview with Jones, Abani insists that he doesn't think about the Western reader when he writes:

What I do is similar to what Ngugi is doing, operating under that notion that African art must exist in an appreciative context that is outside of the power of Westernization to reduce or empower. We allow access to the Western reader, but also say we don't care about what you think. This is what we are trying to show you. If you get it, fine. If you don't get it, we don't care.

But I think Abani does care, and that actually leads to some of the worst passages in the book, which read more like narrative travel guide than good literature.

"Return de bottles," Redemption said, snatching the cigarette from Elvis's mouth. Empty bottles were valuable because the local Coca-Cola factory washed and reused them. To ensure they got their bottles back, the factory charged local retailers a deposit on the bottles, which could only be redeemed when the bottles were turned in. The retailers in turn passed the cost of the deposit on to consumers if they intended to leave the immediate vicinity of their shops with the drinks. The amount varied from retailer to retailer but was usually no less than the price of the drink.

Those sort of explanatory footnotes are littered throughout the book. As a Western reader I don't mind them, but I think its disingenuous of Abani to not own up to them.
Profile Image for Rona Fernandez.
13 reviews12 followers
July 11, 2009
This book is one of those books that, no matter how intense and devastating its content, is written so well that you just don't want it to end. Abani's prose is so effortless and fluid, you can't help but be drawn into the world he's created. In this case, Lagos, Nigeria in the early 1980s, with flashbacks a few years earlier. We follow Elvis (his real name), a Nigerian teenager who longs to dance and do his Elvis impersonation (what commentary on internal colonization in that one characteristic!), but instead is faced with a brutally violent environment, a father struggling to make sense of his own disappointments and grief, and an array of other male characters that have their own agendas. If you choose to read this book, get ready for an experience unlike any other. I found myself not wanting to tear my eyes away, even during scenes that were so gruesome that I found myself cringing as I read. But it's worth it, if only to witness the brilliance that one writer can achieve within the space of 321 pages.
Profile Image for Melodie Roschman.
270 reviews3 followers
June 2, 2020
This was one of the most exhausting, over-written, and absurd books I have ever read. If it wasn't required reading for a class I would have put it down in the first few pages. This is the fourth novel I have read about the Biafran Civil War/its aftermath, and by far the worst. I'm not saying it's only because it was written by a man, but that definitely feels like a factor.
I have three major complaints:

1) The writing is bizarrely uneven, redundant, wooden, and all-over-the-place. This is not a novel populated by characters, but by cardboard cutouts who exist only to explain political points to each other and explicitly state themes. The narrative style is wildly uneven as well - after almost 200 pages only seeing things from Elvis's perspective, we suddenly start jumping willy-nilly from character to character, peeking into their thoughts arbitrarily whether or not it's important to the plot so that they can explain a political point to us or have a flashback to further trauma. Characters are introduced and dismissed within the space of a page, thoughts and all, just so that they can explain some unrelated terrible thing to us. This goes on to the point of absurdity: a character literally enters a scene, says, "did I ever tell you about the horrible things that happened to me in the war?" and then has a several page flashback to their trauma and the atrocities they witnessed, never to be mentioned or heard from again. People explain issues to each other in didactic language, often entering the plot just so they can expostulate about everything from World Bank loans to rigged elections. While there are moments of lyrical writing and striking imagery (the swaying people watching American movies comes to mind), for every one beautiful moment there are five heavy-handed scenes or ridiculous metaphors. My favorite has to be a tie between the man who watches his urine swirl down a toilet in great detail "like his dreams," or when two people talk and a package of animal crackers, of all things, sits sealed between them like the secrets they can't share. Add to this excerpts from anthropological reports about the kola nut and foraging notes/recipes that are never connected to the rest of the narrative thematically or in the plot, and it's just a giant mess. And that's not even getting into the moment of magical realism that appears suddenly near the end of the novel, disappears as suddenly, and is never heard from again. Not to mention the fact that this novel spends almost no time on the fact that the protagonist wants to dance, is an Elvis impersonator, or struggles with his sexuality - ostensibly the premise. It doesn't so much build to any theme or point as it just accumulates text.

2) Which brings me to my next point. This is not a novel. It is a Forest Gump-style tour of human depravity and suffering. There is barely a page of this book that is not filled with some kind of suffering, including but not limited to: rape, poverty, police brutality, the murder of children, public stoning and burnings, incest, child abuse, more rape, rape by family members, people getting turned on by incestual rape and child abuse, alcoholism, child prostitution, drug smuggling, slavery, organ trafficking, government violence, torture, the rape of members of the clergy, child soldiers, pedestrians getting casually run over by cars, and, just for good measure, a cooler full of severed heads that has no bearing on the plot. This book is so wall-to-wall with suffering that it almost becomes comical. Rather than being a book that humanizes the characters or gives their suffering any weight, it simply skips from atrocity to atrocity, not even taking the time to allow people to reflect on what has happened to them or grieve. The effect of this is to simultaneously jade the reader and reinforce western preconceptions about the senseless violence and misery of life in Africa. I am not arguing that postcolonial literature should not depict violence and suffering, nor am I denying that the poor of Nigeria experience a disproportionate amount of injustice. However, as noted above, because the characters are two-dimensional cutouts and because the narrative goes out of its way to describe suffering that does not otherwise affect the protagonist or the plot, it feels less like a novel about anything and more like a grab bag of misery porn curated for the western reader eager to revel in the "heart of darkness" and have their worst preconceptions about the Other confirmed. To illustrate my point, I want to turn to another novel about Nigeria and the Biafran Civil War: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's Half of a Yellow Sun. Unlike this book, that novel takes the time to develop five characters from different backgrounds and walks of life, and it depicts them experiencing ordinary life, happiness, and relationships. They eat, talk about ideas, fall in and out of love, and disagree about what's best for Nigeria. When moments of horrific violence occur, then (and they do), they matter to the story and the theme because a) we as readers care about these people, and b) the reader and the narrative both recognize how out of the ordinary and horrific these events are for people who, a few years earlier, led happy lives. Also, because the narrative focuses on a few specific instances of violence and trauma, the book allows its characters to feel things and be affected by what has happened to them. Because it is primarily a book about human beings, not a political tract about all the ways people suffer in Nigeria, those moments of political rage and human suffering carry weight and linger with the reader.

3) Finally, related to point two (and to the fact that the other three fantastic novels I've read about Nigeria have all been by women), the treatment of women in this novel is abysmal. Yes, women face violence and rape both in Nigeria and in the United States, and yes, Nigerian society does not give women much power. That being said, all of the women in this book exist to take care of men, or be raped and/or lusted after. Not a single woman has any depth, desires of her own, or interiority. Despite the fact that the narrator starts jumping freely from character to character, we never get to hear what women want, dream of, or worry about, nor do any of the female characters have any agency. The closest we get to a female character with agency is Elvis's aunt, and while she's talking about her career he's just thinking about how horny she makes him. While all of the suffering in this book was over-the-top and upsetting, the violence against women was particularly egregious.

In short, this is a pornographically violent, miserable collection of vignettes that lacks depth, beautiful prose, or coherence. While Abani has claimed that he did not write the novel with Western audiences in mind, its constant clunky exposition and misery tourism suggests otherwise. If you want to read a nuanced, beautiful, and compelling novel about Nigeria, I would suggest Adichie's "Half of a Yellow Sun" and "Americanah" as well as Chinelo Okparanta's "Under the Udala Trees."

In conclusion, a quote from "Graceland" regarding Elvis's mother's journal, that sums up the book quite well:

Reaching into the bag, he pulled out the journal and flipped through it. It had never revealed his mother to him. Never helped him understand her, or his life, or why anything had happened the way it had. What was the point? Nothing is ever resolved, he thought. It just changes.
Profile Image for Ife Olarewaju.
161 reviews9 followers
July 23, 2023

When I first started writing poetry I wrote a really shitty poem about a father who takes his son fishing to train him to kill a sentient creature as a means of indoctrinating him into a violent and patriarchal brand of manhood. The boy in my poem is caught between these forces that attempt to depersonalise him. I thought of this poem as I read Graceland which is no doubt more developed than my inchoate attempt to grasp at an idea, but possibly just as problemed.

Graceland follows Elvis, named after the musician by his doting but passed mother, navigating a gritty Lagos marked by government instability, corruption, and violence. Elvis secretly works as an Elvis impersonator through which Abani probes, early in the novel, at a post-colonial fascination with the West. However, when Elvis grows up he is forced into a masculinity that no longer allows for the flamboyance and makeup that his Elvis performance brings, so he turns to shady company that places him in a precarious position with the government, his already despised father, and his growing sense of self.

Every chapter of the book begins with an ethnographic description of the Igbo uses or significance of Kola nuts and between chapters there are random sprinklings of Nigerian recipes à la Sassafrass, Cypress & Indigo by Ntozake Shange which I felt ultimately distracted from the story it is trying to tell. The book is eclectic in its literary and sonic references and curiously patchy in its tone and style such that it feels like several sections of the book have a different author. It is no surprise then that literary scholars have had such divided responses trying to pen down Abani’s inspiration(s). Is it Achebe? (Although to write a work of African literature and not be compared to Achebe would be a literary feat in and of itself) Is it Garcia Marquez?

I recently read the bell hook's essay Spending Culture: Marketing the black underclass in which she posed the question of why so many contemporary African American writers chose to write literature about underclass Black life in the south when their lived experiences were so different. She argues that these writers’ biases typically shaped their depiction of poor Black American life and that they subsequently rendered joyless and lugubrious images of what it means to be poor and Black in America because this is simply what they imagined that experience to be like, which an equally ignorant white audience eats up as an ‘authentic and raw’ depiction. I think the same question can be asked of the canon of Nigerian literature which no doubt is mainly comprised of middle/upper class and certainly college-educated writers who choose to write stories of illiterate village people or pauperised city life to satiate a Western audience. Certainly, Abani’s ethnographic headlines on the kola nuts, Nigerian recipes and occasional overwriting feel particularly conscious of a Western gaze. Abani mentions in his TEDtalk that he grew up privileged financially and I think this definitely impacts the way he depicts lower class Nigerian life here - desolate and unforgiving. If we are giving the benefit of the doubt it could be narrative device through which extremes are used to stress the condition of those facing the Nigerian governments tyranny. Less explicable, however, is the fact that at many times in the novel characters, sometimes even the protagonist, feel simply polemical and didactic rather than existing and just going through life. They feel like they exist solely to focalise Abani’s (who was a political prisoner) political perspective. As other’s have pointed out there is a sense that terrible things are simply being packed in I think Abani himself realises this as he says in his TEDtalk after he published Graceland:

“How do I balance narratives that are wonderful with narratives of wounds and self-loathing, and this is the difficulty that I face. I am trying to move beyond political rhetoric to a place of ethical questioning”

On the positive side, Abani’s ambition is absolutely commendable. He sets out to do so many things with this post-colonial and Pan-Africanist novel though achieving them to varying degrees of success. I think what I appreciate the most is the treatment of sexuality and power in the novel, an important intervention in African literature. It’s not as simple as Elvis being 'closeted as bisexual' or whatever, but rather his unnamed gender and sexuality (and the ability to which they can be expressed or verbalised) is governed by discourses and absences of language. Although the characters are often stultified by what they are supposed to symbolise, they are also given careful characterisation and Abani does get you to feel deeply for them. Equally laudable is the pacing which I think gave the book a racy readability. As stated before the writing is patchy but at some points Abani's poetry pulls and sears. Here is one of my favourite parts:

“And yet beyond that, he was that scar, carved by hate and smallness and fear onto the world’s face. He and everyone like him, until the earth was aflame with scarred black men dying in trees of fire”.

Despite its glimmers though, Graceland is a book that ultimately tries to grasp between the bars it constructs for itself to capture the soul of Nigeria, but this soul always seems inches from its fingers.
Profile Image for Rashaan .
98 reviews1 follower
May 10, 2009
"Writers are dangerous," so says A.S. Byatt, and when you read Chris Abani you see exactly how the truth can kill. Abani's stories show us life balanced on the blade of a knife. His novel, Graceland, chronicles a dark page of Nigeria's history as we follow a young boy learning to live and love in the turbulent eighties. Graceland opens with a nod to Langston Hughes' "A Dream Deferred." Elvis, our young Nigerian protagonist, desperately wants to be a dancer, and in the midst of war and political revolution, this dream dries up, festers like a sore, and decays with the death that surrounds him.

Graceland, like Jessica Hagedorn's novels Dogeaters or Dream Jungle, crams fistfuls of characters into bustling Third World nightmares. Whether its Manila or Lagos, each soul, for better or for worse, is forced to angle their own path to survival. Graceland is an Inferno on earth, and Abani's hero, Elvis, follows the footsteps of Florentine pilgrim, Dante. As Elvis matures from self indulgent and naive boy to awakened man, he's initiated into the sinful ways of his world, and, like Dante, he sees firsthand how degrees of sin match degrees of survival. Though unlike our Tuscan journeyman, Elvis is granted two guides, Redemption and the King of Beggars. Each play tug-o-war with Elvis' conscience. Redemption, who entangles Elvis into a life of crime, lifts the veil of innocence for us and our hero when he asks, "So are you telling me dat stealing bread from bakery to feed yourself and killing some boy is de same? Everything got degree."

As in Inferno, the one pure source of light, our pilgrim's enduring star, is Beatrice, Elvis' mother. Though Elvis strays from his path and is lost in the dark wood of his country in strife, his mother through her written notes on Igbo culture and her record of recipes for sustenance and medicine, reading more like prophecies, keep Elvis sane and compassionate.

What's disturbing and therefore powerful about Graceland is knowing that Abani's novel is most likely true. Though the characters are make believe, anyone who reads the newspapers or watches the BBC news knows that Elvis' journey happens everyday. Pick a country, any country, whether it be Thailand, Sri Lanka, Somalia, Zimbabwe, Brazil, or Mexico, Abani's work serves as live wire transmissions of today's "urban anonymity" from all the dark nooks of our global metropolises. In that respect, we also see the over-reach of American and Western culture and ideals. As Barthelme's writing reveals, no part of our life is left unadulterated by the media, and, in Abani's novel, we also find that no corner of the earth is left untainted by Western influences. The consequences of this is a protagonist who is hyper self-conscious. His dreams and hopes feed off movies and music, which are then appropriated and made new by his Nigerian culture. The media is constantly recycling and transforming itself, as the lives it influences actively transform and reinvent new identities as new modes of survival.

Graceland is a testament to the shock and awe practice of today's geopolitics. Abani doesn't flinch to bring these stories to light. His writing is dangerous only in that he holds a mirror up to us and asks us to take a hard look at ourselves.
Profile Image for Read By RodKelly.
206 reviews753 followers
November 9, 2017
This novel blew me away! Abani has written such a harrowing story that just yanked on my emotions. I really can't describe the story because there was so much contained in its 300 pages. It's certainly not for the faint of heart!
Profile Image for Tumelo Moleleki.
Author 17 books53 followers
June 9, 2017
I loved my journey with this book. I was especially fond of the way Oye speaks. Elvis is a flawed boy that you can't help but love. The story leaves you ramsacked, you feel like a shipwreck. At least that's how I felt while living Elvis' life. An honest account of the flaws of humanity. An unflinching account of the imperfections of human relationships. What a story!
Profile Image for Frances.
44 reviews26 followers
December 31, 2007
I think you can judge this book by its cover. The ten year old smoking the cigarette says as much about Chris Abani's over-stated portrait of poverty in Lagos as any of the prose within. While I certainly think it's about time a mass-market paperback about the current conditions in industrialized West Africa, Abani presents his critique of American imperialism within a whole lot of artistry or subtlety. It's Things Fall Apart, Part Deux, without the poetry that Chinua Achebe brings to his characters. Jumping back and forth between rural and urban settings, Abani seems chronologically and spatially confused, not completely committing to any character as he traces the "progress" of his protagonist, an adolescent boy named Elvis living in the slums of Lagos. Though Abani seems to be celebrating the fragmentation that apparently characterizes the postcolonial world (per Partha Chatterjee), his overstatement of that very fragmentation renders him a rather cliched version of the postcoloniality his book promises to portray.
Profile Image for Rashida.
138 reviews14 followers
June 30, 2009
Any of the beauty of the language in this book was marred to me by the author's seeming desire to pack the novel with the most tragedy he possibly could. I understand that this was a troubling and difficult time in the country's history, but by the end of the book it was like an absurdist comedy, and I just wanted it to be over, as opposed to feeling deeply effected and moved, as I suppose was the intent.
Profile Image for Biọlá.
6 reviews5 followers
January 22, 2016
This is probably what made Ben Okri write that article criticising African novelists for writing too much about suffering. GraceLand is just poverty/suffering porn. nothing more. Just when you thought life in this novel was bad enough , Abani still managed to make it more depressing. This was the only thing he got right. The dialogue also made me think I was reading a Nollywood script. I didn't even finish it. tueh!
Profile Image for Amaka Azie.
Author 17 books84 followers
February 20, 2019
I enjoyed this book. A tragic but engaging story about Elvis, a young man who dreamed of becoming a dancer. However, his move to Lagos with his family was followed by a series of horrific experiences that buried that dream. I particularly enjoyed the dialogue in this novel. Realistic and hilarious.
I didn’t understand the need for all the POV switches and interruptions to write food recipes. In my opinion, it dampened the flow of this great story that deserves 5 stars.
I recommend this book.
Profile Image for Jeri Rowe.
165 reviews1 follower
March 29, 2017
I had lunch with Chris Abani last week. He came to the university where I work to speak to a room full of international students, and over a delectable plate of Southern soul food, he told stories. And he can definitely do that.

Abani is a professor at Northwestern, a Nigerian native as big as an NFL defensive tackle. But in a soft voice that reminds me of brushed velvet, he can talk forever about the intricacies of language, writing and words. And that's what surprised me. Because after finishing "Graceland," his first book, I was shook by the Old Testament violence he wrote about more than a decade ago.

But that is the world he knows -- and a world where he protested the government and went to prison, I think, three times. In "Graceland," a coming-of-age book about a boy named Elvis, Abani writes about child rape, child torture, child soldiers and his beautiful homeland where violence is an everyday thing.

What I like about the book is the poetry, the sheer grace of the language. I mean, Abani puts together sentences like this: "The alabaster Madonna wept bullet holes." Love short sentences like that. I've always believed, "Jesus wept" is some kind of powerful.

But what bugged me about the book was the back-and-forth time element Abani used. He'd jump from 1983 to 1980 to 1976 in subsequent chapters. For me, it kept the narrative disjointed.

Still, it was a good read. And from that lunch over fried chicken, collard greens and mac and cheese, I would imagine Abani is a helluva teacher. Loved his conversation with the students. So, I expect I'll read more of him. He's worth it. He takes you into a country, a place you have never been and makes you feel it, see it, sense it. And that, I believe, is what good writing is all about.
Profile Image for Marieke.
333 reviews187 followers
October 12, 2015
Maybe I took too long reading it. This started out as a five star read but toward the end I began to feel annoyed with the Elvis character. And some other things. Which unfortunately affected my enjoyment of the book. I really struggled to finish, which is a shame, since Abani created quite the grand finale. I'm sad that it fizzled for me.
Profile Image for George Ilsley.
Author 12 books237 followers
June 9, 2020
A writer of extraordinary power, Abani delivers a novel which deserves to be read and re-read.

Elvis Oke, our adaptable teenage protagonist, represents the heart of the story and the very spirit of Nigeria.

Five solid stars. It is a novel to be discovered— not for me to tell you about.
Profile Image for Melissa.
37 reviews
February 8, 2019
Is nobody else concerned by the obviously unchallenged pedophilia at the end of this book? Written like a man who doesn't understand how women or young girls feel.
Profile Image for Heather(Gibby).
1,257 reviews21 followers
March 9, 2019
This is a coming of age story of a Nigerian idealistic boy, raised in poverty, but trying to make his was in the world. Although very difficult to read at times, due to horrid scenes of abuse, the book has a humorous side to it as well especially when it pokes fun at the effects of Western pop culture on traditional life in Nigeria.
Profile Image for Isabel.
92 reviews1 follower
June 5, 2017
Story about a young man trying to get by in Lagos slums in the 1980s. I liked the feel vivid sense it gave of Nigeria at that time. I didn't find the main character's voice so probable, though, which is why I think I didn't love it as much as I thought I would.
Profile Image for Lance.
58 reviews3 followers
June 24, 2023
This is excellent. Brutal, grim and unsentimental depiction of Lagos slums in the 1980s and the culture loss in globalisation, poverty and urbanization. It is heavy in symbolism and much of the book operates like a collage of experiences giving the reader a glimpse into a particular world before the narrative picks up in the final third.

However, the final chapters wind together in perhaps too poetically perfect of a way, that it undermines the realist style throughout much of the book. Regardless, Abani, an exiled Nigerian, is unflinching here and shows little optimism for Nigeria under military dictatorship in the 1980s.
Profile Image for Reet.
1,203 reviews9 followers
December 25, 2021
"the rest of the night was a restless one for elvis. To start with, his room was leaking: not tame drip-drops but a steady stream of water that filled the bucket placed in the middle of the floor in a few minutes. He gave up trying to empty it, and as it overflowed, he settled down and prepared to be flooded out. It wouldn't be the first time. The steady dribble of water provided a soothing background to fall asleep to.
Just as his first snore broke through, he was woken by steady splashes in the water. Rats swimming in the flooded room. One clambered up the iron leg of the bed and onto his foot. He lashed out, sending the rat flying across the room to crash with a sickening thud into the opposite wall. There was a dull plop as its lifeless body fell into the water that had overflowed from the bucket and coated the floor in a pool.
Elvis finally settled into an uneasy sleep, dreaming he was drowning in a rat-infested lake and every time he tried to swim to safety, the rats would drag him back under the waves. He struggled and sputtered but couldn't get away from them.
he woke with a start to find himself lying in the water on the floor, staring into the Bright eyes of a rat that was using one of his sandals as a raft to float around the room."

"Pensive on the bus ride home, Elvis did not pay too much attention to the cars that in spite of their speed wove between each other like the careful threads of a tapestry. The motorways were the only means of getting across the series of towns that made up lagos. Intent on reaching their own destinations, pedestrians dodged between the speeding vehicles as they crossed the wide motorways. It was dangerous, and every day at least 10 people were killed trying to cross the road. If they didn't die when the first car hit them, subsequent cars finished the job. The curious thing, though, was that there were hundreds of overhead pedestrian bridges, but people ignored them. Some even walked up to the bridges and then crossed underneath them.
Outside, the road was littered with dead bodies at regular intervals. 'At least take away the bodies,' he muttered to himself.
'Dey cannot,' the man interjected into his thoughts. 'Dis stupid government place a fine on dying by crossing road illegally. So de relatives can only take de body when dey pay de fine.' "

Elvis can't make enough money dancing, so his friend redemption tries to hook him up with the means to make some extra money. They go to a nightclub, and arrange to be escorts for the evening for young women who are the daughters of rich men.
" 'elvis, this is rohini. Rohini, elvis.'
Her twin-dimpled smile was pearl white and excited elvis. To her left stood her silent, towering golem, a eunuch her father employed to chaperone his daughter. He bared teeth in a snarl at Elvis's approach.
'relax, prakash,' redemption said.
Rohini was upanishad tagore's eldest daughter. Upanishad, a shrewd businessman, had inherited a couple of medium-sized provision shops from his father, davinder singh tagore. Tagore senior had come to Nigeria in 1912 to help build the railways, and stayed on. With an uncanny head for business, upanishad had turned those two shops into 15 huge department stores scattered all over the country. They sold everything from dry cell batteries, Swiss army knives, groceries and toys to cars and tractors.
'Hello,' Elvis said. 'Would you care to dance?'
Prakash laid his big hand on Elvis's shoulder in warning. Redemption picked it off and turned to him.
'If you lay your hand on my friend again, I go take you outside and give you de beating of your life, you bastard.'
Prakash hesitated. Redemption had a mean reputation, and this club did attract a lot of local gangsters - disgruntled, angry Men who would jump at the chance to work over a much-hated indian. Prakash backed off."

Now redemption has another way for Elvis to earn money. He asks him to help him wrap up packages of cocaine:
" 'good. Now see how I do it. You take dis small spoon and you measure one - not full, okay? Den you empty it into de fingers of dis glove. One by one, one by one. Dat is one spoonful per finger. Okay, see?'
Elvis watched redemption measure and deposit 5 spoonfuls into the five fingers of the glove.
'Next you cut it like dis, 1 inch above the powder, and only one at a time. Den you tie each packet closed, tight, tight like dis. Make sure you finish one packet before you cut de next, okay?'
Elvis nodded as redemption Tied a series of knots that would have made Baden-Powell happy to know that his work in bringing the boy scouts to Africa had not been wasted.
'Den you take each tied packet and roll it like dis, hitting it with dis small Hammer like dis, so dat de powder is packed tight, okay? Den you put it inside dis condom like dis and tie it closed, cut, and again use the hammer like this, see? Then you put it inside this small plastic bag like so, then again use de hammer, see? Den take this black electrician's tape, cut it like dis and wrap it around and around and around at least 12 times, see? Den use de hammer again, see?'
Elvis could hardly believe it; the packet looked like a small pellet, no bigger than the sample. Redemption bounced it a few times on the coffee table.
'See? It is strong. Next you put de five packets inside de fingers of a another glove and cut and tie, den it is ready. You see dat de glove is de kind used by doctor? Dat's because it is strong but light, you see?.. '
'why did we have to tie those packets so securely? How will people who buy them open them?'
'Dey are for export; to States. A courier will swallow dem. Depend on de person capacity dey fit to swallow between 200 and 400. Dat's around 2 to 4 kilos. Dat's why we packed dem like dat. So dey don't burst in de stomach, and de last glove make it easy to swallow. Ah, here's my cab.' "

Throughout the book there are recipes from Elvis's mother's diary. If I ate animals, I guess they would look good. However, Elvis never remembers his mother cooking. The closest to a recipe that looks good is this one:
fried yam, plantain and beef stew. (I would substitute the cubed beef with gardein's beaf:
vegetable oil
cubed beef
diced onion
curry powder
fresh bonnet peppers
a tin of chopped tomatoes
first, peel the yam and plantains and slice them into thin slivers. Next, wash yam and plantain slivers and pat dry with paper towel. Put two dessert spoons of oil into a frying pan and bring it to heat, and then add the yam and plantain slivers. Fry until crisp. Leave to drain on a large plate with a paper towel.
Put the beef to cook. When tender remove from flame. In a deep pot, bring two dessert spoons of vegetable oil to heat. Add the onions, curry powder, fresh Bonnet peppers, salt and the tomatoes. Leave on a low flame to reduce. Put in a pinch of salt. When the tomatoes have reduced, put a pinch of sugar in to take away the acidity. Pour in the stock from the beef, stir in the meat and leave to cook for 30 minutes. Arrange the yam and plantain slivers in a nice pattern and drizzle the stew over it."

One last time, redemption tries to help all this make money. But this time, it's just too much for Elvis calling
"American hospitals do plenty organ transplant. But dey are not always finding de parts on time to save people life. So certain people in Saudi Arabia and such a place used to buy organ parts and sell to rich white people so dey can save their children or wife or demselves.'
'they can't do that!'
'dis world operate different way for different people. Anyway, de rich Whites buy de spare parts from the Arabs who buy from wherever they can. Before dey used to buy only from Sudan and such a place, but de war and tings is make it hard, so dey expand de operation. People like de colonel use their position to get human parts as you see and then freeze it. If we had cross de border yesterday, airplane for carry dose parts to Saudi hospital so dat dey can be sold.
'How much?'
'it depend on de part. Human head fetch $10,000.'
'but there is no head transplant surgery.'
Redemption laughed. 'Elvis, eh! Dey can use de eyes and also something dey call stem cell. Anyway, heart is also 10,000. De oders, like kidney, are like 3 to $10,000. It is big money for de Colonel.'
'so if we sell them to the Saudis at 10,000, how much do they sell at?'
'Dat depend. If your only son dey die, how much you go pay for spare part for him?' 'anything, I guess.'
'dats right.'
finally, redemption said it. 'You no go ask about de children we carry?'
'I was afraid to.'
'Well, as I hear, dere is too much damage to de organ as de colonel harvest dem. Also, not all survive de journey. So many of de parts are thrown away.'
'oh my god!'
'yes, dose children will arrive in Saudi alive, den, depend on de demand, dey will harvest de parts from dem. Fresh, no damage, more money for all of dem.'
'and none of the Americans ask questions about where the organs come from?'
'like I said, if your only child dey die, you go ask question?'
'how could you get us involved, knowing all this? We are as bad as the colonel and the saudis.'
'no forget de whites who create de demand.'
'Them too. But how could you do this to me and claim to be my friend?' "

I love the character of elvis. He had such a hard life, losing his mother to cancer when he was 8, having an alcoholic father, having a stepmother who cared nothing from him. Living in a house that swam with rats in a rainstorm. Sometimes this book had laugh out loud moments, literally. But it had a very sad ending.

Profile Image for Bjorn.
826 reviews152 followers
April 25, 2013
It's hard to be a man, Elvis Oké's father tells him. The measure of a man used to be his good name, and he has to be prepared to defend that name - his honour - against anything, from outside or inside.

Names play a part in this, yes. Elvis father is named Sunday, his best friend is named Redemption, and Elvis himself is of course named Elvis. That's about all they have left, it seems; they live in a shanty town in Lagos, Nigeria, and if there's any meaning to the fact that Sunday is a drunk to whom every day is a day of rest, Redemption is a small-time bandit, and Elvis himself a failed dancer, it's nothing they try to think about: names, today, are just words. Sure, Elvis tries to make a living as an Elvis impersonator, dance and smile for the rich white tourists, but nobody wants a 16-year-old black (and tonedeaf) king of rock'n'roll. And so instead, having to make a living somehow, he gets pulled into both criminal and political conflicts - which, in a military dictatorship (the book is set in 1983, with flashbacks to Elvis' childhood) is often the same thing.

In a lot of ways, Graceland is an impressive novel, both playful and harshly realistic in its depiction of life at the (not quite but almost) bottom. Abani has his characters reference both Nigerian (Achebe, Soyinka) and Western (Ellison, Dostoevsky, Marley) writers to create a picture of a world that's become an interconnected web long before modern communications made it obvious; the characters rarely set foot outside their own city, yet thanks to the cultural, commercial and political revolutions of the past centuries they very much live in the Big World Outside. Starting from a, to be honest, fairly cliched story - a young man trying to find his place in a world that doesn't want him - Abani weaves a character piece where the details get to show how it all hangs together, from kingdoms to dictatorship, from Las Vegas to Lagos, where everything you're promised by your name or your background turns to bitter (though often laugh-out-loud funny) irony. A land of grace, as in spending your life at the mercy of someone else's good graces. Abani tackles politics without bashing us over the head with it; things are as they are, men and women do what they do to survive until they leave the building. At best, they get to choose their own encore.

Some people name their children after saints or forefathers in the hope that they will be, well, graced with their good sides. Others are named after rock stars, which may be the modern equivalent. According to some doctors, Elvis - the original one, Presley, that is - died of poverty. Not in 1977, obese and trapped in the Graceland that was to be his palace but got turned into his mausoleum, but when he was young. After growing up poor and undernourished, his body couldn't handle the comfort food and the drugs he could suddenly afford (after growing rich off cover versions of black artists, heh). He was pretty much screwed from the beginning, if poverty didn't kill him, success would; an irony as bitter as the situation in what could have been one of the richest countries in Africa. But great music was always born from the blues. Graceland isn't quite up there, it's a little too self-conscious and meandering for that, but it's a very good read nonetheless.

...That is, I assume that it is if you read it in the original English. Because unfortunately, I read a poor Swedish translation of it. And when you take characters who speak English like Nigerian street kids (it's part of the theme, too) and translate it into Swedish, it ends up sounding like an old 50s comedy half the time.
10 reviews
June 19, 2009
This book aspires to more than it achieves, but it is a wonderful and, at times, amazing first novel nonetheless.

Graceland is set mostly in the early 1980's in the Lagos slum, Makota, and the protagonist is a boy for whom the grandest ambition imaginable is to become an Elvis impersonator. It's pathetic, and that is just what so charmed me about this novel. The author creates incredible depth of feeling and meaning through symbolism and imagery throughout the book, and the central symbol is the tragicomic dilemma of the protagonist, a gifted, largely self-educated boy with a drive to excel in his calling, who, through a combination of circumstance, naivete, and willful self-delusion, settles upon a career so ludicrous and impossible (and so pleasingly telling--I love this kind of writing, which often means so much more than it overtly says) that even while you laugh out loud from time to time, the character is so engaging, and the book so filled with empathy and love, that you more often ache for him and his country, and from time to time are simply dazzled by the beauty of his doomed efforts.

I have never read a better book about Nigeria.

Makota is a terrible place, in which, as you expect, a multitude of horrifying events unfold, but what sets this book apart from others which explore Nigeria's brutal recent history is the honest examination of each excruciating and lovely detail of the protagonist's life. There is a lyrical turning over, and over, and unfolding of each event, and the place each character holds in the story is revealed anew when seen again and again, now from this angle and now from that. And while much of what we see and experience through the narrative is brutal or painful and simply ugly, just as often you take in your breath in wonder, that such a story could be rendered so beautifully.

Abani is a gifted writer. The final chapters, though, did not maintain the breathtaking beauty and sadness of the first half of the book, and the characters, so engaging and full at first, flattened out a bit. I also found that the sudden introduction of the supernatural in the final chapter lifted me out of the story altogether, and diluted the power of the narrative.

Still it's a beautiful book in many ways, and stunning in its ambition.
445 reviews
September 25, 2019

O carte despre Africa, despre speranta, despre vise, dar si despre mizerie, genocid, viol si crima. O carte cu un gust dulce-amar destul de greu de digerat, dar frumoasa. Elvis este un adolescent care isi doreste sa ajunga in America - taramul fagaduintei -, dar intre timp traieste in Maroko un ghetou din Lagos amestecandu-se in diferite afaceri mai mult sau mai putin curate. Fiecare personaj are o poveste care se deruleaza pe muzica lui Bob Marley si este condimentata de retete traditionale. Este o carte despre dezradacinare, despre pierderea familiei, despre parinti si copii care nu gasesc punti de comunicare. Istoria mare si istoria mica se intersecteaza in aceasta carte aratand cum una o poate influenta pe cealalta.
Orfan de mama si cu un tata alcoolic si violent adolescentul Elvis viseaza cu ochii deschisi la ziua in care va evada din Maroko un ghetou mizerabil si periculos al Lagosului si dintr-o tara Nigeria terorizata de regimuri militare brutale si la discretia unor legi tribale nemiloase. Lui Elvis ii place sa danseze sa citeasca sa asculte muzica si sa mearga la cinematograf si uneori se mai intreaba cum ar fi fost viata lui daca s-ar fi nascut alb intr-un alt taram al fagaduintei. Salvarea si mantuirea in mijlocul cruzimii si al violentelor de tot felul vin din compasiune din umor din iubire si prietenie din muzica si literatura. Chris Abani creeaza in Taramul fagaduintei o poveste remarcabila despre un fiu si tatal sau despre maturizare si despre o Nigerie postcoloniala care isi cauta identitatea.
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
Profile Image for Matt.
269 reviews3 followers
January 8, 2010
It was nice reading about the life of a youth living in Lagos. The richness of the traditions and the complexities of the extended African family don't always translate well into a western "lexicon". The writer wonderfully describes the significance of the Kola, the importance and power of traditional medicines and those that practice them, and the recipes are fun. I even had a couple of them while in Ghana!

He talks about the concept of the African extended family, saying so much in his description of a distant cousin still being Elvis' "brother".

The tale about Elvis' life in Lagos, his relationships with his family (esp. his father) is both tragic and funny and always interesting. Unfortunately, like many "African" books, the characters fall under the will of corruption and violence. He points out that the majority of people are honest and poor and either unable or afraid to fight against the dishonest who have power. Also, plenty of mention of the west's apathy towards actually doing something in Africa, despite it's colonial past.

I wonder how much of Elvis' story is autobiographical of Mr. Abani's own life?

Possibly the most important line in the book is actually a quote from Bob Marley: "A hungry man is an angry man".
Profile Image for Christine.
Author 2 books68 followers
August 30, 2008
A new writing mentor–someone I really admire. I picked up GraceLand because I was curious and hopeful about its novel structure. And I was rewarded.

Notes on it structure–the main story is set in 1983…but in Book 1, every other chapter is set in the past until the timeline intersects at the end of Book 1 (i.e., Chapter 1: 1983…Chapter 2: 1972…Chapter 3: 1983…Chapter 4: 1974, etc., etc.). The beginning of Book 2 moves forward from that point, staying in 1983. Bam.

In addition to structure, I found the climax riveting and terrifying. Wow. I feel grateful for this book. It came to me just in time.

And…you’ll love Elvis.
Profile Image for Twodogs333.
95 reviews2 followers
October 7, 2016
This is the book selection from Nigeria for the World Cup of Literature. So far this is my favorite selection. I'm not going to lie, this book isn't a happy one but the story is touching and the language Abani uses is gorgeous. The realism of life in the slums of Nigeria is heart-wrenching, but reading this made my eyes open to things that we don't ever see on the glitz and glam of American news.
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