Becoming Abigail (Magill's Literary Annual 2007)
From the crackling opening lines to the final, quiet image, Becoming Abigail blends language and style to transcend traditional genres of writing. Though the book is a story in novella form, the chapters are a series of prose poems rich with image and cadence from the hand of experienced poet Chris Abani. The narrator moves the reader through Abigail’s story, alternating between times delineated by the chapter headings “Now” and “Then.” The form of the novella sets up one of the most important dynamics of the story, which is that this is a difficult and painful story to tell. The plot and the content are too expansive for a short story; however, to place the character of Abigail within the vastness of a novel would mean to lose her.
When the novella begins, Abigail is inside the memory of her mother’s funeral, which she attended as an infant but she remembers as though she were already an adolescent. She is aware even as she remembers that this memory is partly the fabrication of her imagination influenced by her father’s depression. Abigail’s story is, to a great extent, the exploration of the contingency of memory. In the “Now” sections, Abigail is standing alone, smoking cigarettes in the cold night air. She remembers all the events that led her to where she currently stands. She relies upon all of her senses, particularly her sense of touch, to evoke in her mind what is written on her body. For Abigail, knowledge is far more than mental; it is the intersection of the body and experience.
Abigail grows up in a rural village in Nigeria with only her father. He constantly reminds her that her mother (whose name was also Abigail) died in childbirth, for which he blames Abigail, and that every day she grows to look more like her mother. In the distant “Then,” Abigail is depicted in various mourning rituals for her mother which may also be read as mourning for herself as well. As she becomes an adolescent, Abigail begins to rebel in attempts to turn her father’s attention to her and away from her mother. She tries to remind him that there is life present, while he is only concerned with and consumed by death.
Her father decides to send her to London to live with her cousins Mary and Peter. Abigail does not want to leave her father, even though he and Peter promise her a better life in London. In the week before she is supposed to leave with Peter, Abigail comes home to find her father has committed suicide. Though she already had no choice other than to go with Peter, there is now nothing at all to hold her at home. Abigail does not trust Peter because she is already aware of what men can do. In this area of knowledge, she trusts her own memories. At ten Abigail is coerced into sex with a different cousin and then forbidden from telling anyone what they did. When she is twelve, Peter molests her before his wedding to her cousin, though this does not surprise Abigail. She claims that this event did not affect her greatly, but the fact that it remains in her memory proves otherwise.
Although she is not a sophisticated traveler, Abigail is aware of the illegal means by which Peter gets her into England. She arrives with a false passport and visa; thus, once Abigail enters the new country, she finds that she does not exist. The idea of nonexistence is recurrent, beginning with her father’s regard; that she is both expected to become her mother Abigail and yet always a disappointment because she can never be that Abigail. Growing up, she ponders whether she even exists, or is she already a ghost? In this new country, Abigail tries to affect a more English accent by practicing along with voices in films. She recalls her father’s memory of how...
(The entire section is 1520 words.)
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Bibliography (Magill's Literary Annual 2007)
Booklist 102, no. 13 (March 1, 2006): 60.
Essence 37, no. 1 (May, 2006): 85.
Library Journal 131, no. 2 (February 1, 2006): 68.
Los Angeles Times, May 14, 2006, p. 10.
The Nation 283, no. 1 (July 3, 2006): 36.
The New York Times 155 (March 19, 2006): 11.
Publishers Weekly 253, no. 2 (January 9, 2006): 30-31.